Author Archives: gusfai

About gusfai

De chico jugaba en la plaza Colombia. Contacto: gusfai@gmail.com

Contra Locke

(…) On the contrary, Nozick writes, there are instances where by mixing one’s labor with something in nature, one loses one’s labor without making any gain: “If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so that its molecules (made radioactive, so I can check this) mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?” The answer is obviously the latter, he argues.

Use, possession, ownership. An ongoing conversation with P. Kanngiesser

Recently Patricia Kanngiesser sent me a copy of the intro to her doctoral thesis, “Biological and Developmental Origins of Ownership Concepts.” I really enjoyed reading it. It’s extremely well written and well argued. She provides a number of new insights on the development of ownership with great clarity. It’s just brilliant.

One of the important topics Patricia addresses is the conceptual distinction between possession and property. She argues that, while possession presupposes physical proximity between possessors and their things, ownership holds even in the owner’s absence. Possession requires the simultaneous presence of owners and their objects, ownership does not.

Based on this distinction and on extant research on ownership in animals and humans (children and adults), she claims that animals show only possession-related behavior that is crucially dependent on an animal being in physical proximity to a thing. In other words, ownership is absent in animals; animals display rudimentary precursors of ownership-related behaviors only.

“While animals show attachment to things such as territories, food, and mates, evidence for recognizing possession and respecting others’ possessions irrespective of factors such as dominance rank or competitive advantages is sparse. Apart from one rare example of respect for possession of females in baboons, most respect for possession seems to derive from the fact that possessors manage to avoid dominant rivals (e.g. by carrying possession away). Finally, universal social rules regarding ownership are absent from animal societies. While attachment to things could form a biological basis for ownership-related behaviors in humans, an ownership concept that encompasses recognition and respect of ownership as well as a complex web of social rules is probably the unique product of a human socio-cultural environment.” (Patricia Kanngiesser, doctoral thesis).

Up to here I summarized Patricia’s position, and I agree with her. Now, it must be noted that even animal possession is not a two-term relationship (between an individual agent and a thing) but always presupposes a social context. There are possession conflicts because there are individuals competing for objects and for recognition, or for “prestige” as Philippe Rochat would say. PK notes that “about 75% of young children’s conflicts with peers revolve around the possession of objects” and that “21-month-olds often view a toy as more attractive after another child has named or touched it” (Hay & Ross, 1982). Objects become desirable because they are desired by other children; once a child children obtains an object, she wants to be recognized as possessor by other children; she now has exclusive access to the object and can exclude other children. As PK writes, “it is thus conceivable that conflicts concerning the possession of objects are also driven by social motives such as establishing social relationships and exerting social influence.” This, again, suggests not a dual relationship agent-object but at least a triadic relationship agent-object-agent.

Furthermore, PK also notes that “prior possession presents an advantage in conflicts over objects”, a finding corroborated many times both with young children and with some animal species. Now, if current possessors tend to win possession conflicts, it’s because other agents can identify them as possessors. Which again suggests not a dual relation agent-object but a triadic relation where other agents can identify possessors and interact with them accordingly. In this incipient relationship between a non-possessor and a possessor, even if “universal rules” are still absent (as PK argues), there is something like a proto-rule at work: perhaps for strategic reasons that can be modeled in terms of game theory (costs of trying to take an object from a possessor are high), perhaps for efficiency reasons (groups are more stable when possessors are not attacked and conflicts are minimized), current possession is respected, which might be a precursor of institutional or conventional rules such as the prior possession rule (which establishes that prior possession is a justification for ownership).

Therefore, I stick with my position that you need to discriminate three different categories:

– Use: dual relationship between an agent and an object (food, toy, instrument, etc.)

– Possession: triadic relationship agent-object-agent that requires one agent (called the possessor) physically controlling the object, while the other agent is excluded from this relationship. In this scenario, some proto-rules start to play out.

– Ownership: a relationship between agent and object that is not based in physical control but in normative rules (“universal” rules, as PK calls them). The title of owner gives the owner privileged access to the object and, in general, a number of rights and duties.

 

Psychological ownership

Pierce, J. L., Kostova, T., & Dirks, K. T. (2002). The state of psychological ownership: integrating and extending a century of research abstract. Review of General Psychology, 7(314), 1–35. http://doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.7.1.84

Remarkable article on the psychology of ownership. This is something different from what I’m used to; it’s something I wasn’t expecting: a general psychology approach to possessive behavior that aims at taking into account biological and cultural, individual and social, affective and cognitive components.

By “psychological ownership” the authors understand: a) our sense of possession, what we feel and mean when we say “mine”, b) the object of ownership (or “target”) that becomes part of the extended self of the owner, c) a cognitive-affective complex.

The authors distinguish between the motives or roots of ownership, and the routes through which psychological ownership emerges. The motives or roots include:

  1. efficacy and effectance: possessions are important to individuals because they are instrumental for exercising control over the physical environment and over people.
  2. self-identity: possessions serve as symbolic expressions of the self.
  3. having a place to dwell: importance of having a secure base, a refuge, a shelter in the world.

My only criticism is that sometimes the language of the paper is somewhat vague. Ownership is a word with many uses and varied meanings. We may feel that we own a ball, a car, an idea, a job, a certain position in the family, in an organization or even a nation. Is the meaning of “owning” the same in all these cases? The authors claim that “when individuals feel ownership for a social entity (e.g., family, group, organization, or nation) they are likely to engage in citizenship behaviors toward that entity”. Yet we usually say that we belong to the group, organization or nation, not that it belongs to us. The meaning of belonging, owning and possession are not probably the same as when we talk about owning an object. The construct “ownership” is more complex and multifaceted than the authors assume; the meaning of ownership varies with the target of ownership and other factors. This potential criticism is not discussed in the paper.

Overall, an interesting and thought provoking article. In addition, the authors have done an extensive review of the literature and there are many intriguing quotations. For example, I should check W. James (1890) who apparently establishes a relationship between “me” and that which is considered “mine”.

Carol Rose on the moral subject of property

Rose, C. M. (2007). The Moral Subject of Property. William and Mary Law Review, 48(5), 1897–1926.

In this beautifully written article, Carol Rose makes the argument that although property arrangements might seem unfair or unjust in many respects (how it is acquired, how it is distributed across society, its effect on the commoditization of sacred or moral aspects of social life), the institution of property is nevertheless beneficial for society at large insofar as it creates stability and incentives for individuals to take care of their property, invest, trade and create more value for society at large in the long run. So even when arrangements are not perfect in many specific cases (because they have morally questionably implications), it’s better to tolerate these shortcomings and to apply the established rules of ownership acquisition and distribution, because “property, as an institution, requires stability in people’s expectations about their own and other people’s claims.”

The article also contains a couple of nice quotes about one of my favorite topics: the relationship between associative and strict reciprocity: “Gift exchange cements community bonds-from a community of two on up to many more-keeping all the participants in a vague but nevertheless socially and emotionally charged condition of mutual give and take.” “(…) Gift giving differs from market exchange because through gifts, each party engages in imaginative participation in the life of the other, helping to cement relationships.”

