Paul Bloom went as far as technology would take him in his study of the origins of morality and though he can’t completely explore the minds of infants yet, he’s sure that these kids are anything but Just Babies.
Zola: Your book focuses on morality, a topic you’ve said has interested you for a long time. When writing this and having that topic weighing on your mind, did you find it affecting your own behavior at all?
Paul Bloom: That’s an interesting question. Honestly, not really. The book did have me thinking about morality but it’s a book about the origins of morality. It deals with really big and really exciting questions, but it doesn’t involve advice on doing the right thing so it didn’t have that sort of effect on me.
Zola: At one point you discuss the lack of empathy in psychopaths. This same lack of empathy appears to be running rampant on the internet with users believing they can say whatever they want from behind the safety of the screen. Do you think modern technology is influencing our moral compass?
PB: It’s obviously an exciting question; a lot of people have worried that the use of social media has deadened our empathy and made us worse people. I do think it’s true that we can be more cruel to others when we don’t have to look at them. However, I see very little evidence that people are becoming less caring. Actually, the data in the US says the exact opposite. Violent crime is dropping, bullying is dropping. I can’t make the counter claim that it’s because of social media, yet there isn’t any evidence that it’s having that effect on us. For example, if you had a child in middle school or high school you’d worry more about bullying 20 years ago than now. When I grew up bullying was ‘boys will be boys’ and now there’s been a distinct moral shift in how we think about it.
Zola: What’s caused that moral shift?
PB: In the second half of the book I refer to rational deliberation, which happens as babies grow up and become more moral and develop free will, and I’d say it relates to that.
Zola: In an adult study where a kind or double-crossing stranger was electrically shocked, the women were more empathetic than the men—were there similar results in studies of young children?
PB: Yes. Our studies don’t look at empathy, but you’re right, a lot of studies find looking at empathy in toddlers find it going in the direction you’d expect—baby girls are more ready to help others. They’re more empathetic. There does seem to be an emerging difference in empathy.
Zola: Do you have any theories as to why that might be?
PB: The main theories appeal to natural selection. The argument is that given the differences that emerge from the fact that women bear children, there is a pressure for women to be more empathetic, especially with child-care, and for men to be more aggressive than women.
The major difference you see between the sexes is that men are far more violent in every culture and that isn’t a subtle difference—men are fifty times more likely to commit an act of violence. I think that’s its own phenomenon, but it does relate to empathy. If you care enough about someone else’s pain, you aren’t able to harm them.
Zola: What was the most surprising thing you discovered while doing this research?
PB: I’m always surprised at the extraordinary moral capacity of babies. We look for things that we don’t believe are hardwired but we find that babies can judge good and evil. I was surprised at their ability to discern good acts and bad acts. But I argue in the book that this is half the story. I’m so impressed, but it’s so tragically limited because of our technology.
Zola: How many years do you think before we’ll have the technology in place to explore their minds further?
PB: That’s a good question. Our technologies are getting better and better. Thirty years ago, people would say babies don’t know anything about the world and they’d be justified in thinking that. But now we’re getting better and better. We can do some things with newborn babies and we find amazing things, but we’re continuing to grow.
Zola: Was there ever a study that you fully expected to go in one direction and then it went in another?
PB: I was very skeptical of our study of 3-month-olds. I thought they were too young to give us any answers, so I was very surprised when it worked. My collaborators were just as excited.
Zola:Just Babies is a fantastic title. Did you find that many people didn’t believe that infants could have a moral direction because they are ‘just babies’?
PB: I love the title. My wife thought it up. It’s a wonderful title because of its double meaning. It’s just babies—meaning they’re only babies—but it also works as ‘justice babies.’ People are still surprised when they discover how rich their knowledge is.
Zola: What do you think is the most common misconception people have about babies?
PB: Well, there are two. One is what we’ve just been discussing, which is that babies don’t know anything about the world, that everything is learned, that they’re a blank slate.
The other is the opposite. The author of The Noble Savage described it by saying that we start off as kind and society makes us meaner. Evidence shows us that it’s the opposite. Our morality is there but it is tragically limited. Knowing things are wrong is a product of our intelligence, not our natural endowment.
Zola: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?
PB: I do. RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut. It’s a wonderful bookstore and has always supported authors and readers.
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This article originally appeared on Zola Books.