Just Babies

I recently finished reading Just Babies (The Origins of Good and Evil) by Paul Bloom.

The title is a play on the word “Just” as in “merely” but also as in “having a sense of fairness”.

The book was very enjoyable and enlightening. Much of the early section is, indeed, about babies and fascinating, well-designed, experiments that get at what moral qualities are innate (or perhaps the capacities for very early development of them are innate). But, there are many more sections dealing with areas of morality such as empathy and compassion, fairness, status, and punishment, “Others,” bodies, families, religion, custom, and reason.

There’s a lot that I liked about this book. One is that the style is clear and smart, but always easy for the nonprofessional to absorb and enjoy. The different points are presented in bite-sized chunks, so I think you could read any five pages in it and walk away smarter. Another, is the eminent reasonableness of Bloom’s approach to the results that he reports. He’s consistently skeptical of whether the result tells the whole story or captures a causal relationship. He reminds us to maintain perspective and to remember that surprising results get published, but the bulk of what’s relevant may lie in unsurprising common sense notions about how reason is involved in our moral behavior.

If I had to complain about anything it’s that he presents plausible theories, that he eventually dismisses as incorrect or at least incomplete, so fairly that I’m afraid that I might remember them as if they are true (or the best theories available).

I hope I’m within the bounds of fair use to quote the final paragraph, which I think lays out the major points that the entire book does a fine job of arguing for:

It turns out instead that the right theory of our moral lives has two parts. It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich: babies are moral animals, equipped by evolution with empathy and compassion, the capacity to judge the actions of others, and even some rudimentary understanding of justice and fairness. But we are more than just babies. A critical part of our morality–so much of what makes us human–emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason.

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