The Altruistic Toddler December 7, 2009Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
Tags: altruism, Michael Tomasello, selfishness, shared intentionality
Are humans selfish by nature? Yes. Are humans unselfish by nature? Yes. And that seems to be the answer(s) to one of the most ferocious debates in moral philosophy—at least among those who like quick and absolutist answers. A certain episode of Friends comes to mind—“The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS”—where even a decent human being like Phoebe ends up buying into the idea that “there are no good, selfless deeds.” But there are. And we don’t even have to disprove the silly notion that if an act of helping others makes you feel good, then you did it for selfish reasons. Because now new research shows that toddlers like to help, and they certainly don’t calculate beforehand whether helping will make them feel good, or whether it carries some reward:
The somewhat surprising answer at which some biologists have arrived is that babies are innately sociable and helpful to others. Of course every animal must to some extent be selfish to survive. But the biologists also see in humans a natural willingness to help.
When infants 18 months old see an unrelated adult whose hands are full and who needs assistance opening a door or picking up a dropped clothespin, they will immediately help, Michael Tomasello writes in “Why We Cooperate,” a book published in October. Dr. Tomasello, a developmental psychologist, is co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
The helping behavior seems to be innate because it appears so early and before many parents start teaching children the rules of polite behavior.
Furthermore, this behavior is cross-cultural—and only lasts until the child is around 3. Then he or she begins to understand that there may be an advantage to helping some rather than helping others:
As children grow older, they become more selective in their helpfulness. Starting around age 3, they will share more generously with a child who was previously nice to them. Another behavior that emerges at the same age is a sense of social norms. “Most social norms are about being nice to other people,” Dr. Tomasello said in an interview, “so children learn social norms because they want to be part of the group.”
Children not only feel they should obey these rules themselves, but also that they should make others in the group do the same. Even 3-year-olds are willing to enforce social norms. If they are shown how to play a game, and a puppet then joins in with its own idea of the rules, the children will object, some of them vociferously.
Dr. Tomasello explains this as a result of “shared intentionality” which is specific for humans; while apes may have a basic “theory of mind,” an understanding that other apes and humans have consciousness, it is in the human mind that curiosity about what goes on in the other minds becomes a vital part of the culture.
The shared intentionality lies at the basis of human society, Dr. Tomasello argues. From it flow ideas of norms, of punishing those who violate the norms and of shame and guilt for punishing oneself. Shared intentionality evolved very early in the human lineage, he believes, and its probable purpose was for cooperation in gathering food.
This study is only one of many these days, from neuroscience to evolutionary psychology, to animal behaviorism, to experimental philosophy, as a new generation of thinkers and scientists is finding its voice and shaping a new picture of human nature: the growing consensus is that of course we humans are partly selfish—otherwise we wouldn’t survive. But our very well-developed sense of fairness reaches both ways—to ensure fair treatment for ourselves, but also in clear recognition of the common humanity of the Other who is in the same boat. It makes us feel good to be social and sociable. We are at the same time altruistic and selfish, and one behavioral aspect can’t be reduced to the other. Reality is far more interesting than the classical reductivist attempts to boil human nature down to one basic behavioral aspect. Let’s see if the false dichotomy of selfish/unselfish can finally be phased out of the ethical debate in the 21st century.