Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil?
by paul bloom
crown, 288 pages, $26

On a recent trip to London, I attended a performance of Gounod’s dramatic opera Faust, which is based on Goethe’s famous play. The next night, I saw a National Theatre production of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, a realistic portrait of a 1950s working-class life. Although sharply different in style and sensibility and written a century apart, both works center on a young woman’s seduction and betrayal and her grim fate in the aftermath.

Paul Bloom’s Just Babies put me in mind of those performances. The author purports to offer a comprehensive overview of man’s moral development and the place of moral codes in social life and accordingly addresses the role and significance of sexual morality. Yet Bloom doesn’t even mention the problem of men’s sexual exploitation of women and ignores the complex moral codes that have arisen in most societies—including our own—to deal with that commonplace danger. That omission is emblematic of the weaknesses of this book. Just Babies, although well worth reading, is also deeply flawed. It illustrates not just the limitations of the “moral science” it describes but also the misuse of that science to disparage and distort vital aspects of our moral life.

Based on a set of lectures delivered at Yale and Johns Hopkins, this book is best in its descriptions of the ingenious studies that Bloom, his wife Karen Wynn, and other developmental psychologists have devised to probe the cognitive and moral capacities of very young children, including babies only a few months old. This research makes use of babies’ small repertoire of purposive behaviors, including eye movements, grasping, and reaching.

Most of the work rests on the fact that babies vary in “looking time,” which is the period they stare at the visual images presented to them. Babies, like the rest of us, habituate to familiar images and are riveted by the surprising and unexpected. For example, after being shown multiple images of two objects, they gaze longer at an image of three. They also prefer to fix their sights on the familiar, such as their mother or a native speaker of their mother’s language, as opposed to a foreigner or a stranger.

By observing how babies look and what they reach for, psychologists aim to get at the infants’ capacity to make moral distinctions. Bloom reports that babies gaze longer at “hindering” figures, such as cartoon characters that block someone’s attempts to squeeze through a hole or climb up a hill, compared with characters that try to assist others to perform these tasks. Even very young babies reach out to helping characters and tend to turn away from hinderers. Babies also can distinguish scenarios that involve equal or unequal treatment of characters (thereby evincing a rudimentary ability to count). When shown scenarios in which goodies are divided among different cartoon actors, babies generally stare longer at lopsided allocations and become habituated to equality.

More often than not, Bloom is laudably cautious about the significance of these types of findings, acknowledging that most offer few concrete implications for everyday moral practice. But the mask of objectivity sometimes slips as he overreads the evidence. Bloom insists that young children recognize the difference between nasty and nice (which he equates with bad and good) and that they favor nice. But based on the observations he presents, his conclusion that babies make specifically moral judgments seems open to question.

Although hindering scenarios command babies’ attention, so do the faces and sounds of beloved persons compared with those of strangers. Taken together, these patterns could signify nothing more than an alertness to the helpful and to the hostile alike, fueled by a hearty interest in self-preservation, rather than the manifestation of a rudimentary moral sense. Bloom doesn’t really give the intelligent reader enough detail to assess the evidence critically and weigh the possible alternatives.

Bloom also makes some dubious statements about babies’ responses to equality and inequality. From the finding that babies often look longer at lopsided divisions of desirable resources (such as toys), he concludes that “children expect equality, [and] prefer those who divide resources equally.” It follows that “we are born with some sort of fairness instinct; we are natural­born egalitarians.”

The progression from registering unequal allocations to a “fairness instinct” to babies as “natural­born egalitarians” is far too glib for comfort. In fact, Bloom’s brisk segue is not even supported by the studies he reports, as babies also look longer at scenarios in which “helpers” and “hinderers” are provided with identical rewards. This suggests that babies, like many of the rest of us, aren’t really pure “egalitarians” in the sense of favoring equality no matter what. But, then, what does Bloom mean by the word “egalitarian?” Are we talking about share and share alike, or are inequalities sometimes justified? Does his egalitarianism have a place for merit and desert? The odor of ideology wafts through his simple­minded commentary.

These careless conclusions aside, can anything useful be gleaned from the developmental studies Bloom describes? The nurture-versus-nature debate hangs over this research. How much do intrinsic capacities contribute to our moral judgments? Are we born good or evil, or does experience make us so? Unfortunately, the data Bloom reports promises more than it delivers. Babies notice the difference between naughty and nice, and noticing is certainly a precondition for endorsing, disapproving, and judging. But whether these specifically moral attitudes have an important intrinsic foundation or are mainly shaped by culture and environment is complicated and difficult to determine.

As noted, the significance of very small babies’ limited repertoire of reactions is hard to interpret, and the expansion of reactions as children mature tells us little about the balance between the conditioned and the innate. As is known from animal studies, genetically preprogrammed tendencies will sometimes appear well after infancy, and learned behaviors can appear early. In short, there’s not much specific payoff on the nature–nurture debate here, except perhaps to put another nail in the coffin of the blank-slate hypothesis, which is already quite dead (or ought to be). Although human beings clearly possess some intrinsic foundations for moral thought and judgment, the nature of those attributes, and how they emerge or are elicited, cannot be determined from the type of research reported here.

When Bloom leaves the cozy corner of developmental studies to range widely in the eclectic world of experimental psychology, he really gets into trouble. His breathless tour, in the mode made popular by Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics school of gee whiz, is at times engaging and entertaining, and Bloom shows himself to be an intelligent and fluent master of the emerging science of moral psychology. But there is little new here, with most of the material familiar to nonspecialists conversant in recent developments.

