I liked this article, for its pith and for its conclusory doorway to research. Thanks, Merlin. It is like an invitation to assess a few Randian notions about childhood and development against findings and theories reigning in multiple modern fields of inquiry.
I'd add to Stephen's note by raising the recent work of Paul Bloom, where you find claims that the moral sense of infants and toddlers is an inborn tendency that unfolds according to a timetable of normal development and care. An article in the New York Times magazine gives a good frame for Bloom's inquiries, in The Moral Life of Babies
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. Many parents and educators would endorse a view of infants and toddlers close to that of a recent Onion headline: “New Study Reveals Most Children Unrepentant Sociopaths.” If children enter the world already equipped with moral notions, why is it that we have to work so hard to humanize them?
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. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.
Here is Bloom in an interview with Scientific American:
How has learning about the origins of morality changed how you view the moral reasoning of adults?
There are two discoveries that I discuss in Just Babies that influence how I think about adult moral reasoning. The first is that there are hard-wired moral universals. To an important extent, all people have the same morality; the differences that we see—however important they are to our everyday lives—are variations on a theme. This universality provides some reason for optimism. It suggests that if we look hard enough, we can find common ground with any other neurologically normal human.
The second discovery is the importance of reason. Prominent writers and intellectuals like David Brooks, Malcolm Gladwell, and Jonathan Haidt have championed the view that, as David Hume famously put it, we are slaves of the passions. Our moral judgments and moral actions are driven mostly by gut feelings—rational thought has little to do with it. I find this a grim view of human nature, but if it were true, we should buck up and learn to live with it.
But I argue in Just Babies that it isn’t true. It is refuted by everyday experience, by history, and by the science of developmental psychology. It turns out instead that the right theory of our moral lives has two parts. It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich: babies are moral animals. But we are more than just babies. A critical part of our morality—so much of what makes us human—emerges over the course of human history and individual development. It is the product of our compassion, our imagination, and our magnificent capacity for reason.
See also work on brain lesions (especially Damasio) affecting 'morality circuits,' and what they can reveal about developmental egocentrism, arguments made above by Merlin, and neuroscientific support for Bloom's work with infants and toddlers. Here's a novel and convincing journal article, available in full text here, which contrasts lesions occuring in earlier and later development. It may be informative to an Objectivist rational/emotional, self-full/selfless, selfish/otherish, egoist/altruist project of classification. I think Ayn Rand would be fascinated to read it.
Arrested development: early prefrontal lesions impair the maturation of moral judgement
Bradley C. Taber-Thomas, Erik W. Asp, Michael Koenigs, Matthew Sutterer, Steven W. Anderson, Daniel Tranel
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awt377 1254-1261 First published online: 11 February 2014
Learning to make moral judgements based on considerations beyond self-interest is a fundamental aspect of moral development. A deficit in such learning is associated with poor socialization and criminal behaviour. The neural systems required for the acquisition and maturation of moral competency are not well understood. Here we show in a unique sample of neurological patients that focal lesions involving ventromedial prefrontal cortex, acquired during development, result in an abnormally egocentric pattern of moral judgement. In response to simple hypothetical moral scenarios, the patients were more likely than comparison participants to endorse self-interested actions that involved breaking moral rules or physically harming others in order to benefit themselves. This pattern (which we also found in subjects with psychopathy) differs from that of patients with adult-onset ventromedial prefrontal cortex lesions—the latter group showed normal rejection of egocentric rule violations. This novel contrast of patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex lesions acquired during development versus during adulthood yields new evidence suggesting that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is a critical neural substrate for the acquisition and maturation of moral competency that goes beyond self-interest to consider the welfare of others. Disruption to this affective neural system early in life interrupts moral development.
-- Merlin published a link to his article at The Other Place but discussion immediately fell into disarray. It is nice to see a few faces from my last sojourn here.
Once I read the article, I said to myself, what have I read in the most recent past that adds to the points opened up for discussion in the article? What is out there in the worlds that study moral development, post-Piaget? I shall return with some more thoughts, as and if the disarray deepens.
Merlin's article is like a cheerful first chapter to a book, one that promises an exciting journey through fact and fancy, with the human being as central figure of interest.