Friday, May 14, 2010

Babies do need to grow up

Dr. Paul Bloom writes in the New York Times about his work aimed at pinning down "The Moral Life of Babies." It turns out, they are pretty uncooperative subjects - "because, even compared to rats or birds, they are behaviorally limited: they can’t run mazes or peck at levers." But he and his colleagues at Yale's Infant Cognition Center used some very clever experiments to elicit reliable data on the babies' ethical preferences. They found something quite disturbing - babies are, to put it mildly, intolerant. Gordon Brown might have even called them "bigoted." In other words, from a very early age, they exhibit clear-cut in-group preferences. How could I have been so naive? All that scholarly literature on nationalism I have devoured maintains that it is quite natural for millions of people of various colors, ethnicities, religions, etc. to live in perfect harmony in complex multicultural societies; and the bigotry of Serb nationalists or Hutu thugs is a cultural aberration which can be explained only by sophisticated conspiracy theories. It turns out this was all wrong: "in fact, our initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind." Happily, this primitive morality can be transcended in modern societies with market economies, where rational individuals are able to negotiate the impartial morality needed to oil the wheels of commerce. According to Dr. Bloom, our morality must have such impartiality at its core in order to be truly mature. This reminds me of another NYT article, "When the Ties That Bind Unravel." It describes an increasingly common phenomenon in American society - "parents who have become estranged from their own children." At some points a son or a daughter decides that maintaining a strained relationship with his or her parents is too burdensome, and cuts them off. What could be more impartial than that, really - treating one's parents as chance acquaintances whom you can easily leave behind and move on with your life?