Morality begins

5 januari 2011 | In Books Emotion theory Moral Psychology Naturalism parenting Psychology | 3 Comments

Developmental issues in general have, for obvious reasons, been much on my mind lately. It strikes me, as it struck Alison Gopnik thus causing the book the philosophical baby to be written, as strange that the importance of the development of certain capabilities, such as morality, belief-acquisition, language, understanding of objects and other persons, has not been seriously attended to in the theories of those things. Surely, a proper understanding of any domain needs to involve an understanding of how we come to know about it. The cognitive operations that the adult mind is capable of didn’t start out that way, and part of solving the mysteries of cognition is to investigate how it got that way. As Gopnik pointed out in her earlier book the scientist in the crib, babies learn in the way science proceed: by testing hypotheses, revising previous concepts and explanations to fit with the facts, and by thinking up new experiments. We start out with very little, but not nothing, and then we build on that. People generally start out the same – babies everywhere can learn whatever language, but at some point, when we’ve found what sorts of sounds typically occur in communication, we start to interpret, and eventually to ignore small vocal nuances in favor of more effective and more charitable interpretation within the language we thus acquire.

Understanding development is important in itself, and for understanding what it is that thus developed, but it is also important for treatment. If we know how certain capabilities develop, we might understand what happens when they don’t.

But here comes the first kink: scientist disagree about a key feature of development: whether we actually learn ”the hard way”, or whether certain developmental stages, such as understanding that others may have different beliefs from us, just ”kick in” at a certain age. Some knowledge may develop, not like conscious, or even non-conscious, belief-revision, but like facial hair or breasts. Presumably, these things start due to some biological signal, too, but it seems to be a different process from the sort of learning involved in science. It is also possible that the ”signal” in question must appear at a certain window of time. The intense developmental period known as childhood doesn’t last forever. For instance, if you cover the eyes of a cat from birth until a certain time, it wont develop eyesight at all.

These things are even more important in the case of treatment. If I fail to develop certain forms of understanding, such as understanding false beliefs, it is very important whether I can learn to understand it, or whether I need the biological signal. And, of course, whether this biological signal can be provided later on, or if it is too late.

Understanding these features when it comes to morality is clearly of immense interest. How does morality develop? We often hear that children can distinguish between moral and conventional rules at the age of 2 1/2 – 3. But how does this happen? How does one learn the difference? Clearly, we are born with a sense of good and bad (as I’ve argued, this is the capacity to feel pleasure and displeasure, and certain objects and situations that cue these feelings), and with the early stages of social neediness. From this, arguably, morality is created. But how? Is it just the persistent association of the needs/desires/interests of others with hedonic reaction in oneself? Or is it a further developmental stage that is needed?

This is a crucial thing, if we want to understand and do something about immorality. Immorality may, of course, arise in many ways. It may not have been nurtured, so that the right association wasn’t made in the crucial developmental window. But it may also be that the mechanism didn’t kick in, due to some cognitive disorder. And finally, there are cases where the moral reaction is just outnumbered by other interests: morality isn’t all of evaluative motivation. Which of these is the origin of a certain immoral act or immoral person is of immense interest when it comes to treatment, and also when it comes to assigning responsibility.


  1. This topic is of course very interesting for a parent with young kids (I have three), and you raise some important questions.

    But surely moral knowledge (if there is such a thing) can’t be the result of some biological or cognitive development in the synapsis of the brain? After all, moral is something that needs to be defined by a community, not by an individual. As a hedonist you might argue that moral stems from the individual (and is directetd to the individual), but it must consider the surrounding to acheive happiness. That usually means interact in a non-harmful way with others.

    Moral in a smaller (perhaps more common) sense simply means adopting a string of rules or principles by which society is more easily controlled or stable and by which its inhabitants thrive. These principles are often quite rudimentary for kids once they develop that certain understanding of empathy or at least recognise other peoples feelings. I can’t say my 5-year-old fully recognises this and it appears he only learns by contantly trying. During autumn at daycare the kids have started saying mean things to each other to see what happens, how they react. So, he is still very much controlled by curiosity, immediate self-interest and an ignorance of him being mortal, and I dare say he is in good company. And yet he has learned the concepts of Good and Bad (although he uses them more freely than I – whoever opposes ’his’ football team, i.e. the winning team, is considered Bad).

    I was always impressed with Socrates arguing that some ”knowledge” is the result of pure reasoning, e.g. maths. Some ’moral knowledge’ might be derived from pure reasoning and might even be genetically coded. Identifying these should be interesting enough, but they could never constitute an entire paradigm or form the basis of a moral.

    BTW, I don’t want to know how the information came about of what happens to cats who have their eyes covered during childhood.

    Kommentar by Christian — 05 januari 2011 #

  2. Of course, the whole point about having a childhood is to extend the period during which learning easily can take place which involves adapting to the social and non-social environment, and learning the rules that seem to govern whatever rule-govern system one might find.

    There is no suggestion that morality is entirely innate. There is, however, the fact that we must have something to begin with in order for an encountered body of rules to come to matter to us in the way that morality matters. Not all rules become moral rules, and the test that most 3 year olds (and some younger than that) pass is to recognize that some rules are not contingent on authority.

    And even if morality somehow kicks in (i.e. it cannot be explained simply by trial and error, or by conditioning), it doesn’t do so entirely and at once. Indeed, it’s a common viewpoint that morality develops in stages, and that most of us never make it to the higher levels.

    Kommentar by david — 05 januari 2011 #

  3. I suggest this window of moral awakening is in fact instead a window in which empathy is developed or the recognition of a self as opposed to others. From what I’ve heard that develops around that time.

    And also, I struggle to understand the difference between ’rules contingent on authority’ and (I suppose) some absolute moral standards. In my view there is no difference. It might however be that I haven’t reached those higher levels you refer to, or that I let Mr Nietsche dictate too much of my opinions.

    Kommentar by Christian — 07 januari 2011 #

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