Just Babies | Paul Bloom

Summary of: Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil
By: Paul Bloom


Welcome to the captivating summary of ‘Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil’ by Paul Bloom. This journey will take you through a fascinating exploration of the innate moral feelings and judgments in babies and young children, illustrating that even at a tender age, they have a sense of right and wrong. We’ll also discover how emotions, such as compassion and empathy, contribute to our morality, and the powerful role that customs and religious communities play in shaping our moral behavior.

Baby Morality

Researchers have found that babies as young as nine months-old possess an innate sense of morality. In a series of experiments that involved showing babies images of shapes (with and without eyes) and a ball, researchers discovered that babies have expectations of how the ball would react to helpful or hindering shapes and characters. During the third experiment, researchers replaced geometric shapes with three-dimensional puppets to determine which puppet the babies preferred. The results demonstrated that almost all the babies reached for the helpful puppet, indicating their innate sense of distinguishing good from bad.

Young Children’s Innate Moral Behavior

Babies and young children show signs of moral behavior, such as responding to others’ pain, trying to soothe them, and helping others without being prompted. Babies cry significantly less hearing a recording of their own crying, showing that it’s another person’s suffering that elicits their reaction. Developmental psychologist Carolyn Zahn-Waxler found that when young children saw others acting as if they were in pain, they reacted by soothing them. This innate ability of soothing behavior seems to be an evolved trait that our primitive ancestors also displayed. Young children try to be genuinely helpful even without being prompted, as experiments conducted by psychologists Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello have shown. Even very young children want to help out, indicating that babies and young children demonstrate some kind of moral behavior.

The Equality Bias in Children

Children have an innate sense of equality and fairness that even extends to the distribution of resources, according to the experiments by psychologists Kristina Olson and Elizabeth Spelke. The study found that young children always allocate resources equally among everyone, whether it’s a friend, sibling, or a stranger. In fact, even if they were assured that no one would know, they would rather throw away resources than give them out unevenly. These experiments show that children have a strong bias towards equality, which could be advantageous in creating a more just society.

The Role of Compassion in Morality

Compassion is a crucial aspect of morality, but it is not always enough. Lack of compassion can indicate a psychopath, as demonstrated by Abigail Marsh’s research. Healthy individuals prioritize compassion over their own pain and vanity. However, compassion alone cannot lead to moral decisions, as shown by Daniel Batson’s experiments. Feeling empathy towards a particular person in need should not result in unfair treatment to others. Thus, while compassion is necessary for morality, it must be balanced with fairness and impartiality.

Empathy and Compassion

Empathy and compassion are often used interchangeably but have different meanings. Empathy is the process of putting oneself in another person’s shoes, while compassion is the desire to alleviate their suffering. Empathy impulses can make us kinder, allowing us to understand others’ situations and help them cope. However, empathy alone is not enough for moral behavior. The case of a woman who lived near Nazi death camps shows that even though she had empathy, she could still accept inhumane acts if she didn’t witness them. Compassion, on the other hand, inspires action and motivates us to change the world for the better.

Punishing Unfair Behavior

The desire to punish unfair behavior is a fundamental part of human moral social feelings that is present from a very young age. An experiment with four players shows that people prefer to punish those who withhold their cash, even if it means diminishing their own funds. Eighty percent of the participants in the experiment spent money to punish those who played “unfairly.” In another study with toddlers, the children exhibited a desire to punish the puppet that behaved badly and reward the one that helped. Punishing those who behave unfairly even at a personal cost indicates that the need for justice and fairness is an innate trait among humans.

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