Morality Begins


From Infant Sorrow, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, William Blake, c. 1789

by David Brax

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.

Piece crossposted with David Brax’s website