Sunday, May 9, 2010

Baby Gandhis

Where does morality come from?  Nature or nurture?

Do we acquire our notions about fairness, kindness and decency from our culture and upbringing, or are we born with some inherent sense of right and wrong?

Religious teachings have traditionally affirmed the Nature view.  Morality is implanted in the soul. The knowledge of good and evil is intrinsically human, inherited from Eve and Adam as far back as Eden.

Scientists, in contrast, have mostly been of the Nurture school.  As Freud had it, babies as born with  a cauldron of selfish desires guided by the pleasure principle, in conflict with the demands of civilized society, which strives mightily to impose a Superego of “thou-shalt-nots” upon the infant’s raging Id.

But new research from Yale University, reported in the New York Times this week, suggests both may be right.

Surprisingly, even very young babies seem to have a well-developed sense of what it means to be naughty and nice.  Watching a puppet show with two characters, one of whom is obviously cooperative and another who doesn’t play well with others, one-year-olds when given a choice will almost always reach for the good puppet and avoid the one with the mean streak.

Or the babies at Yale’s Infant Cognition Center watch three geometrical shapes act out a modern morality play.  A yellow circle tries to climb a hill.  The red square attempts to help it up the hump, while a green triangle pushes it back down.  Results show babies prefers shapes that help to those that hinder.

The experiments remind me of a story from the autobiography of the well known 19th center preacher Theodore Parker.  Parker became a moral beacon to his generation, a leader of the abolition movement.  But his ethical education, he recalled, stemmed from an experience he had a four-year-old.  Walking in a field, swinging a stick, he spied a tortoise sunning on a log.  He raised the stick to hit the animal, but an inner voice told him “no.”  Relating the incident to his mother later, she told the boy that the voice was Conscience, and that if he followed it faithfully, it would never lead him astray. 

Science seems to indicate she was right.  We may not all be Baby Einsteins, but  babies do appear to have an inborn idea of good and bad behavior. We're Baby Gandhis, if you like.

What infants lack, the research shows, is a sense of impartial regard for strangers.  They prefer those who speak a familiar language.  They are more comfortable with people of the same skin color.  They seem to have an innate prejudice that favors their own in-group.

So while “being nice” comes naturally to most people, becoming unbiased is apparently a lifelong endeavor requiring learning and the acquired ability to empathize beyond your own immediate clan or tribe.

The conclusion?  Even the “good people”  (which includes most of us) need to work hard to act ethically in our diverse, religiously variegated world.

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