Possession as the origin of property

Rose, C. M. (1985). Possession as the Origin of Property. Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 1830.

Fascinating, beautifully written article by Carol Rose explaining the relationship between possession (especially first or prior possession) and ownership from the point of view of legal theory.

Many psychologists investigating ownership in children have tried to disentangle first possession from other principles such as invested labor. Also, psychologists have tended to consider possession as a kind of direct, physical relationship between a person and an object. Rose, however, provides reasons to mistrust those positions and makes clear that possession is much more complex than common sense dictates, for three reasons at least:

1) Legal decisions that supposedly applied a first possession doctrine (e.g., the famous Pierson v. Post case) incorporate other principles as well, such as “reward to useful labor”. Actually, John Locke’s labor theory of property can be seen as very close and akin to the first possession principle. He makes it clear that it is the first agent who takes control of a natural resource through her work that gains ownership over it. He uses the simple example of picking an apple: the apple becomes mine when I pick it because I have added my labor to it and made it my property. Notice that, in this case, the added labor is minimal, and the crucial factor is that I picked the apple before anybody else. First possession and labor theories of ownership are similar and related to each other; they even imply each other.

2) Possession is not a direct grasping or grabbing of an object. Possession only takes place in the context of intersubjective conflict, or at least competition and potential conflict. Although there are precursors of possessiveness and territoriality in animals, human possession is not a purely natural, physical relationship between a person and a thing. Rather, it is a social act that follows proto-institutional or institutional (in Searle’s sense) rules.

3) Among those social and proto-institutional rules, the rules establishing what counts as giving public notice of an act of possession play a crucial role. For instance, what does a conqueror need to do in order to announce to the world that she has discovered virgin territory and therefore has a legal claim over it?

According to Rose, “common law defines acts of possession as some kind of statement. As Blackstone said, the acts must be a declaration of one’s intent to appropriate.” “Possession now begins to look even more like something that requires a kind of communication, and the original claim to the property looks like a kind of speech, with the audience composed of all others who might be interested in claiming the object in question. Moreover, some venerable statutory law obligates the acquiring party to keep on speaking, lest he lose his title by “adverse possession.”

Possession then requires the possessor to perform certain speech acts (in the technical sense this term has for speech act theory).

I quote Rose again:

“Possession as the basis of property ownership, then, seems to amount to something like yelling loudly enough to all who may be interested. The first to say, “This is mine,” in a way that the public understands, gets the prize, and the law will help him keep it against someone else who says, “No, it is mine.” But if the original communicator dallies too long and allows the public to believe the interloper, he will find that the interloper has stepped into his shoes and has become the owner.”

“Similar ideas of the importance of communication, or as it is more commonly called, “notice,” are implicit in our recording statutes and in a variety of other devices that force a property claimant to make a public record of her claims on pain of losing them altogether. Indeed, notice plays a part in the most mundane property-like claims to things that the law does not even recognize as capable of being reduced to ownership. “Would you please save my place?” one says to one’s neighbor in the movie line, in order to ensure that others in line know that one is coming back and not relinquishing one’s claim.”

“Thus, it turns out that the common law of first possession, in rewarding the one who communicates a claim, does reward useful labor; the useful labor is the very act of speaking clearly and distinctly about one’s claims to property.”

 

 

Tisak and Turiel on moral and prudential rules

Tisak, M. S., & Turiel, E. (1984). Children’s Conceptions of Moral and Prudential Rules. CHILD DEVELOPMENT, 55(3), 1030–1039.

This article examines the relationship between moral and prudential rules in children. Moral and prudential events are similar in that they may involve consequences (for example, harm) to persons, but also differ in that morality bears upon social relations and prudence does not. The researchers interviewed children by using scripts depicting transgressions of moral (stealing, pushing) and prudential (running in the rain) rules. Participants were between 6 and 10 years of age. The authors conclude that 6-year-old children can already differentiate between moral and prudential rules. Children’s evaluations of moral and prudential rules are very similar in many respects; however, the authors claim that the reasons given in justification of moral rules focus on both consequences (harm) and the regulation of social relations (justice, fairness), while justification for the prudential rule is based only on consequences. Moral rules were also attributed more importance than prudential rules. As is typical in Moral Domain Theory, the interview is purely verbal and children are required to provide explicit justifications for their judgments. As a side note, I have a problem with Turiel’s prose: it’s dry and boring. But that’s my problem, I guess. (I know, this is supposed to be science, not literature).

Bakeman & Brownlee: Social rules governing object conflicts in toddlers and preschoolers

Bakeman, R., & Brownlee, J. R. (1982). Social rules governing object conflicts in toddlers and preschoolers. In Peer relationships and social skills in childhood (pp. 99–111). New York: Springer Verlag.

I’ve seen this article quoted over and over again as one of the first serious studies on ownership in children. I finally was able to read it, and I am very impressed both by the empirical study and the theoretical reflections.

On the theoretical level, the authors hypothesize that young children are capable of developing rules to regulate interaction with their peers, “as a consequence of a fundamental human propensity to regulate social interaction in a ruleful manner”. They say children do this “not as a result of cultural intervention.” What they seem to mean is not that rules are a natural phenomenon developed outside of culture, but that children tend to develop rules spontaneously, independent of explicit adult teaching. I believe that the authors would accept the proposition that rules are developed in the context of peer-culture. The important point Bakeman and Brownlee are making is that normativity is present in human interaction very early (during the second year of life).

The authors see possession episodes (interactions in which a child tries to take an object from another child) as a privileged source to obtain examples of early rules. We know that 18 month-olds already use the possessive “mine” in the context of their frequent possession struggles. Such disputes are often the occasion of adult intervention and rule stating. For all these reasons, possession is “the place” where one should look for children’s first rules.

In their empirical work with possession episodes, the researchers focus on two types of data: the rate of success by object takers and the rate of resistance attempts by object holders.

The main finding of this study is that prior possession influences the outcome of possession episodes. If a taker has had prior possession of the object, then her take attempt is more likely to succeed. The outcome of possession episodes among children in the second, third, and fourth year of life is not simply a matter of individual power, but can be at least partly explained by reference to the prior possession rule. The researchers also found that one year olds are as likely to resist a taker who has had prior possession as not, while three year olds were less likely to resist a taker who has had prior possession. This suggests that among the three year olds the prior possession claim may have been recognized by both children, at least at a point sufficiently early in the taking so that active resistance was less likely.

However, rule observance is not the only possible explanation for children’s behavior. Perhaps if a child has played with a toy recently, she is more likely to prefer that toy to others and hence to expend more effort in its recovery. Other children might eventually acquiesce to this more vigorous onslaught, what the authors call the ”vigor of desire.” Later, children may come to resist the prior possessing taker less, not because they have accepted a social rule, but only because they have learned about the negative consequences associated with this situation.

