Category Archives: a sense of justice

Egalistarism and parochialism in young children

Fehr, E., Bernhard, H., & Rockenbach, B. (2008). Egalitarianism in young children. Nature, 454(7208), 1079–1083.

This is a classic and crucial study. The authors use an extremely simple experimental design (inspired in previous work with non-human primates) to test the hypothesis of a parallel development of children’s egalitarianism and parochialism. Children between 3 and 8 years of age are presented three situations:

  • Prosocial: either take one candy and assign one candy to another child, or take one candy and assign none to another child ((1,1) vs. (1,0).
  • Envy: either take one candy and assign one candy to another child, or take one candy and assign two candies to another child ((1,1) vs. (1,2).
  • Costly sharing: either take one candy and assign one candy to another child, or take two candies and assign none to another child ((1,1) vs. (2,0).

The study shows that children, as they grow, aim at reducing the inequality between themselves and their partner, regardless of whether the inequality is to their advantage or disadvantage.

The authors found that children at age 3–4 show little willingness to share resources (as tested by the sharing situation) but a non-negligible percentage of the children is willing to make choices that benefit the recipient if it is not costly (in the envy and prosocial situations). After this age, other-regarding preferences develop, which take the form of inequality aversion instead of a preference for increasing the partner’s or the joint payoff.

Thus, across the three situations, egalitarian choices increase with age. “If we pool the children’s choices in all three games, the percentage of children who preferred the egalitarian allocation in all three games increases from 4% at age 3–4 to 30% at age 7–8.” Also, “(…) the share of subjects who maximize the partner’s payoff by choosing both (1,1) in the prosocial game and (1,2) in the envy game decreases sharply from 43% at age 3–4 to 16% at age 7–8.” Egalitarianism rises as generosity declines.

This emphasis on equality (or inequality aversion) seems to be uniquely human; no animal shows a comparable behavioral pattern.

In addition, children (especially boys) seem to show an in-group bias. For example, in the envy game, boys tend to do egalitarian distributions (1,1) rather than generous distributions (1,2) more with the outgroup than with the ingroup. The effects of parochialism are also apparent in the other situations: In the prosocial game, the children remove inequality that favors themselves more often if the partner is an ingroup member. In the sharing game, egalitarian choices slightly decrease over time if the partner is an outgroup member, whereas sharing with ingroup members strongly increases with age

The conclusion is not only that egalitarianism and parochialism are important forces driving children’s judgments, but also that is that a utilitarian ethics seems absent from children’s minds. In other words, children do not try to maximize the total sum of benefits for everybody. That is why, in the “envy” situation, children (at least after 5 or 6 years of age) tend to prefer (1,1) over (1,2); that is, egalitarianism trumps maximization of benefits. Utilitarianism is not a factor in children’s reasoning. Equality aversion and parochialism grow between 3 and 8 years of age and explain children’s responses.

Comparing this paper with other studies, it is interesting to note that equality is said to appear at 5, or 6, or 7 or 8 years of age depending on the study, the methodology used and the way the results are interpreted (e.g., Rochat says that children at 5 are already steady defenders of strict equality and that they even can adopt an ethical stance, when they are willing to sacrifice their own resources to punish an agent that is not observing equality).

In addition, it is relevant to understand young children’s (3 and 4 year-olds) apparent discrepant or erratic behavior (sometimes they are generous, at other times they are selfish). In a previous study I claimed that the reason for this is that those children “don’t frame their relationships in terms of strict-reciprocity (tit for tat) contracts. It should be no surprise that their behavior in economic games and fairness experiments is consistent with a culture of associative reciprocity and the gift economy, which predominate in the context of familial institutions and peer relationships at this age. Preschoolers might appear as non-strategic from the point of view of economists who identify rationality with calculating the best means to achieve a desired end-result (individual profit, equality, etc.), but they are actually well adapted to their real social context. (…)  The apparently selfish tendencies of 3-year-olds moderate themselves as children mature, so that between five and seven years of age (depending on the specific study) children start demanding fairness and rejecting inequality. In certain cases, they even embrace an ethical stance and engage in costly punishment. This emerging mindset is in harmony with the strict reciprocity embedded in experiences such as bartering with peers or dealing with money and prices, which gain prominence in children’s daily life as they grow up. In the culture of adults, barter and monetary transactions are considered fair when both parties receive an equivalent value. Similarly, fair distributions between partners with the same merit are expected to be 50/50. This kind of institutional context comes to dominate children’s interactions and provides them with a new sense of fairness.”

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.

Pinker on moral realism

I’ve recently read an old opinion piece by Steven Pinker (

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.

Kanngiesser on children’s application of the merit principle

Text #9

Kanngiesser, P., & Warneken, F. (2012). Young Children Consider Merit when Sharing Resources with Others. PLoS ONE, 7(8).

This is a great paper. It tackles the classic problem of merit as a principle of fairness (or of distributive justice): rewards should be distributed according to how much someone contributed to a task.

Kanngiesser and Warneken did two studies about children’s application of the merit principle. They made children play against a puppet at a game of collecting (“fishing”) coins that were later exchanged for rewards. They varied the work-contribution of both partners by manipulating how many coins each partner collected. Three- and five-year-olds kept, on average, significantly more stickers for themselves in the more-work condition than in the less-work condition. Children, in other words, kept fewer stickers in trials in which they had contributed less than in trials in which they had contributed more than the partner, showing that they took merit into account. Therefore, it seems that three- and five year- old children already use merit to share resources with others, even when sharing is costly for the child.

Although this appears to show that children take merit into account to calibrate their responses, it should also be noted that children almost never give away more than half of the stickers when the partner had worked more. “Even though children were clearly able to consider different work contributions, this tendency was constrained by a self-serving bias.” Thus, merit-based sharing is also mixed with or calibrated by the egotistic, self-serving bias documented by Rochat and many others.

The paper also presents a similar, second study, that shows that children’s sharing behavior is not just determined by their own absolute work-effort. Rather, children appear to take into account their own and their partner’s relative contributions when allocating resources. (Therefore, there  is some kind of elemental proportional or relational thinking here). “Young children can use comparisons between work-contribution to allocate resources.”

Movies used for our research on children’s understanding of theft

Here are the links to the movies shown to children:

Condition 1, control 1
Condition 1, control 2
Condition 2, control 1
Condition 2, control 2

Bertrand Russell on the analogy between truth and justice

The following quote belongs to the penultimate paragraph of Bertrand Russell’s “Problems of Philosophy”:

The impartiality which, in contemplation, is the unalloyed desire for truth, is the very same quality of mind which, in action, is justice, and in emotion is that universal love which can be given to all, and not only to those who are judged useful or admirable. Thus contemplation enlarges not only the objects of our thoughts, but also the objects of our actions and our affections: it makes us citizens of the universe, not only of one walled city at war with all the rest. In this citizenship of the universe consists man’s true freedom, and his liberation from the thraldom of narrow hopes and fears.

This is one more beautiful example of the point I’ve made over and over again, and that you can find, expressed in different ways, in such varied authors such as Plato, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Jean Piaget, Charles Peirce, Jean-Pierre Vernant and many others: that there is a fundamental analogy between truth and justice; and that this analogy does not merely consist in a formal similarity between both concepts, but stems from a common, deeper source: the struggle for justice in the realm of the practical affairs of mankind has evolved into the search for truth in the theoretical realm.