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The voice of the skeptic - the beginning of justice

Even before babies start learning, they already know the difference between good and bad

A woman and two men are talking on the subway platform, not far from the tracks. Then, without warning one of the men pushes the woman towards the tracks. She stumbles back towards the edge of the platform. The other man reaches out to grab her, but he is too late and she falls to the tracks. He reacts immediately, turns his face back and hits the pusher. In a spectacular spinning punch he slams the attacker's head back. Satisfied with the act of revenge, he faces forward, hesitating slightly before leaping and pulling the woman out of the danger zone. He calms her down and starts chasing the criminal who hastened to escape. The whole event lasts 20 seconds and you can watch it yourself on YouTube (minute 1:47).

At that moment, too short for any rational calculation, an internal conflict based only on pure emotion takes place between the desire to save and the desire to punish, between help and painful revenge. In this fraction of a second, two neural networks in the Savior's brain are called to the flag: one calls to help another person and the other to punish the aggressor. What is a moral primate supposed to do? In this case, since no train was approaching, he could afford to choose the first and problematic option he chose. Salvation may be sweet, but so is revenge.

This story well demonstrates the multifaceted nature of our moral nature. During evolution we developed in a way that allowed us to solve several problems in our primitive environment at the same time: to be good to those who help us and the rest of our flesh and to punish those who harm us and our relatives. Evidence that these moral feelings are deeply embedded in human nature can be found in a series of experiments done with babies, and presented in Paul Bloom of Yale University's excellent edited book, "Still Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil" (Crown Press, 2013)*. In his book, Bloom examines the theory that we are endowed with an innate moral sense, as proposed by Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and Thomas Jefferson. Bloom thus provides experimental evidence showing that "our natural abilities also include a moral sense: we distinguish between kind actions and cruel actions; Empathy and compassion: we suffer when those around us feel pain and strive to eliminate this pain; A basic sense of fairness: we tend to favor an equitable distribution of resources; And a basic sense of justice: we long to see how good actions are rewarded and bad actions punished."

baby playing From WIKIMEDIA COMMONS CC license
Instinct to save others. Illustration: Yizhar Cohen, for Scientific American Israel

In one of the experiments in Bloom's laboratory, a one-year-old baby watched puppets presenting a morality play. One of the dolls rolled a ball towards another doll and it returned the ball to her. Then, the first doll rolled the ball towards a third doll who ran away with the ball. After that, the baby was given the option to take a candy from one of the dolls. He was allowed to choose between the "nice" doll and the "bad" doll. And as Blum had predicted, the baby took the candy from the bad doll, as most of the babies in the experiment did. But this time the good-natured little one was not satisfied with removing the positive incentive (the candy). "The baby bent down and hit the doll's head," says Blum. His fresh moral soul demanded punishment.

There are many versions of this research paradigm, for example a puppet tries to roll a ball up an incline and then another puppet tries to help or hinder it. Again and again the same sense of justice that differentiates between good (preference for the helping puppets) and bad (rejection of the disturbing puppets) comes up and appears. This behavior begins at the age of three to 10 months, much earlier than the age when it can be attributed to learning or culture. Morality, Bloom concludes, "causes certain emotions and motives, such as a desire to help others in need, anger in the face of cruelty, and guilt or pride from shameful or kind acts we do." This corresponds to the video I gave as an example. There is no doubt that society's laws and customs may turn the dial of our internal morality and increase or weaken it, but nature gave us this dial in advance. For this reason, the system of laws of our societies must be based on human nature.

*Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (Crown, 2013)

About the author

Michael Shermer is the publisher of the journal Skeptic ( His next book is, "The Moral Noah's Ark of Science". Follow him on Twitter: @michaelshermer

The article was published with the permission of Scientific American Israel

31 תגובות

  1. Unfortunately, I can't get to the bottom of your mind. I would appreciate it if you could interpret your words, as this is a topic that interests me.