The authors, then, admit that there is no definitive way to decide between a “social learning” and a “shared rule” interpretation of the facts, especially in the one-year-olds. The situation is somewhat less ambivalent in the three-year-olds, because they are less likely to resist a taker who has had prior possession independently of their dominance, therefore they do not seem to be simply avoiding conflict. More importantly, the authors also claim that the difference between the two interpretations may be more apparent than real. I agree with this. The fact that children resist less when the taker is a prior possessor might reflect both a tendency to avoid conflict and a spontaneous way of regulating peer interaction. In other words, what we are dealing with here are rules at their very birth.

At the end of the article there are a couple of beautiful paragraphs that clearly express the authors’ outlook: “Young children are neither nasty brutes who must have rules imposed upon them nor noble savages who come with a built-in sense of equity; rather, they are adaptive, socially sensitive organisms trying to get along in a social world full of conflicting needs and limited resources. They may have a far greater capacity for ruleful regulation of their social affairs than we usually grant them, a capacity which only careful observations of young children playing with their age-mates is likely to reveal.”

Bakeman and Brwonlee are pioneers. Apparently they are the first who studied the prior possession rule in children. I used to think that Hildy Ross was the first. The findings are the same: even 18 month old toddlers seem to observe a basic version of the prior possession rule.

Elliot Turiel on the Development of Morality

Turiel, E. (2008). The Development of Morality. In W. Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Child and Adolescent Development: An Advanced Course (pp. 473–514). SAGE Publications.

This is a great summary of trends and theoretical orientations in the study of moral development by Elliot Turiel. I will only comment on a couple of minor points.

First: I like the fact that Turiel considers children as active social agents that face conflicts and meaningful moral experiences in their everyday life. Moral development is not about absorbing information about moral rules or values, it is about actively constructing a moral understanding of the social world and of one’s own life. “…in many current formulations morality is not framed by impositions on children due to conflicts between their needs or interests and the requirements of society or the group. Many now think that children are, in an active and positive sense, integrated into their social relationships with adults and peers and that morality is not solely or even primarily an external or unwanted imposition on them.”

He also emphasizes that morality is not primarily negative (as one might infer from Freudian or behavioristic formulations); in other words, it’s not about the inhibition of aggressive or sexual impulses. Today, we know that children experience empathic feelings towards other people spontaneously; that our species has a natural tendency to do things within groups and to help each other. “The findings that young children show positive moral emotions and actions toward others indicate that the foundations of morality are established in early childhood and do not solely entail the control and inhibition of children’s tendencies toward gratifying needs or drives or acting on impulses. However, that the foundations of positive morality are established in early childhood does not necessarily establish that significant aspects of development do not occur beyond early childhood; that judgments, deliberations, and reflections are unimportant; or that many experiences, in addition to parental practices, do not contribute.”

Against the work of J. Haidt and R. Shweder, Turiel claims that:

“Studies of moral development suggest alternatives to the propositions that emotions are primary in morality, that moral acquisition is mainly due to effects of parental practices on children, or that morality largely reflects the acquisition of societal standards. Dunn et al. (1995) found differences in the two types of situations they assessed (physical harm and cheating) and documented that relationships with siblings influence development.” This suggests that children have a spontaneous capacity to reason according how they determine the domain they are dealing with (moral, societal, personal) or the kind of moral problem at hand.

Children do not receive passively the moral prescriptions upheld by adults; rather, they show a certain degree of autonomy early on. “By 2 or 3 years of age, children display a fair amount of teasing of mothers, physical aggression, destruction of objects, and an increasing ability to engage in arguments and disputes with mothers (Dunn & Munn, 1987). This increasing variety in young children’s social relationships is consistent with the findings reviewed by Grusec and Goodnow (1994) showing that parental practices are related to type of misdeed (e.g., moral or conventional), children judge the appropriateness of reasons given by parents when communicating with them, and parents may encourage ways of behaving that differ from those they engage in themselves… With acts entailing theft or physical harm to persons, young children (4 to 6 years) give priority to the act itself rather than the status of the person as in a position of authority.”

“Children’s judgments are not based on respect or reverence for adult authority but on an act’s harmful consequences to persons. Children’s judgments about harmful consequences emerge early in life along with emotions of sympathy, empathy, and respect (Piaget, 1932; Turiel, 2006b); at young ages children go well beyond social impulses and the habitual or reflexive, attempting to understand emotions, other persons, the self, and interrelationships (Arsenio, 1988; Arsenio & Lemerise, 2004; Nucci, 1981; Turiel, 1983, 2007). A great deal of research has demonstrated that young children make moral judgments about harm, welfare, justice, and rights, which are different from their judgments about other social domains.”

All this is consistent with my view of children as active, institutional agents.

Turiel notices that the differentiation between the societal, personal and moral domains appears early in life (at three years of age) but that doesn’t mean that it’s innate. Rather, he believes it might originate in the experiences and interactions children engage in during their first years.

Haidt on rationalism, social intuitionism and morality

 

Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: a social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814–834. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11699120

 

  1. Rationalism vs. intuitionism

Let me start by the end. This wonderful article closes with a beautiful sentence: “The time may be right, therefore, to take another look at Hume’s perverse thesis: that moral emotions and intuitions drive moral reasoning, just as surely as a dog wags its tail”.

This piece criticizes rationalist approaches in moral psychology and proposes an alternative: social intuitionism.

Rationalist approaches, according to the author, assume that moral knowledge and moral judgment are reached primarily by a process of reasoning and reflection. Intuitionist approaches, by way of contrast, claim that moral intuitions (including moral emotions) come first and directly cause moral judgments. Haidt believes that moral reasoning is usually an ex post facto process (a dog’s tail) used to influence the intuitions (and hence judgments) of other people (other dogs), and not to arrive at new moral truths.

Haidt begins by offering some affectively charged examples, such as incest and other taboo violations. For those cases, he says, an intuitionist model is more plausible than a rationalist model. He then tries to prove that the intuitionist model can handle the entire range of moral judgments.

Haidt relies on a schematic contrast between intuition and reason. Intuition, he says, occurs quickly, effortlessly, and automatically, such that the outcome but not the process is accessible to consciousness, whereas reasoning occurs more slowly, requires some effort, and involves at least some steps that are accessible to consciousness. When one uses intuition, “one sees or hears about a social event and one instantly feels approval or disapproval”.

He then suggests that research on moral development (for example, Kohlberg’s) is trapped in a vicious circle between theory and methods. Rationalist researchers assume that moral judgment results from conscious, verbal reasoning, and therefore they investigate it by using oral interviews that highlight rational discourse and obscure intuitive reactions. Standard moral judgment interviews distort our understanding of morality by boosting an unnaturally reasoned form of moral judgment, leading to the erroneous conclusion that moral judgment results from a reasoning process, and thus reinforcing the mistaken assumptions the researcher had at the very beginning of the study.

