Category Archives: normativity

Paulus & Moore On Recipient-Dependent Sharing Behavior and Expectations

This study aimed at investigating developmental changes in 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children’s sharing behavior and their expectations of others’ sharing. Children were administered two tasks. In the Self task, they could distribute valuable items between themselves and a friend or a disliked peer; in the Other task, they were asked to predict how another agent would distribute valuable items between himself and a friend or a disliked peer. Additionally, whether sharing was costly for the agents or not was manipulated. Three results:

  1. Basic prosocial orientation: Children of all age groups behaved more prosocially and expected more prosocial behavior from another protagonist when the choice bore no cost. This is kind of an obvious result in view of the existing literature. Previous studies have shown that children act prosocially from early on and distribute resources equally between others. Children also have a corresponding expectation that others will behave prosocially. Even 2-year-olds show a sensitivity for equal distributions in a looking-time task. By 3 years, children showed a general disposition to expect that someone will share with others; at this age, children possess an undifferentiated expectation that humans behave prosocially toward each other.
  2. Recipient-dependent sharing: However, 4- and 5-year-old children, but not 3-year-old children, differentiated between a friend and a disliked peer as potential recipients in the sharing and the sharing expectation tasks. Thus, the study found developmental changes, with 3-year-old children not differentiating between different recipients (the 3-year-old children decided to act prosocially in the majority of trials) and 4- and 5-year-old children showing a clear differentiation. The 4- and 5-year-old children expected someone to share more with a friend than with a disliked peer, indicating specific expectations of how the relationship between an agent and another person affects the probability of showing prosocial behavior. This shows that the undifferentiated expectation that people generally share with others becomes differentiated in the course of the preschool period.
  3. Relationship between first-person behavior and third-person expectations: The same developmental trend was found for children’s own sharing and their expectations of other people’s sharing behavior, suggesting that both show a parallel developmental progression on a group level. Moreover, at 5 years of age, but not at 3 or 4 years, sharing behavior and sharing expectations were on a personal level closely related to each other. In other terms, a within-subject relation was found between 5-year-old children’s own sharing behavior and their sharing expectations. In conclusion, the relation between sharing behavior and sharing expectations emerges strongly at 5 years of age.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.”

Warneken & Tomasello – Emergence of contingent reciprocity in young children

Paper #7

Warneken, F., & Tomasello, M. (2013). The emergence of contingent reciprocity in young children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 116(2), 338–350.

This is another crucial study by Tomasello and his team. The researchers designed games to be played individually by the toddlers participating in the study. The child and the researcher would play in parallel, side by side. At some point the child would need more resources to continue playing and these would have to be provided by the researcher; later the researcher would lack resources and the child would have the opportunity to either help the researcher or defect. As the authors put it: “we gave 2- and 3-year-old children the opportunity to either help or share with a partner after that partner either had or had not previously helped or shared with the children. Previous helping did not influence children’s helping. In contrast, previous sharing by the partner led to greater sharing in 3-year-olds but not in 2-year-olds.”

These results do not support theories claiming either that reciprocity is fundamental to the origins of children’s prosocial behavior or that it is irrelevant. Instead, they support an account in which children’s prosocial behavior emerges spontaneously but is later mediated by reciprocity.

It is not until 3.5 years of age that children modulate their sharing contingent on the partner’s antecedent behavior. Children first develop prosocial tendencies (already present in babies or young toddlers) and later those tendencies become mediated by reciprocal strategies. Helping and sharing emerge before children begin to worry about direct reciprocity. Later in development, they seem to become more sensitive to reciprocity, adjusting their prosocial behavior accordingly.