Trailing Clouds Of Glory

Paul Bloom's Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil posits that all people are made good — and what keeps them good is organised religion

Sarah Johnson

“If anyone ‘as a go at you, you ‘it ’em back, right?” said the mother to her five-year-old, sitting behind me on the after-school bus. 

In his enthralling account of the development of morality as seen through the window of the psychology lab, Professor Paul Bloom admits that just as “much of experimental psychology is the study of the American college undergraduate who wants beer money, there’s some truth to the claim that a lot of developmental psychology is the study of the interested and alert baby”. He might have added: also of the recently fed, non-windy baby with a dry nappy, whose mum is organised enough to turn up to the session and does not have a houseful of older kids at home.

Perhaps the lady on the bus was the sort to enrol her child as a subject for cognitive development studies at the local university, as I did when my two older children were babies. But I would be pretty sure she wasn’t.  So I suppose we should allow for a little pre-selection in Bloom’s delightful studies, which involve recording the “look-time” of infants as young as five months, having determined what that “look-time” tells about what might be going on in the baby’s mind. 

A longer look can indicate the baby is surprised by what he sees. It can also indicate seeing something familiar, such as the baby’s mother’s face — but Bloom’s team has ways of working round that and other problems.  

For example, the babies were shown a red ball trying to go up a hill, and sometimes a yellow square nudged it up, sometimes a green triangle pushed it back down. The colours and shapes were varied to eliminate bias. Other scenarios, puppets and choices were introduced. 

Overwhelmingly the babies would look with surprise at the bad action, or if given the chance, would reach for the “good guy”, the helpful shape. They would take opportunities to reward do-gooders and punish the unhelpful. I hasten to add that no violence was involved — though one one-year-old boy did lean forward and smack the “bad” puppet on the head. 

Bloom weaves his department’s work into a powerful case for the presence of an innate moral sense, of empathy, fairness and justice. We have evolved these senses because they are survival tools, especially where our close family and friends are concerned, and as we grow up we use our rationality to extend them outward from the small moral circle of the baby to the wider moral circle of humanity. 

On the other hand, says Bloom, we have moral responses — such as prohibitions on homosexuality — which don’t make evolutionary sense, yet seem to be part of a catch-all protective disgust-response to what is harmful to the survival and well-being of the original small-scale society. And other moral attitudes, such as outrage at slavery, have emerged over the course of human history: our feeling that slavery is terribly wrong was not shared by people hundreds of years ago.

Custom is king of all, said Herodotus. “We are most influenced by the behaviours that we see repeatedly,” says Bloom. Other, alarming studies show children being more inclined to give to a charity box if they saw adults doing it first, and even more readily inclined to copy ungenerous behaviour. But Bloom in effect proves the moral relativists wrong in thinking this is pure copycat behaviour. We are born trailing clouds of glory, with a surprisingly rich array of moral equipment. 

But this innate morality needs to be nurtured, strengthened and encouraged throughout our childhoods. How? 

Bloom calls religious belief the “accelerant to morality — part of a self-reinforcing system” that is reinforced further by society’s system of justice. Participation in the religious community, which strengthens societal bonds, is the most powerful aspect of religion. But Bloom does not presume to spell out much of an answer to the question that forms grimly in the parental mind: when religious belief breaks down, what remains to reinforce the system? 

“He feels bad because he was proud of his tower and you knocked it down.” “If you throw snow on their [side]walk, they will have to clean it up all over again.” According to another psychologist, Martin Hoffmann, children receive about 4,000 such “inductions” every year — statements which urge them to see things from another’s perspective and build empathy. 

What lucky children are these! I have a terrible feeling that not all of us, let alone parents such as that mother I overheard on the bus, are making up our full 4,000. How far removed are the lives of so many children, who encounter violence, anger, selfishness, cruelty and indifference every day, from the sweet and reasonable world of Yale babies? 

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