A developmental psychologist warns against a facile explanation of the origins of morality.
Bloom (Psychology/Yale Univ.; How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, 2010, etc.) supports the views of Adam Smith and Aristotle, who believed that we are naturally endowed with morality, and he substantiates their intuition with modern research findings. This research shows how even infants recoil at perceived cruelty, but the author warns against reducing our moral responses to inborn wisdom. “[O]ur imagination, our compassion, and especially our intelligence give rise to moral insight and moral progress and make us more than just babies,” he writes. Throughout the book, Bloom describes experiments suggesting that “some aspects of morality come naturally to us” and can be identified in babies as young as 3 months. Young children often show distress when witnessing a sympathetic individual in pain. We tend to smile unconsciously when someone smiles at us, and suffering distresses us; nevertheless, we are not necessarily prompted to express compassion and intervene. Bloom makes a convincing case that morality demands compassion but sometimes also overrides it, as in instances of triage for lifesaving treatment. In any event, our moral instincts are shaped by cultural values—e.g. racial bigotry and attitudes toward sex—as are the rewards and punishments we view as appropriate for proper behavior. The author argues that we cannot explain adult moral judgment as either innate or solely a matter of habituation; there is a “third option”—“the product of human interaction and human ingenuity.” Bloom disagrees with “the current trend in psychology and neuroscience [that] downplay[s] rational deliberation in favor of gut feelings and unconscious motivations.”
An engaging examination of human morality.