Born Empaths: Toward a compassionate society

A really cool article by Paul Bloom in today’s NY Times Magazine on “morality in babies.”  Bloom describes research which shows a surprisingly well developed sense of empathy and a tendency to respond in “moral” ways in babies.  For instance, babies naturally tend to try to help others in distress.  They seem to be able to distinguish between helpful and “mean” behavior by others, and generally prefer the helpful person.  Bloom adds,

“Babies also seem to want to assuage the pain of others: once they have enough physical competence (starting at about 1 year old), they soothe others in distress by stroking and touching or by handing over a bottle or toy.”

Toward the end of his article, Bloom tries to distinguish the moral understanding of babies from that of adults.  He makes much of findings that babies may show “in group partiality” in, say, registering higher levels of empathy for babies that resemble themselves (e.g. on racial characteristics).  Bloom makes the point that this deficiency in baby morality is the reason that adults’ moral codes have to evolve beyond the (he doesn’t call it this but it is implied) “reflexive” moralities of babies.  To quote Bloom,

“The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go.”

It’s hard to argue with this.  But I wonder if too much isn’t being made of the limited findings that babies may, essentially, have higher levels of empathy for critters that most closely resemble themselves.  For instance, it’s not hard to imagine that the core principle underlying much baby empathy is a counterpart of the “mirror neurons” which are thought to give us a kind of “brain merge” with someone we observe doing something such as grabbing a baseball and throwing it: the fact that the parts of our own brains which are active when we actually throw a ball, also “fire off” when we watch someone else do the throwing.

It seems likely that the simple principle behind “baby empathy” is based partly on that kind of brain-based identification: if a baby recognizes someone as being “like me” in some primitive way, they have a powerful empathic response.  But if they’re not sure, due to the “otherness” of the other, then they are less likely to respond.

While this line of argument doesn’t at all contradict Bloom’s key point about needing a rationality-based morality, it might suggest that his slightly harsh sounding critiques of the limits of babies’ morality can lead us into unbalanced solutions to the needs of societies.  Babies’ moralities are not really as deficient as the tone of Bloom’s last sections make them sound.  Babies seem to do morality and empathy just fine, provided they can learn to identify with the other they are observing.

The ultimate issue is what we choose, as a society, to make of this kind of finding.  It seems that our culture gets polarized along this line pretty often.  On the one hand, we have the “liberal” views in which the core issue is the development of even more empathy and compassion.  On the other hand is the “conservative” tradition, which sometimes seems to include a reflexive uneasiness when the terms “empathy” or “compassion” are uttered.  (As if being compassionate will somehow weaken society, or turn us into Swedes or something.)  My concern is that Bloom’s ultimate conclusions are a bit one-sidedly tilted in favor of the latter outlook.

A culture’s work of “moral development” should never be limited to coming up with more and better refinements in our formal rules of morality.  It seems that when people who most strongly identify with this outlook have their way, what we end up with is either the “morality” of primitive tribal cultures (e.g., stoning adulterers), or at the other extreme, the massive crime-and-punishment contraptions of social control, ultimately un-compassionate monstrosities whose main function is the promotion of political and prosecutorial careers and massive prison and social control systems. (E.g., putting teenagers in prison because they “sext” pics of their girlfriends or boyfriends, or destroying someone’s life because they download an album illegally.)

Rather, our more important mission should be the development of stronger and more flexible empathic capacities in adults.  Essentially, to expand the minds — the empathic capacities — of babies and lawmakers, not to bog them down with rules and legal codes. (cf this amazing talk by psychologist Barry Schwartz on our loss of wisdom when bureaucratic codes trump common-sense compassionate solutions.)  Helping people to learn to imagine the actual lives and experiences of those who are different from themselves, be they poor people, women (or — ahem — men!), persons from other cultures or nations or sexual orientations, immigrants or people of different religions, may do vastly more for a society’s evolution than designing better prisonhouses. (Case in point: Nicholas Kristoff’s article today, also in the Times — Kristoff being a prime example of a person who is very effective at expanding the “empathy” of millions of readers, helping people to know about and understand and ultimately, to respond to the dire needs of persons such as poor women across the globe.)

Ultimately, it was disappointing to see Bloom shift the discussion to a too brief summary which was likely to lead to a defense of “law and order” mentalities, when the real miracle, that babies are born empaths, is such an exciting and affirming discovery.   Nor is there really compelling scientific evidence one way or the other on the whole topic of “inborn morality” as a sign that somewhere in our souls, we carry a spark of what the Quakers call “that of God within.”  (Even the existence of an “inborn mechanism for empathy” proves nothing, but neither do scientific arguments disprove anything here.)

In the final analysis, as a guide to a compassionate society I’d trust the compass direction set by the minds of babes more than the Pharisaical rationalizations of most “lawmakers.”  Arizona, anyone?

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Filed under Compassionate society, Psychology

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