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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Even Babies Know that Its Wrong to Punish the Innocent

I have argued in a series of posts that human beings intuitively know that it is wrong to punish an innocent person in place of the guilty. This is the central problem with the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement.

This innate sense of right and wrong seems to be present in humans from a very early age. Paul Bloom, a Psychologist at the The Infant Cognition Center at Yale University, wrote an article in the New York Times (May 3, 2010) entitled, "The Moral Life of Babies." It is a fascinating study of how even infants seem to have a built-in sense of justice.

Bloom writes:
Why would anyone even entertain the thought of babies as moral beings? From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologists have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals. One important task of society, particularly of parents, is to turn babies into civilized beings — social creatures who can experience empathy, guilt and shame; who can override selfish impulses in the name of higher principles; and who will respond with outrage to unfairness and injustice.

A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life.

How does Bloom and his researchers determine this? He explains:

In the 1980s, however, psychologists interested in exploring how much babies know began making use of one of the few behaviors that young babies can control: the movement of their eyes. The eyes are a window to the baby’s soul. As adults do, when babies see something that they find interesting or surprising, they tend to look at it longer than they would at something they find uninteresting or expected. And when given a choice between two things to look at, babies usually opt to look at the more pleasing thing. You can use “looking time,” then, as a rough but reliable proxy for what captures babies’ attention: what babies are surprised by or what babies like.

Bloom believes that this basic sense of justice or morality can be explained on the basis of evolution. He writes:

. . . people everywhere have some sense of right and wrong. You won’t find a society where people don’t have some notion of fairness, don’t put some value on loyalty and kindness, don’t distinguish between acts of cruelty and innocent mistakes, don’t categorize people as nasty or nice. These universals make evolutionary sense. Since natural selection works, at least in part, at a genetic level, there is a logic to being instinctively kind to our kin, whose survival and well-being promote the spread of our genes. More than that, it is often beneficial for humans to work together with other humans, which means that it would have been adaptive to evaluate the niceness and nastiness of other individuals. All this is reason to consider the innateness of at least basic moral concepts.

Christians, however, going back to Paul (Rom. 2:14-15) have argued that this innate sense of right and wrong comes from God. For example, Bloom refers to the book, What's So Great About Christianity ,by Dinesh D’Souza in which D'Souza

conceded that evolution can explain our niceness in instances like kindness to kin, where the niceness has a clear genetic payoff, but he drew the line at “high altruism,” acts of entirely disinterested kindness. For D’Souza, “there is no Darwinian rationale” for why you would give up your seat for an old lady on a bus, an act of nice-guyness that does nothing for your genes. And what about those who donate blood to strangers or sacrifice their lives for a worthy cause? D’Souza reasoned that these stirrings of conscience are best explained not by evolution or psychology but by “the voice of God within our souls.”

How does Bloom respond to the claim that this sense of morality is implanted in man by God?
The evolutionary psychologist has a quick response to this: To say that a biological trait evolves for a purpose doesn’t mean that it always functions, in the here and now, for that purpose. Sexual arousal, for instance, presumably evolved because of its connection to making babies; but of course we can get aroused in all sorts of situations in which baby-making just isn’t an option — for instance, while looking at pornography. Similarly, our impulse to help others has likely evolved because of the reproductive benefit that it gives us in certain contexts — and it’s not a problem for this argument that some acts of niceness that people perform don’t provide this sort of benefit. (And for what it’s worth, giving up a bus seat for an old lady, although the motives might be psychologically pure, turns out to be a coldbloodedly smart move from a Darwinian standpoint, an easy way to show off yourself as an attractively good person.)

The morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with; moral actions are often of a sort that have no plausible relation to our reproductive success and don’t appear to be accidental byproducts of evolved adaptations. Many of us care about strangers in faraway lands, sometimes to the extent that we give up resources that could be used for our friends and family; many of us care about the fates of nonhuman animals, so much so that we deprive ourselves of pleasures like rib-eye steak and veal scaloppine. We possess abstract moral notions of equality and freedom for all; we see racism and sexism as evil; we reject slavery and genocide; we try to love our enemies. Of course, our actions typically fall short, often far short, of our moral principles, but these principles do shape, in a substantial way, the world that we live in. It makes sense then to marvel at the extent of our moral insight and to reject the notion that it can be explained in the language of natural selection. If this higher morality or higher altruism were found in babies, the case for divine creation would get just a bit stronger (emphasis mine).

But it is not present in babies. In fact, our initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind. There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups — even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts — they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations.

So, while a conscious or reasoned sense of morality seems to be derived from one's culture, it is still true that a basic sense of what is right and wrong is intuitive within man. Bloom explains:
Babies probably have no conscious access to moral notions, no idea why certain acts are good or bad. They respond on a gut level. Indeed, if you watch the older babies during the experiments, they don’t act like impassive judges — they tend to smile and clap during good events and frown, shake their heads and look sad during the naughty events (remember the toddler who smacked the bad puppet). The babies’ experiences might be cognitively empty but emotionally intense, replete with strong feelings and strong desires. But this shouldn’t strike you as an altogether alien experience: while we adults possess the additional critical capacity of being able to consciously reason about morality, we’re not otherwise that different from babies — our moral feelings are often instinctive. In fact, one discovery of contemporary research in social psychology and social neuroscience is the powerful emotional underpinning of what we once thought of as cool, untroubled, mature moral deliberation.