Haidt’s model posits that the intuitive process is the default process, handling everyday moral judgments in a rapid, easy, and holistic way. It is only when intuitions conflict, or when the social situation demands a thorough examination of all facets of a scenario, that the reasoning process is called upon.

  1. The social dimension

According to the social intuitionist model, moral intuitions and moral reasoning are partially shaped by culture. Given that people have no access to the processes behind their automatic evaluations, they provide justifications by consulting their a priori moral theories, i.e. culturally supplied norms for evaluating and criticizing the behavior of others. By the way, this point has been made many times in the past. Already Aristotle, in his treatise on rhetorics, describes how people use cultural commonplaces in persuasive speech to support pre-existing points of view. A priori moral theories provide acceptable reasons for praise and blame (e.g., “unprovoked harm is bad”; “people should strive to live up to God’s commandments”). The term “a priori moral theories” seems to cover roughly the aspect of culture that other scholars call social representations, ideology, background knowledge, topoi, etc.

The social intuitionist model acknowledges that moral reasoning can be effective in influencing other people. Words and ideas can make people see issues in a new way by reframing a problem and triggering new intuitions. Now, this is remarkable: Haidt refers to one of the paradigmatic rationalist philosophers–Plato!–to make the point that moral reasoning naturally occurs in social settings, for example in the context of a dialog between people who can challenge each other’s arguments and provoke new intuitions. This is an odd allusion because Plato embodies the very origin of the tradition that Haidt seems to be attacking, a tradition purporting that moral rules and beliefs ought to be established through rational discourse. When Haidt attacks this tradition, he depicts rationalists as people who think of morality as individual, internal and cognitive. So how can he refer to the same tradition to make the point that moral reasoning is social and interactive?

Haidt does not seem to acknowledge that sometimes rationalists themselves claim that morality develops through social processes and exchanges.  Piaget and Kohlberg, for example, give such social processes as much importance as Plato himself; and this is something that Haidt does not seem to recognize fully when treating Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s theories of moral development as cognitive.

More about this. Haidt makes the point that the intuitionist approach treats moral judgment style as an aspect of culture, and that educational interventions should aim at creating a culture that fosters a more balanced, reflective, and fair-minded style of judgment. At this point he says that the “just community” schools that Kohlberg created in the 1970s appear to do just that. How come this is not seen as a contradiction by Haidt?

Let me clarify. There are two important conceptual tensions to be noticed here. One is that Kohlberg is presented as the textbook moral rationalist and then as the proponent of a practical intervention that takes into account the social and cultural aspects of morality (same problem as with Plato). At this point Haidt should make clear what is going on. Either it is the case that there is an internal contradiction in Kohlberg’s system (so that he sometimes treats morality as an exclusively discursive, rational and cognitive matter, and at other times he understands it as a social and cultural process), or perhaps Kohlberg’s view of morality is subtler and more multi-layered that expected (and Haidt’s attacks are therefore aimed at a strawman). In my opinion, the second option is the case (see Donald Reed’s book on Kohlberg, “Liberalism and the practice of Democratic Community”).

The second conceptual tension comes to the fore in paragraphs such as the following: “By seeking out discourse partners who are respected for their wisdom and open-mindedness, and by talking about the evidence, justifications, and mitigating factors involved in a potential moral violation, people can help trigger a variety of conflicting intuitions in each other. If more conflicting intuitions are triggered, the final judgment is likely to be more nuanced and ultimately more reasonable.”

Here Haidt says that, even though in everyday settings morality is intuitive and automatic, in the long run it is desirable that people talk about evidence and justifications, that is, that they get involved in a rational argumentation. Most of the time, then, morality is intuitive and automatic, but it ought to be less emotional and intuitive and more rational and discursive. Now, in saying this Haidt is very close to the very tradition that he is criticizing: Plato, Piaget, Kohlberg, Rawls, etc. (but not cultural relativists like Shweder!) all say things in the same vein. Haidt seems to be close to the rationalist’s heart at this point.

The way in which Haidt articulates nature and culture, and sees innate cognitions and social modeling as complementary is interesting, and reminds me of other contemporary authors such as Michael Tomasello. I quote from Haidt’s paper:

“Morality, like language, is a major evolutionary adaptation for an intensely social species, built into multiple regions of the brain and body, that is better described as emergent than as learned yet that requires input and shaping from a particular culture.” And: “There is indeed a moral Rubicon that only Homo sapiens appears to have crossed: widespread third-party norm enforcement. Chimpanzee norms generally work at the level of private relationships, where the individual that has been harmed is the one that takes punitive action. Human societies, in contrast, are marked by a constant and vigorous discussion of norms and norm violators and by a willingness to expend individual or community resources to inflict punishment, even by those who were not harmed by the violator.”

We agree with Haidt that cognition in general and moral judgment in particular has been seen up to now as an overly intellectual matter. We agree with the turn towards embodied cognition and with the emphasis in the centrality of emotion. Also, Haidt is right in emphasizing the role of practice, repetition, and physical movement for the tuning up of cultural intuitions. “Social skills and judgmental processes that are learned gradually and implicitly then operate unconsciously, projecting their results into consciousness, where they are experienced as intuitions arising from nowhere”. “Moral development is primarily a matter of the maturation and cultural shaping of endogenous intuitions.” Perhaps he’s a bit shallow in his view of third-party norm enforcement as the mark of Homo Sapiens. Culture is certainly much more than that. Social organizations have developed explicit codes, laws, values and customs, complex representational systems, whole languages that allow humans to be aware of norms, to discuss about who is a criminal and who is virtuous, that take rule-following to a complete different level when compared even with the most advanced cases of animals’ social enforcement or punishment of anti-social behavior. But, in general, we agree with his vision of how morality operates in everyday settings.

  1. The physiological analogy

The problem with previous, prevalent views of moral reasoning seems to be that they do not represent faithfully what most people do most of the time. Haidt thus appears to use a naturalist criterion to argue that his theory overcomes the limitations and distortions of previous ones. Psychological science should be concerned with facts; the relevant fact at hand is here how people really think (most people, most of the time). It is true, for example, that most of the time we don’t spell out all the intermediate steps in moral reasoning; that our gut reactions to moral phenomena are quite automatic. This is a naturalist approach: a good theory of digestion, for example, should explain how animals digest their food in normal conditions (most animals, most of the time). Then, if I eat an inedible plant and I suffer from stomach ache and vomiting, those events should be treated as deviating from the natural, expected digestive process, and should be explained by additional, special theories about poisoning. Moral intuition performs the normal digestion of the moral fact; excessive verbal reasoning is a kind of intoxication.

The comparison between intuition (fast, effortless, automatic, unintentional, inaccessible, metaphorical, holistic, etc.) and reasoning (slow, effortful, intentional, controllable, consciously accessible and viewable, analytical, etc.) is based on this kind of physiological, functional view of the human mind.

Now, the physiological analogy, in my opinion, has some limitations. Think about this: we humans also have mathematical intuitions. If I pay with a 100 bill for something that costs $23 and I’m given a five as change I know immediately that the change is wrong. When someone asks me why, then I can offer justifications, produce an explicit calculation, but that doesn’t mean that such explicit argument was present from the beginning. It’s a justification of my point of view that I produce ex post-facto. Just as in morals. Thus it might be the case that, in many knowledge domains (math, physics, theory of mind, morality), most people, most of the time, produce automatic responses that are intuitive, effortless, quick, etc. Yet that doesn’t mean that math as a knowledge domain is irrational or purely intuitive, because mathematical rules might have been constructed according to rational criteria in the context of protracted ontogenetic or phylogenetic processes. Yet, in everyday settings, we don’t need to spell out all the intermediate steps that take us to a conclusion. We feel immediately that some things don’t make sense or are just wrong.

Let me compare this with Piaget’s theory. Although Piaget did use some biological, even physiological metaphors to account for how our mind tries to make sense of phenomena (e.g. assimilation and accommodation), he complemented this view with an epistemological approach that allowed him to characterize the domain of morality (and other domains of cognition) in a richer way. He incorporated logical, philosophical, sociological and historical considerations into his theories. For example, there is a sociological theory embedded in his differentiation between autonomous and heteronomous moral judgments. This interdisciplinary approach gives him additional criteria to decide what constitutes an interesting, relevant judgment or relevant cognition, beyond the naturalistic criterion of what most people do, most of the time.

When an individual has to deal with a typical moral transgression (a robbery, an act of selfishness, an unnecessary insult against an innocent victim) from within an unquestioned paradigm, then her moral reaction is automatic, intuitive, quick, just as if someone were to ask her “how much is 2 + 2”? But when the situation is new, or when it awakens contradictory moral convictions, then it may trigger a more explicit thinking process, an inner dialogue that in some cases might take her to new insights. Piagetian theory, by the way, gives a precise account of the distinction between experiences that are easily assimilated to the individual’s current conceptual framework and those that trigger cognitive conflict and, eventually, favor conceptual change. This contrast between paradigm continuity and revolution (to use Kuhn’s terms) is familiar to Piagetian psychologists. Again, Piaget takes into account structural and normative aspects of cognition and goes beyond a pure functional, physiological view that is simply interested in what most people do most of the time. Conceptual change might be something that happens rarely, but it might be interesting and relevant once one adopts a richer view of knowledge processes.

Another metaphor: once the roads are built, yes, it is true that cars tend to travel the same roads over and over again, without thinking about the direction they must go. But sometimes psychologists need to take a step back and think about how new roads are constructed (or abandoned). That’s what constructivism focuses on.

  1. The legal analogy

Haidt says: “The reasoning process is more like a lawyer defending a client than a judge or scientist seeking truth”. He stresses that moral reasoning is not free, that it resembles a lawyer employed only to seek confirmation of preordained conclusions.

Again, it is true that this is how most people reason, most of the time. This is how we think and interact with each other in everyday settings, while pursuing our particular goals. It was already noticed by Aristotle, in his treatise on Rhetoric, that people first offer conclusions and then search for supporting arguments (the opposite order to what we use when we try to present arguments according to logical standards.)

Yet: lawyers are not natural creatures, but they are necessary gears within a legal machine. Where there is a lawyer, there will also be a more complex legal ecosystem that includes other agents and roles. A lawyer, for example, presents her case to a judge, in order to prevail against an opposing party.

Think about it this way: even a scientist acts like a lawyer! When Haidt says: “… a judge or scientist seeking truth” a sociologist of science would disagree with the comparison. A scientist is not an objective judge, she’s an individual human being with particular interests. Yes, she wants to know the truth, but she also is fond of some particular hypothesis, intellectual traditions, lines of research, and tends to be partial, to favor some hypotheses over competing alternatives. And in her career, she has associated herself with such a hypothesis or line of work, and does not want to dilapidate her investment. She has a lot at stake. She’s closer to the lawyer than to the judge (ask Bourdieu, Kuhn, and many others…). It is only as a result of a whole adversarial process that a scientific community, in due time, can start recognizing one of the competing theories as closer to the truth, thus playing the role of judge. It takes lawyers, witnesses and judges to determine the truth within an adversarial system. This is what is called dialectics.

In other words: in thinking of the moral reasoner (or arguer) as a lawyer, Haidt does not distance himself from rationalism. On the contrary, he depicts the moral reasoner as part of a rational, intersubjective process. And he seems to acknowledge this:

“In the social intuitionist view, moral judgment is not just a single act that occurs in a single person’s mind but is an ongoing process, often spread out over time and over multiple people. Reasons and arguments can circulate and affect people, the fact that there are at least a few people among us who can reach such conclusions on their own and then argue for them eloquently (Link 3) means that pure moral reasoning can play a causal role in the moral life of a society.”

Now Haidt should make a decision here. He can either keep on insisting that the interesting, central part of moral judgments is the automatic, intuitive, moral reaction that takes place “inside” the individual, and that persuasion is a causal, lineal “link” by which an individual cognitive system impacts on another cognitive system (“causes” it to change a point of view). Or else, that there is a rational, intersubjective process of moral reflection that exceeds what an individual does at a particular moment, that is played out on the cultural stage, and that can be seen as rational from a larger perspective: social and historical processes of moral elaboration.

 

Children see property as nonfungible

 

McEwan, S., Pesowski, M. L., & Friedman, O. (2016). Identical but not interchangeable: Preschoolers view owned objects as non-fungible. Cognition, 146, 16–21. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2015.09.011

This is another great article by Ori Friedman’s team. They did three experiments to find out whether children see owned objects as fungible (i.e., as replaceable or interchangeable). In Experiment 1, children considered an agent who takes one of two identical objects and leaves the other for a peer. When considering a scenario where a boy took one of two identical objects home, and left the other for a girl, preschoolers viewed his behavior as more acceptable when he took his own item, rather than the girl’s.

In Experiment 2, children considered scenarios where one agent took property from another. When considering a scenario where a boy deprived a girl of her balloon, preschoolers judged it acceptable for the girl to take back her own balloon; but they judged it unacceptable for her to take the boy’s balloon, even though it was the only balloon available to compensate her.

Finally, in Experiment 3A and 3B, children considered scenarios where a teacher could give a child either of two objects to play with—an object that the child had recently played with, or another object that looked the same. When considering a scenario where a teacher could give a boy one of two identical-looking balls to play with, preschoolers were more likely to say she should return the ball that the boy had previously played with when it belonged to him, compared with when it was her own.

These findings indicate that children see property as non-fungible.

Previous studies showed that children at these ages show concern for owners’ rights to an object. McEwan et al.’s findings extend knowledge by showing that these concerns persist even when an identical replacement is available to the other. The fact that children at these ages already show intuitions of non-fungibility indicates that such intuitions are an early development, and perhaps foundational in people’s reasoning about ownership. People view ownership as granting people rights to particular objects (i.e., rather than to objects of a certain type).