The Milgram and group-identity experiments, the behavioral psychology and anthropology of third-party punishments, the variations on ultimatum and dictator games (which explore spite, conformity, and altruistic tendencies), and other related topics are duly touched upon and the limitations inherent in deracinated laboratory observations on undergraduate subjects acknowledged. But, as in his discussion of baby egalitarians, Bloom is too eager to use the science to think big about man’s moral nature. The result: highly dubious speculation, heavily influenced by pet notions of antitraditionalist individualism.

It is in Bloom’s disquisition on sexual morality that his overreaching is most obvious. Like a growing number of scholars in moral psychology—Robert Kurzban and Jonathan Haidt come to mind—Bloom in his analysis of sexual morality focuses almost exclusively on two taboos, those against incest and homosexuality. Not surprisingly, and although stopping short of condemning the incest taboo outright (based on his speculation that it might once have had some evolutionary function), he concludes that these dual proscriptions are primitive, unthinking, irrational, and ungrounded in any coherent harm principle or pro­social logic.

Bloom then proceeds effectively to dismiss sexual morality outright, as devoid of any positive function or rationale. He observes that “sexual moral outrage” cannot be a “biological adaptation” because there is “no evidence that societies with disapproving individuals do better.” He even goes so far as to express doubt that sexual codes “even count as morality,” suggesting that sexual morality “isn’t morality at all.” Why not? Sexual codes are not about “justice, rights, and welfare,” and they are “not necessarily about how people relate to each other.”

That “not necessarily” ought to raise eyebrows, but Bloom is ready with a response: Sexual norms that govern “how people relate” are superfluous and redundant because existing generic bans on violence and exploitation, including rules against assault and rape, take care of any harm to others, which is the only legitimate purview of moral censure. Yet, as Bloom concedes, our response to violations of sexual rules “feels no different from other moral responses.” It is connected to “guilt, shame, and anger” that fuel “the desire for punishment.” Bloom finds all this genuinely perplexing, but no matter. Because “intuitions associated with disgust are at best unnecessary,” it follows that sexual morality is inutile.

By focusing on the rules surrounding incest and homosexual conduct, which occupy but a small corner of the multifaceted world of sexual regulation, Bloom simply ignores the core features, rationales, and principles that have been the hallmarks of every well-functioning society for eons: the centrality of marriage as an organizing and ordering institution; the family as the crucible for character formation, cultural transmission, socialization of children, the care of vulnerable dependents young and old, and the maintenance of cooperative alliances through organized and stylized kin networks; and the need for sexual restraint on the part of both men and women to curb the rapacious, self-serving behavior toward which carnal desires impel us. These elaborate structures, and the sexual moral codes that support them, do indeed govern “how people relate to each other,” and no other social rules can, or do, take their place.

That sexual behavior has everywhere been moralized and that sexual regulation has been a central feature of every successful society—at least up to now—are overwhelming facts to which Bloom seems curiously blind. They elicit neither his curiosity nor his interest. In this, Bloom is not atypical. I recently asked an evolutionary moral psychologist at my university why, instead of studying moral reactions to incest, bestiality, and homosexuality, he did not study people’s reactions to the growing practice of men fathering children out of wedlock by multiple women and then abandoning them. He looked at me quizzically and said, “That’s not what I do.”

What his reaction reveals is an alarming indifference to the irresponsibility that the rise of paternal abandonment betokens and an obliviousness to its implications. As Elizabeth Hardwick observed in her classic work of literary criticism, Seduction and Betrayal, the quintessentially destructive act of taking one’s pleasure at the expense of the vulnerable, which was thought to strike at the heart of our social order, has long been a preoccupation of Western literature. But moral psychologists couldn’t be less interested. For them, this is not even a moral issue.

This throws into sharp relief what most honest researchers would concede: that a full understanding of a society’s moral life is well beyond the purview of experimental psychology as practiced today. The problem is not just a function of the field’s nascent methodology and limited understanding. The field also suffers from the blinkered and impoverished worldview that too many academics bring to their studies. Traditional forms and strictures are ignored, sneered at, or dismissed. Habits, customs, norms, and individual character—the tried and true vocabulary of moral development—are given short shrift in the academic lexicon. Taking traditional norms seriously need not amount to an uncritical endorsement of all their forms, but it does preclude so casually tossing them aside.

How should students of moral psychology proceed? We can thank experimental psychologists for illuminating what the best students of humanity already understand: that our nature is replete with tendencies, inclinations, and templates that can yield good behavior or bad, unleash destruction or curb it. But our moral life cannot be understood simply by isolating, scrutinizing, and cataloguing our conflicting impulses apart from the complex, living systems of proscriptions and permissions, norms and practices, customs, habits, and values that influence and guide our collective lives. Although resting on innate foundations, moral behavior is profoundly conditioned by our surroundings.

That respected students of the “science” of morality are oblivious to the central dilemmas of how men and women relate to one another and their children, let alone that such an eminent Ivy League professor is willing to label sexual morality an oxymoron, should make us deeply suspicious of the entire enterprise. The proper posture here is skepticism. Cast a wary eye on the clever experiments, fascinating results, and expert interpretations. Dear reader, do not be taken in. Do not allow yourself to be seduced and betrayed.

Amy Wax is Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania.