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Column on Are Kids Altruists?

Are Kids Altruists?

Tibor R. Machan

In The New York Times Magazine an article recently discusses whether babies have an inherent moral sense. It beings as follows: “A video featuring adorable cherubs — what’s not to like? But ‘The Moral Life of Babies’ addresses a heady topic: are babies inherently amoral, or can they actually distinguish right from wrong? In a laboratory at Yale University, researchers stage puppet shows in which one character does a good deed, while another does a bad deed. The babies are then asked, wordlessly, to express their preference for one character over another. It’s a video that is both thought- and smile-provoking.”

I will not address whether babies have a sense of right versus wrong, only the way this matter was reportedly tested by the researchers who investigated it. Paul Bloom and his wife, Karen Wynn, of the Infant Cognitive Center at Yale University, conducted studies with babies and reached the conclusion that, indeed, babies have a moral sense. One piece of evidence supporting their conclusion was that babies tended to show a preference for people who were nice to other people and didn’t much like those who weren’t.

For my money this is where a big problem arises with their findings. From the fact that babies liked people who helped others, Bloom and Wynn conclude that the babies preferred altruist as opposed to selfish behavior. This is because they liked people who were helpful to others.

However, based on what they report, their conclusions does not follow–or, more precisely, another conclusion, quite different from the one they drew, could be more reasonable. If the babies liked people who were being helpful to others, this may very well be explained by reference to their preference for people who would help them in case they needed help. And that would not point to a preference for altruism, quite the contrary. The babies, maybe quite naturally, saw who among those whom they were observing would be better for them, who would prove to be to their own interest.

When people help other people and this is welcome by us, it could very well be because we realize that the help could come in handy to us. Whereas the behavior of those who show no care for others would not suggest that they would be helpful in case their assistance may become useful. So then what at first appears to be a preference for altruism is, quite possibly, a preference for egoism.

Of course throughout history it has often been assumed that human babies are indeed quite self-interested. And there seems to be ample grounds for thinking that people in general are quite self-interested. When they get up in the morning they usually first take care of themselves–wash up, brush their teeth, have breakfast, select suitable clothing to wear, etc., and so forth. They are not likely to turn to helping their neighbors with their chores instead of caring for themselves. Later, once they are done with this self-interested behavior they often do, of course, reach out to help other people.

In any case, there is much to be explored here but it is worthwhile to just take a step back and notice that what the researchers concluded is by no means the only result that could be reached from the evidence that was given in the article about the morality of babies. Moreover, it is noteworthy, also, that the research team equivocated between morality and altruism.

There are numerous moral systems, ethical positions, that have been advance throughout human history and it is simply misleading to assume that being moral must necessarily mean being altruistic. Indeed, there is something quite misanthropic about such an assumption–why would it be commendable for people to work to benefit others while neglecting themselves? Who will then take care of them? They are more likely to understand what they need and want and so attending to these matters would probably be more efficient than imposing one’s idea of what others need and want on these others.

But let that go for now. What Bloom and Wynn present us in with their findings calls to mind, once again, the quip that is associated with the poet W. H. Auden, namely, “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.”

A Bit of Nietzsche Will Help

A distinguishing feature of Nietzsche’s thought was that he believed humankind needed to overturn the old, mostly theological ethics and transform values to something new. He didn’t say what that would have to be but since he identified Christian ethics with radical altruism, advising us all to live for others first and foremost, it is not unreasonable to conclude that he was thinking of a less misanthropic morality than altruism is, the view that involves “assuming a duty to relieve the distress and promote the happiness of our fellows…. Altruism is to … maintain quite simply that a man may and should discount altogether his own pleasure or happiness as such when he is deciding what course of action to pursue.” W. G. Maclagan, “Self and Others: A Defense of Altruism,” Philosophical Quarterly 4 (1954): 109-127.

Does morality need to be reconceived?†If one considers what horrible deeds have been perpetrated in the name of serving others, there is little doubt that morality needs a serious reexamination. All the major tyrannies have been carried out in the name of making us serve others instead of ourselves.† very call to submit to czars and tyrants goes hand in hand with the idea that everyone needs to serve something bigger than himself in his life!† hat would be God or society or humanity.† he individual certainly comes off as deserving little love from himself. From commencement speeches to sermons and political oratory galore, one’s self doesn’t much matter, only other people do. As the poet W. H. Auden quipped, “We were put here on earth to serve other people, what the other people were put here for I don’t know.”

Altruism made a little sense when original sin had been a serious idea and from childhood on each of us seemed to be in need of socialization. Then came the materialists, like Thomas Hobbes–and later Freud–who also claimed we all serve ourselves first and foremost. To counter this egotism it made sense that people needed to be taught to be generous and charitable before anything else.

But the original sin notion is without any foundation at all–how could a baby come into the world already guilty of having sinned? And the idea that we automatically serve our own selves is demonstrably false–the world would be a pretty good place, all around, if it were true.† he real story is, instead, that we don’t have a built-in disposition to be selfish or selfless. We come to be one or the other or something in between as we grow up.

So given the pervasiveness of altruism as the preferred ethics of theologians and philosophers, as well as many novelists of note–just consider Graham Green’s protagonist’s claim that “None of us has a right to forget anyone. Except ourselves” (in Looser Takes All [Penguin, 1993, p. 51])–Nietzsche’s advice seems sound. Along with the political revolution that ushered in the abolition of slavery and involuntary servitude and undermined the case for monarchy and other types of statism, it is time to revamp morality too. A healthy ethical egoism–as laid out by, say, David L. Norton in his brilliant Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton, 1976) and even earlier, by Ayn Rand who argued for a neo-Aristotelian ethics, in her The Virtue of Selfishness (Signet, 1964) whereby a robust selfishness is the proper morality for human beings–is probably very timely by now.

Sadly it has to be noted that, despite the clarity of both philosophers’ prose, the selfishness of Norton and Rand is unlike the economic man type, which is not a moral thesis at all but an attempt to describe what motivates us all, all the time (along the lines Hobbes laid down). The neo-Aristotelian selfishness, one that implores everyone to strive to be a happy individual, acknowledges that human beings are social–belong to families, communities, fraternities, etc.–and to strive for one’s own success in life must involve the social virtues as well as the personal ones–generosity and compassion, not only prudence and ambition.†With such a morality at hand, the human race would be in far better shape than it is with all the scolding it receives for not being selfless enough.