These are all very relevant and important findings that add detail to current knowledge about the development of ownership.

One conceptual doubt. The fact that children say that it’s not ok to take the perpetrator’s object may not mean that children literally see identical objects as interchangeable. In my opinion, this last statement presupposes a “physicalist” view of the world, understood as a collection of free floating objects with certain physical characteristics that make them different or identical, and placed in certain positions within a 3D space. An alternative view is that children, when they respond to the interviewer, are judging the actions and intentions of the characters, in the context of a social situation that includes objects. And, as Gelman says, objects have histories. So children may think something like “it’s not ok to take someone else’s property even if they took yours first”. It is also more likely that they think in terms of particular objects, not in terms of classes or categories of objects. So the concepts of “identical” or “interchangeable” may not play a role in children’s reasoning. Also, the difference between responses to the balloon situation and the cookie situation might be due to the fact that children take into account the actions of the perpetrators, and perhaps her intentions. It’s not the same popping a balloon accidentally than eating a cookie purposefully.

Great article.

Pinker on moral realism

I’ve recently read an old opinion piece by Steven Pinker (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/13/magazine/13Psychology-t.html).

It’s a brilliant article. It summarizes current trends on the scientific study of morality. As I frequently do, I will focus on a tiny aspect of his argument.

In addition to a review of the intellectual landscape in this domain, towards the end Pinker integrates different recent findings and prevalent theories into the theoretical position of “moral realism”. By this expression, he means that morality is not just the result of a number of arbitrary conventions or contingent historical traditions. There are, rather, objective and universal reasons why fundamental moral rules are universally valid. There are moral truths just as there are mathematical truths. Let me quote him:

“This throws us back to wondering where those reasons could come from, if they are more than just figments of our brains. They certainly aren’t in the physical world like wavelength or mass. The only other option is that moral truths exist in some abstract Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the same way that mathematical truths (according to most mathematicians) are there for us to discover. On this analogy, we are born with a rudimentary concept of number, but as soon as we build on it with formal mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical reality forces us to discover some truths and not others. (No one who understands the concept of two, the concept of four and the concept of addition can come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.”

So, just as Stan Dehaene talks about a “number sense”, Pinker talks about a “moral sense”. Just as there is a mathematical reality and mathematical facts, there is a moral reality and moral facts.

According to Pinker, moral realism is supported by two arguments:

1) Zero-sum games are games in which one party has to lose in order for the other to win. In nonzero-sum games, by way of contrast, win-win solutions are possible. Now, in many everyday situations, agents are better off when they act in a generous (as opposed to selfish) way. Thus, these everyday situations can be analyzed (in terms of game theory) as “nonzero-sum games.” His words: “You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys.”

Pinker does not explain this first argument clearly, but he seems to imply that societies respond to a number of constraints by developing norms and structures (such as reciprocity or mutual respect). A group or social organization that enforces the rules of reciprocity, mutual respect, authority, etc., is probably more stable, and it’s in a position to deliver more good to a greater number of members, as compared with a group that does not enforce those standards. This is not a new theory. It is already postulated by Plato (a defender of both mathematical realism and moral realism) in the Republic. It is also advanced, with different nuances, by more recent authors such as Hegel, Piaget, Quine, and others.

Now, in what sense might concepts like “just” or “moral” be real? Only in the sense of being a kind of “pattern” or “form” that regulates human interaction (they are “ideal realities”, not physical realities). Where might such patterns, such ideal realities, come from? They grow out of natural evolution and cultural history; they develop in human experience, relationships, “praxis” (as a Marxist would say). But if “moral truths” emerge from (are conditional on) natural and cultural history, and history is woven by the actions of free humans, can we still say that there is a universal, binding, “true morality”? Is such a “true” form of justice or morality valid for any possible individual or any possible society? At this point, everything gets blurry and fuzzy. My opinion is that, yes, there is one true universal morality, but that it is true in the context of our specific world history. So, ultimately, moral truths are not absolute (nothing is absolute unless you believe in god), but conditional on human nature, human history and human culture. They are real and universal within this context.

I quote Pinker again: “The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.”

“Not coincidentally, the core of this idea — the interchangeability of perspectives — keeps reappearing in history’s best-thought-through moral philosophies, including the Golden Rule (itself discovered many times); Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity; the Social Contract of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance.”

“Morality, then, is still something larger than our inherited moral sense.”

This second aspect, that one might call “generalized reciprocity”, simply consists in recognizing that others have the same rights that we demand for ourselves. This may have a cost in the short term (I cannot rape your daughter or loot your farm) but it will pay off in the long run (I feel that my land and my family are safer, which is a higher good). In our market-penetrated, contractual society, this reciprocal consideration takes the form of an ability to adopt, in everyday discourse, the point of view of others, overcoming our limited perspective and progressively approaching an inter-subjective or trans-subjective point of view. But, against Pinker, I don’t think that this is a different point than the previous one; it is rather a facet of it. Human societies have developed, throughout history, a more complex, democratic, and in some ways egalitarian structure; at the same time, markets have become central institutions of modern societies. Argument 1 is: societies have evolved internal structures that respond to certain constraints. From there, one can derive argument 2: such societies have tended to make generalized reciprocity both a relational pattern and a moral ideal.

Ernest Gellner on science and society

Text #18: Gellner, E. (1984). The scientific status of the social sciences. International Social Science Journal, 36, 567-586.

This is a well-written and sharp article which touches upon several connected themes. For example: reasons for the current prestige of science; relations between social and natural sciences; role of science in modern society; economic impact of scientific activities; descriptive and normative uses of epistemology; whether the social sciences are scientific, and in what sense; what should happen for the social sciences to achieve an undisputable scientific status. And many others that I will not discuss.

I will only refer to one of the topics Gellner discusses: the social nature of science. Gellner distinguishes between different degrees of “sociologization” of science:

  • Philosophical epistemologies assume that science can be a one-person enterprise. Inductivism and logical positivism fall in this category. “The practitioner of this approach works in terms of some kind of model of discovery or of the acquisition of knowledge, where the elements in that model are items drawn from individual activities, such as having ideas, experiences, setting up experiments, relating the lessons of experience or the results of experiments to generalizations based on the initial ideas, and so forth. An extreme individualistic theory of science would be one that offered a theory and a demarcation of science without ever going beyond the bounds of a model constructed in this way. Such a theory might concede or even stress that, in fact, scientists are very numerous and that they habitually co-operate and communicate with each other. But it would treat this as somehow contingent and inessential. A Robinson Crusoe could, for such a theory, practise science. Given resources, longevity, ingenuity and ability, no achievement of science as we know it would, “in principle”, be beyond his powers. Those who hold theories of this kind are not debarred from admitting that, in fact, criticism, testing and corroboration are, generally speaking, social activities, and that they depend for their effectiveness on a mathematical, technological and institutional infrastructure, which is far beyond the power of any individual to establish; but they are, I suppose, committed to holding that whether or not a social environment makes these preconditions available is, as it were, an external condition of science, but not in any essential way part of it.”
    I think many current cognitivist and developmental psychologists who view knowledge acquisition as an individual skill or activity also fall in Gellner’s description (think Gopnik).
  • First-degree sociologization of science: society constitutes an essential precondition for the existence of science, but only society as such, and not necessarily this or that kind of society. Think Émile Durkheim here.
  • A second degree of the sociologizing of the theory of science involves insisting not merely on the presence of a society, but of a special kind of society. Popper’s theory of science seems to be of this kind: society is not enough, science requires the “critical spirit”. Closed societies cannot engender science but an “open society” can do so. An open society is one in which men subject each other’s views to criticism, and which either possesses institutional underpinning for such a practice, or at least lacks the institutional means for inhibiting it. Science is the kind of institution that is not at the mercy of the virtues or vices of persons. Public testing by a diversified and uncontrollable community of scientists ensures the ultimate elimination of faulty ideas, however dogmatic and irrational their individual adherents may be. In this version, science and its advancement clearly does depend on the institutional underpinning of this public and plural testing.
    Thomas Kuhn also sociologizes science to the second degree. For him, the crucial difference between science-capable and science-incapable societies is the absence or presence of a paradigm. Kuhn, however, does not seem to distinguish between scientific and unscientific paradigms. For Popper, the only science capable society is one endowed with institutional guarantees of the possibility or even the encouragement of criticism; for Kuhn, science is made possible only by the presence of social conceptual control sufficiently tight to impose a paradigm on its member’s at most times. Paradigms are binding only by social pressure, which thus makes science possible. Unless the deep questions are arbitrarily prejudged, science cannot proceed.
  • Gellner’s position is that, to define science, one needs to sociologize the philosophy of science to the third degree. This means considering the features and activities of society that do not pertain to their cognitive activities alone. (There is something strange in Gellner’s argument here, because Popper’s and Kuhn’s theories, as described by Gellner, seem to include non-cognitive, i.e. institutional aspects of social life). In order to clarify his point, Gellner describes three crucial stages of human history:
    1. Societies that practice hunting and food gathering. He doesn’t talk about knowledge in these societies, but we know these are societies that organize their wisdom in myths (folk tales, oral traditions, etc.)
    2. Societies oriented towards food production, mainly agriculture and pastoralism. These societies are literate and are governed by a centralized political class. Recorded knowledge in such societies is used for administrative records, notably those connected with taxation; for communication along a political and religious hierarchy; and as parts of ritual and for the codification of religious doctrine. Conservation of the written truth is the central concern here, rather than its expansion.
    3. Societies based on production, which is linked to growing scientific knowledge. Here he includes all modern and post-modern societies: the continuously growing technology they engender is immeasurably superior to, and qualitatively distinct from, the practical skills of the craftsmen of agrarian society. In this society, the question is no longer “what is truth, wisdom or genuine knowledge?” Rather, science is seen as the key to expand and optimize the productive processes of society. A society endowed with a powerful and continuously growing technology lives by innovation, and its occupational role structure is perpetually in flux. Science in such societies is trans-social, trans-cultural, explicit, formalized and abstract knowledge.

If you have read my other posts in this blog, you already know what my position about this topic is. While I endorse a third-degree sociologization of science, I follow in this respect authors like Hegel, J-P Vernant and J. Samaja, who emphasize the relation between the social structure of society and the production of knowledge. Gellner, by way of contrast, thinks that theories of historical stages in terms of social organization do not work. The way he makes science depend on productive processes (on the economic features of society) seems more traditionally Marxist (which is ironic, given that he’s usually recognized as an anti-Marxist).

To own your own life

Texts #16 & #17

Here is a brief comment about a couple of books I’ve read lately. I’ve come to the conclusion that the topic of ownership is underrated, and that an examination of our lives helps us recognize that ownership is central to our everyday existence and to our human condition in general. To own oneself seems to be the core of our existence as persons. Before we can become masters of the objects around us, we need to take possession of ourselves. Self-ownership is something that we tend to take for granted (and therefore we don’t talk about it).

The intuition of the centrality of self-ownership is presupposed by different philosophical and psychological texts. It can be traced in Freud’s doctrine of narcissism and self-eroticism,  Heidegger’s concept of Eigentlichkeit, Plato’s (and Kant’s) insistence on self-government, Nietzsche’s comments on freedom. All these authors seem to believe that the individual needs to own herself, to govern herself, to be her own sovereign, in order to exist. (Depending on the author and the context, this might be: to have a body, to be a person, to be authentic, to be free, just, or happy).

Literature also plays with self-ownership… and the lack thereof. For example, there is Selva Almada’s Chicas Muertas, which narrates the murders of four young women in Argentina in the 80s, and the author’s journey to find traces of their lives and reconstruct their deaths. Above all, Almada tries desperately to recover the victims’ voice. This makes you realize that, in the case of gender violence and extreme abuse, the victim loses control over basic things we take for granted in our everyday life: her voice, her body, her life. Someone else has taken hold of those basic aspects of a person’s existence.

To mention a very different book now, but one also written by a young contemporary and talented woman, there’s Nicole Krauss’ the history of love, which tells the story of Leo Gursky (and Alma, and her mom and brother…). Leo is a man that has lost everything, basically as a consequence of the Holocaust. He has lost his village, his country, his family, the woman he loved, the book he wrote, the contact with his only child. The result is half-a-man, a man that sees his own existence as diminished because of his losses. A man that is alive but who doesn’t exist, because he owns nothing.

I don’t want to elaborate about these points excessively, but please read the books and you’ll see I’m right.

 

Chicas muertas: http://www.cuspide.com/9789873650260/Chicas+Muertas/

History of love: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_History_of_Love

Children value ideas over labor

Text #15

Li, V., Shaw, A., & Olson, K. R. (2013). Ideas versus labor : What do children value in artistic creation ? COGNITION, 127(1), 38–45. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2012.11.001

The procedure is simple: have an adult direct a child making a work of art (so that the adult is contributing the guiding ideas while the child is contributing “brute” labor). Then, reverse the roles: have the child supply the guiding idea while the adult follows directions and executes the work of art. Finally, have the child chose which final product she prefers to take home with her: the one that incorporated her effort or the one that reflects her idea?

In a second experiment, the researchers used a similar situation but now they tricked the subjects so that children believed that the drawing contained their ideas when it actually contained the adult’s idea (and vice versa, they believed that the drawing which they had actually created while being directed by an adult was the one that incorporated their ideas).

In a third experiment, they used a third person narrative to lay out a comparison between someone who contributes labor and someone who contributes ideas to the creation of an object. Who should keep the resulting product?