For the evangelical Christian, the findings of this research is problematic. First, it reveals that even babies less than one year old have a basic sense that those who are bad deserve punishment and that those who are good do not. Second, if this sense comes from God as Christians maintain, then it contradicts the behavior of their God in punishing the innocent Jesus in place of guilty sinners.

Al Mohler, a staunch defender of the PST and the President of the Southern Baptist Seminary, unwittingly falls into this trap while commenting on Bloom's research.
Does the fact that infants have an innate moral sense underline the importance of the fact that human beings are made in God’s own image? It would certainly seem so. Indeed, Christians should expect to find something very much like this, based on the teachings of Scripture. It is God who made us to be moral creatures, and it is the Creator who gives his human creatures the power and accountability of moral knowledge.

My question for Mohler and all other evangelical Christians is: If God gave man his moral knowledge, then why does God violate that morality in punishing an innocent in place of the guilty?


  1. Good stuff. Kudos for your willingness to dig so deeply into the current research!

    FWIW, even chimpanzees have been empirically proven to keep accounts of who did what to whom, who deserves punishment or reward, and who has failed or succeeded in dispensing the deserved punishment or reward. The research is incredibly interesting, and it seems that this obsession with justice may have preceded and driven much of the evolution of human intellect.

    The big question is "Why does God violate that morality in punishing an innocent in place of the guilty?" I find Luther's answer (in HD) most persuasive, but it is a challenging question, no doubt.

  2. Joshua,

    Thanks. I would be interested in reading more about the chimps. Can you point me to the reference? Also what specific explanation in Luther for the problem of punishing the innocent do you have in mind?

  3. A psychologist friend of mine did her Ph.D thesis on the subject of babies' eye movements, recognising the face of the mother over stangers etc.
    Babies may smile when they are happy, but happiness does not equate with moral feelings. The baby is happy if mother is near, has been fed etc. Not happy when it's survival is possibly threatened by presence of strangers, being left alone and so on.
    Altruism develops later and is at least partly influenced by environmental factors such as good role models in the form of parents and teachers. Why do children of alcoholics and drug addicts have problems. Why do most prison inmates come from dysfunctional families? Sorry, but Freud was at least partly correct.

  4. The best starting place would be Robin Dunbar's "Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language". It will set the context for you to do searches on current research. He shows that this need to keep track of "who did what to whom, and who is good and bad" is why we evolved our large cerebral cortex. His newer book, "Human" might be better, I haven't read it.

    As far as recent research, check this one out:

    Of course, we've known forever that Chimps have a sense of justice, and Dunbar gives examples of Chimps keeping track of one another's "punishment status". It was theorized that this was done purely out of self-interest. For example, one chimp would surreptitiously do something to get a rival chimp in trouble with the dominant male, and thus cause his rival to be punished. This is proof of 3rd-order intentionality.

    What we did not know was whether or not chimps would indirectly perform "altruistic punishment". Jansen's research seems to show that they don't, and that their log of "punishment status" is purely self-interest.

    Therefore, what makes us distinct from chimps is that our sense of justice will extend even to altruistic punishment and reward. There are a few different theories about how we could've made that evolutionary leap.

    Regarding Luther, I mean the Heidelberg Disputation. The commentary on HD called "On Being a Theologian of the Cross" is highly recommended. I don't know if I can really summarize it, but it's a quick read.

  5. Altruism.... well, my background isn't biology or even psychology but rather sociology. Just to add to what Clare said....

    I'm familiar with the Christian objections that evolution cannot explain altruism. From a social perspective - altruism can easily be explained as a learned behavior that contributes to group survival.

    It seems that children aren't altruistic (or selflessly moral) by default - but learn to curb their selfish impulses through socialization.

    One of the key differences between criminals and non-criminals is self-control and social bonds, the former meaning the ability to defer instant gratification for long-term rewards, the latter meaning having bonds to society. Those two variables are largely mediated through things like parental attachment and supervision. In short, I'm offering that altruism can easily be explained by culture and social learning - and that it has a survival benefit for the society at large. Off the top of my head I'm going to reference Gottfredson and Hirschi.

    Anyway.... It seems that most theological objections to science can be answered with.... more science.

    So even if biology cannot account for altruism, it seems to me that sociology makes perfect sense of why humans value altruism - without referring to supernatural entities.

  6. It seems that children aren't altruistic (or selflessly moral) by default - but learn to curb their selfish impulses through socialization.

    It's also possible that it's an emergent property, that we're hardwired for it, but it develops as the child matures, if s/he is socialized properly.