    "In a robot there is nothing there that exists and in a person there is" this sentence in itself is really incomprehensible to me. And then you continue to confuse me with - "I do not claim that it exists or does not exist". Which makes it clear to me how much I really don't understand you.

  2. I do not claim that it exists or does not exist. I'm just saying what is the form of the difference that is significant. Other forms of difference are meaningless.

  3. Point, I can't understand your last comment, what exists in a human that cannot exist in a robot?

    are you buddhist (A question that, if you answer in the affirmative, you can shorten the rest of the correspondence)

  4. There are babies whose sense of morality is more developed and there is a wide range between desire and the ability to restrain oneself that differs from person to person.

  5. Free will has less to do with what I'm talking about.
    What is supposed to make a person different from a robot is that in a robot there is not something that exists and in a person there is.
    A person who is a robot is a person in whom nothing exists. I mean, it's not real.

  6. Nissim, in the sense of the formal definition, you are right, but that is not what Pokta meant when he said that we are not robots. But according to my understanding (and point, correct me if I'm wrong), because we have free will and responsibility towards our actions (we don't have activation points and a program of commands..). So, in my opinion, we have almost no free will, and the chances are that if your past is X, it is likely that you will act Y. And those who are born poor, have a much greater chance of becoming a thief.

    And there is a difference between killing a person and another animal, because a person is of your race, his genes are almost equal to yours and in addition his awareness is even greater.

  7. point
    We are not robots, because robots are human actions. We kill only when necessary, both animals and humans.

  8. If man is a robot then there is nothing special about killing a man as opposed to killing any other animal

  9. Point, I'm talking about proven statistics.

    And anyway, a person is not some magical thing. It is subject to the effects of its environment. This is known to all human researchers and cultural researchers and crime researchers. It was impossible to ignore it.

    We are a kind of robot. Built by millions of years of evolution, there is nothing to be done...

  10. Mouth When a person is treated like a robot, and it usually happens out of arrogance because no one treats themselves like a robot, so there really is no meaning to what they do because everything is programmable.

  11. I believe that building in Shimron and Judea is a legitimate matter. Therefore, it should be built regardless of terrorism or international pressures. This is because it strengthens the center of the country and lowers housing prices.

  12. Weber has nothing to do with the expansion of construction in the areas that Israel occupied. This is just a political opinion that has nothing to do with revenge or retaliatory action..

  13. point and bar,
    I hope everyone knows that the issue you are discussing is much more complex.
    "A person who is a murderer and a pest has nothing to do and must be killed" I can see the logic only in the case that it is certain that he is a murderer and that he will never change.
    (I assume that in case there is no 100% certainty you will agree with me)

    Humans can change, say a person who was beaten all his childhood, statistically he has a much higher chance than a person with a normal childhood of crime and murder.

    But it is also known that people in prison can change their behavior after their crime.

    Would you want to kill a man who, even so, was betrayed by his spouse and was born into a lousy family?

  14. to the point
    If a mistake was made and the wrong person was tried for murder, should we still sentence him to death? If a person is in a problematic emotional state (under normal circumstances he would not be a murderer). Do we still sentence him to death? The state is not an avenging body! And the death penalty does not reduce violence! Fighting poverty reduces violence! The point of view you present is immoral!

  15. bar,
    I don't know what your moral feelings are, but it seems to me that taking and imprisoning a person is a very serious act, even worse than murder.

    In any case, in my opinion, a person who is a murderer and a pest has nothing to do and should be killed.

  16. The claims in the article are wrong. At the age of "three to 10 months" the baby's behavior is based on what he feels is good or bad for him. Any reference of justice has no basis in these ages. At the age of one, when the doll experiment was conducted, the baby's perception is still in control, but at this stage the baby has already learned a lot about what his parents and all those around him think, good and bad.
    The sentence below "At that moment, too short for any rational calculation, an internal conflict takes place based only on pure emotion between the desire to save and the desire to punish, between help and painful revenge. In this fraction of a second, two neural networks in the Savior's brain are called to the flag" is also wrong. The short moments shown in the film are long enough for the people acting to decide based on their previous studies what to do, and note that most of the people in the situations are not acting.

  17. to the point
    You forget that we are all human beings: and that a person who murders should be removed and put in prison. We should not add another death. We should not be afraid of the Arabs. That is why I believe that the settlements in Judea and Samaria should be expanded, in order to distance the influence of Hamas from the center of the country. And to lower housing prices. Israel has American support, because Israel holds huge dollar reserves, and therefore Israel had its back also in massive construction in Samaria and Judea.

  18. Revenge is an emotion that helps a person in fighting the enemy. Only used in this frame is fine.
    If I take revenge on an innocent - I take out my nerves on the wrong address.

  19. Point, I agree with you that revenge is a natural thing, I do not agree that it is the basis of justice.
    But I don't think any of us will be able to convince his wife.
    We agree to disagree.

  20. Mouth, the question is not what is understood, but what is natural to man, anger and revenge are the basis of justice.

  21. I also did not understand the attitude to the actual murder until Nissim responded.
    The truth is that everything is understandable. Even if a parent will take revenge and kill the murderers of his son.
    Even boys who have been severely brainwashed (I agree with a point on this matter) will kill an Arab boy because of all the brainwashing they have gone through.
    The things the Nazis did can also be understood, Milgham helped us understand a lot of it. History continued (I hope everyone understands the difference between understanding and justification, I do not justify either case).

    Because the truth is that as long as the killer is not a psychopath (as in all the above examples), the actions can ultimately be understood. But just because they can be understood, that doesn't mean it's okay.

    A parent must not be allowed to prosecute his son's murderers. Despite the obvious need for revenge built into it.
    Hundreds of years of civilization and history have explained to us that only chaos can prevent such a situation.

    There is also room to note the almost inhuman statement (for the better) of the Frankel family who came out against the acts of revenge.

    And the link on my name is also worth reading

  22. point
    It's already much better. If the murdered parents had taken revenge on the murderers, or even strangers, then it would have been understandable. As you said, murdering an innocent boy is a terrible act.

  23. It is not written anywhere in the article about the murder of the three boys and yet the talkbackists were quick to point out the event and write their views as if they were the absolute truth. Do yourself and the public a favor and stop mentioning unrelated topics.

  24. I see that there is a confusion here between normal and problematic revenge and a distortion of this emotion that results from racist inclusion against a background of brainwashing.
    Revenge for the murder of the 3 boys would have been expressed in the murder of the murderers themselves or of others in the chain of reasons for that murder.

    A murder of an innocent boy that was unrelated to the act is a racist murder and nothing more. They could just as easily have murdered anyone else, there is nothing that unites that poor boy with the real murderers any more than any other human being with those murderers. Only racism that stems from stupidity and brainwashing.

  25. point
    The act of murdering the Arab boy is much more serious, much more than the murder of the 3 boys from Gush Etzion. Today I am ashamed to be Jewish.
    I am right-wing in my views, do not believe in peace with our neighbors and think that they have no intentions of peace. And yet - I am ashamed of my people for doing such an act. And remind you - this is not the first or second time.

    The Jews who murdered are simply murderers. When a person commenting here justifies it, it is extremely serious. This time - you went to the bottom of the sewer. You are despicable and vile to me.

  26. point,
    The desire to urinate whenever necessary is completely natural. This does not mean that motives of corruption prevent us from peeing everywhere.

    The desire for sex is also natural. But it is not acceptable (you will agree with me that it is right) to rape someone as soon as the desire for sex arises in you.

    There are places where it is allowed for a person, whose wisdom is more developed than his natural emotions, to say that this emotion is morally wrong.

  27. Revenge is a natural emotion and all those who try to scare us from it do so for corrupt reasons and hidden motives.

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