These studies demonstrated that by 6 years old, children value ideas over physical labor. Six year olds systematically chose pictures that contained their own ideas over pictures that contained their labor, even when they were merely tricked into believing that they had come up with the idea for a picture that they had not. Further, 6 year olds demonstrated a general appreciation of ideas – they not only valued their own ideas (Studies 1 and 2), but also privileged idea creators over laborers in a property dispute (Study 3). In contrast, 4 year olds appear to have preferred pictures that contained their specific idiosyncratic preferences. Four year olds preferred pictures containing their ideas, but also their idiosyncratic preferences in Study 1 and pictures they believed contained their labor but also their idiosyncratic preferences in Study 2. Further supporting this possibility, in Study 3 where idiosyncratic preferences could not play a role in selection, 4 year olds showed no bias for either a third-party idea creator or laborer. Six year olds, by way of contrast, sided with the idea creators in third-party case, even when they personally had no connection to the idea.

The age effect in these studies may exist because 6, but not 4 year olds, understand that ideas are valuable and can thus be owned.

In conclusion, the tendency to value ideas is present in childhood and may emerge between 4 and 6 years old. 6 year olds value ideas over labor even when making third-party judgments, favoring those who only contributed ideas as more deserving of a picture over those who only contributed labor.

Kanngiesser & Hood on children’s understanding of ownership rights for newly made objects

Text #14

Kanngiesser, P., & Hood, B. M. (2014). Young children’s understanding of ownership rights for newly made objects. Cognitive Development, 29(1), 30–40.

This is a great paper. To begin with, Kanngiesser & Hood make a beautiful, succinct summary of the state of the art in the field of ownership development. I feel tempted to paste it here:

“Infants begin to show an understanding of ownership relationships between 1.5 and 2 years of age when they first use possessive pronouns like “mine” and “yours” (Hay, 2006; Tomasello, 1998) and identify owners of familiar objects such as their mother’s toothbrush (Fasig, 2000). From two years of age children infer ownership of unfamiliar objects based on first possession, attributing ownership to the person who possessed an object first (Friedman & Neary, 2008). At 2.5 years of age they are able to learn ownership relationships between out of view objects and their owners (Blake & Harris, 2011). These abilities become more refined at three years of age, when children use object history to infer ownership (Friedman, Van de Vondervoort, Defeyter, & Neary, 2013; Gelman, Manczak, & Noles, 2012) and apply ownership rules such as ascribing ownership to a person who grants/denies permission to use an object (Neary, Friedman, & Burnstein, 2009) or who invested effort in making a new object (Kanngiesser, Gjersoe, & Hood, 2010). Yet, not until four years of age do children prioritize verbal ownership statements over physical possession of objects (Blake, Ganea, & Harris, 2012). Taken together, these findings suggest that children’s understanding of ownership relationships manifests at two years of age and becomes more sophisticated during the preschool years.”

The previous paragraph deals with “ownership conditions,” i.e. how children determine who owns what. Then they use a separate paragraph to describe the state of the art concerning “ownership implications,” i.e. children’s understanding of ownership rights.

“Relating owners to their property, however, is only one ability necessary for developing a concept of ownership. Few studies have directly investigated at what age children start to appreciate the normative implications of ownership, i.e., that it is associated with certain rights that are respected and reinforced by a community. By age two children frequently defend their possessions (or possessions they were told were theirs) against take-over attempts by others (Eisenberg-Berg, Haake, & Bartlett, 1981; Hay & Ross, 1982) and begin to show respect for others’ ownership of objects (Ross, 1996), providing some evidence for an early understanding of an owner’s exclusive access to his or her property. In contrast, studies presenting children with third party ownership stories have shown that it is not until age 4–5 that children appreciate different ownership rights (Kim & Kalish, 2009) or differentiate between legitimate (gift giving) and illegitimate (stealing) transfers of ownership (Blake & Harris, 2009). Yet, more recently, Rossano and colleagues (2011) demonstrated that 2- and 3-year olds protested against property rights violations when their own property was at stake, but that only 3-year-olds also interfered when a third party’s ownership rights were violated. This suggests that by age 3 children are already aware of the normative structure of some rights for personal property, i.e., that property rights do not apply only to one’s own possessions but to others’ possessions, too.”

The paper then describes two experiments. In Experiment 1, they have a puppet taking away an object the child has just created out of raw materials provided by the researcher–or, alternatively,  that a third person (an experimenter) has just made, and monitor children’s protests. After registering children’s spontaneous protests (or lack thereof) they explicitly asked children who the object’s owner was. Experiment 2 is similar to experiment one except that the objects at stake are raw materials and not newly made objects.

Conclusions:

“ We found that 2- and 3-year-olds protested when their own objects were at stake, making spontaneous references to ownership when protesting (e.g., “Mine.”). Thus, young children do not only appreciate their ownership rights with respect to personal property items (Rossano et al., 2011), but also with respect to newly made objects. Children’s ownership claims regarding their objects were specific to the investment of effort (Kanngiesser et al., 2010), as children who had only played with unchanged materials displayed very little ownership protest. Overall, our results support the view that by three years of age, children not only can connect owners to property (Blake & Harris, 2011; Fasig, 2000; Friedman & Neary, 2008), but also show appreciation of at least some ownership rights (Rossano et al., 2011). In contrast to other studies, young children in our study intervened little against the puppet’s attempts to keep a third party’s objects.”

Kanngiesser & Hood also conclude that “most 3-year-olds in our study recognized a third party’s ownership of her newly made objects when they were asked direct ownership questions, suggesting that 3-year-olds may have lacked the motivation rather than the competence to protest against violations of a third party’s ownership rights”, so it can be argued that “3-year-olds viewed the investment of effort into creating new objects – but not the mere handling of materials – as sufficient for establishing ownership of previously un-owned materials.”

One might argue, however, that the key factor here is creation (which involves both having an idea about what to make, and actually investing effort in creating an object) and not simply invested labor or effort. (As Levene et al make clear in Levene, M., Starmans, C., & Friedman, O. (2015). Creation in judgments about the establishment of ownership. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 60, 103–109.)

Finally, “The most remarkable finding in our studies is that 3-year-olds are capable of attributing ownership to a third party and yet they seldom intervene when the third party’s possessions are at stake. There are two possible explanations. Three-year-olds’ understanding of the social consequences of ownership (such as violations of ownership rights) may lag behind their ability to track ownership relationships. Two-year-olds track ownership relationships (Fasig, 2000; Hay, 2006), but at age 3 children already interfere in ownership conflicts on behalf of a third party (Rossano et al., 2011). Moreover 3-year-olds have been found to regularly intervene in a variety of situations involving violations of conventional and moral norms (Rakoczy et al., 2008; Schmidt, Rakoczy, & Tomasello, 2012; Vaish et al., 2011). Our discrepant findings thus may not reflect different developmental trajectories but rather different task demands. While answering ownership questions only requires the child to point to or to name a person, intervention in ownership violations requires an assessment of the social situation and, importantly, a motivation to act on behalf of a third party.”