Book: Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

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Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

Paul Bloom, the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology

(Crown)

From John Locke to Sigmund Freud, philosophers and psychologists have long believed that humans begin life as blank moral slates. Many people take for granted that babies are born selfish and that it is the role of society — and especially parents — to transform them from “little sociopaths” into civilized beings.

In “Just Babies,” Paul Bloom argues that humans are in fact hardwired with a sense of morality. Drawing on his research at Yale, Bloom demonstrates that, even before they can speak or walk, babies judge the goodness and badness of others’ actions; feel empathy and compassion; act to soothe those in distress; and have a rudimentary sense of justice.

 Still, he contends, this innate morality is limited, sometimes tragically. People are naturally hostile to strangers, prone to parochialism and bigotry.

Bringing together insights from psychology, behavioral economics, evolutionary biology, and philosophy, Bloom explores how people have come to surpass these limitations. Along the way, he examines the morality of chimpanzees, violent psychopaths, religious extremists, and Ivy League professors, and explores often puzzling moral feelings about sex, politics, religion, and race. 
In his analysis of the morality of children and adults, Bloom rejects the fashionable view that moral decisions are driven mainly by gut feelings and unconscious biases. Just as reason has driven great scientific discoveries, he argues, it is reason and deliberation that makes possible moral discoveries, such as the wrongness of slavery. Ultimately, it is through imagination, compassion, and the capacity for rational thought that humans can transcend the primitive sense of morality they were born with, becoming more than just babies.

This book is included on the suggested reading list for “Moralities of Everyday Life,” a course Paul Bloom will offer on Coursera beginning Jan. 20, 2014.