On Bloom’s “The Moral Life of Babies”

Very nice piece by Harold Bloom in the popular press (NYTimes), where he summarizes recent cognitivist-nativist research on morality. He claims, for instance that:

“A growing body of evidence (…) suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.”

Throughout the article he tries to present a moderate position that recognizes cultural variation in moral codes and the necessity of social experience for moral development, but claims that there is an innate core of morality, a cognitive starting point shared by all humanity. This innate aspect constitutes a basic moral sense (in a sense similar to which Stan Dehaene talks about the number sense). So, for instance, he acknowledges the relevance of the convincing studies by Joseph Henrich (this one, among others) yet asserts that those cultural codes are built upon the firm base of our innate capacity for feeling empathy, compassion, and for distinguishing aggressive (“evil”) agents from cooperative ones.

Thus, when commenting on Tomasello’s research that seems to imply an innate capacity for cooperation, he argues:

“Is any of the above behavior recognizable as moral conduct? Not obviously so. Moral ideas seem to involve much more than mere compassion. Morality, for instance, is closely related to notions of praise and blame: we want to reward what we see as good and punish what we see as bad. Morality is also closely connected to the ideal of impartiality — if it’s immoral for you to do something to me, then, all else being equal, it is immoral for me to do the same thing to you. In addition, moral principles are different from other types of rules or laws: they cannot, for instance, be overruled solely by virtue of authority. (Even a 4-year-old knows not only that unprovoked hitting is wrong but also that it would continue to be wrong even if a teacher said that it was O.K.) And we tend to associate morality with the possibility of free and rational choice; people choose to do good or evil. To hold someone responsible for an act means that we believe that he could have chosen to act otherwise.”

To present morality as a list of features, however, does not help us understand what is distinctive about morality in opposition to innate cognitions: its normative nature. So, when Bloom asserts that “the morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with” I couldn’t agree more (and I am happy to notice that a nativist like Bloom has the intellectual courage to make this point); but his very theoretical framework doesn’t help him to clarify in exactly what way cultural morality is different from a biological tendency to process information in a certain way.

“The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology (…) A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development.” Yes, I agree. But: what is culture? How does exactly culture build the normative, universal, deontic discourse that we call morality on top of our innate capacities? That is the question.

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