What babies and lost wallets can teach us about the never-ending moral debate
“Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good.” — Mahatma Gandhi
Are we inherently good or bad?
The world has historically been divided into two camps on the morality debate. Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau represent the most famous, opposing views.
Hobbes described humans as nasty and brutish. He believed society and rules improve our bad nature. Rousseau argued instead that we are gentle and pure. He blamed society for corrupting our innate good nature.
So, are we born with a moral compass? Or do we develop it as we grow?
Aristotle argued that morality is something we learn. And that we are born as ‘amoral’ creatures. Sigmund Freud considered new-borns a moral blank slate.
Scientists also believed that babies don’t have any moral standing — until recently.
The Morality We Are Born With
Babies have innate goodness.
Research by Yale University shows that they are born with a sense of morality. While parents and society help develop a belief system, they don’t start from a blank slate.
One-year-olds are capable of passing moral judgment.
Paul Bloom, author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, explains that babies can judge good and bad — even before they learn to walk or speak.
As part of the experiment, kids watched a short play where one shape tried to climb a hill. A second shape wanted to help the climber, while a third one tried to prevent it from succeeding.
What happened next reveals the essence of human nature.
After the show, babies were asked to choose one figure. Infants were much more likely to select the ‘helper’ over the ‘pusher.’ They preferred the good over the evil.
The study revealed our basic instinct to prefer friendly behaviors over malicious ones. That doesn’t mean babies are flawless. As Boom explains, their sense of justice is limited. Parents and society must further develop the innate moral beliefs.
So, what happens with our moral compass when we grow up?
Lost And Found
Everyone believes they are more virtuous and moral than anyone else.
Consider this moral dilemma: if you find a wallet with money, do you keep the cash?
Most people say they would return it to the original owner. But assume others wouldn’t. They believe people are not as honest as them.
“Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.” — Plato
To put this assumption to test, a team of scientists conducted a large scale experiment. They planted 17,000 lost wallets in 40 countries.
The results of the study published in Science busted long-standing economic model. Experts expected people to keep the wallets with money. They were all caught by surprise.
Regardless of country, the majority of people returned the wallets. And they were more likely to do so when the wallets had more money.
As Alain Cohn author of the study, explains, “We mistakenly assume that our fellow human beings are selfish. In reality, their self-image as an honest person is more important to them than a short-term monetary gain.”
Researchers posed as people who had found wallets, dropping them in public places. Some wallets were empty. Others had US$15 or US$100 in local currency.
72% of people returned the wallets that contain a large sum of money.
The wallet experiment confirms our instinct to do good. And that we care about our image too. The primary motivation to return the wallet was the aversion to be seen as a thief.
Our First Impulses Are Selfless
What’s our first, natural instinct? To act selfishly or to cooperate? To answer this question, a group of scientists conducted a series of ten studies. They were all based on economic games.
The experts explored the basis of cooperative decision-making. They applied a dual-process framework — self-control and intuition.
They wanted to see if we control our instincts to act selfishly. Or if we use rational thinking to override our natural impulse to cooperate.
Participants made financial decisions to maximize their gain at the group expense. Or the other way around. They have to choose between acting selfishly or cooperatively.
The results were striking.
Faster, more intuitive decisions created higher levels of cooperation. Slower, more reflective decisions made people act more selfishly.
As Gilbert Keith Chesterton wrote, “Evil comes at leisure like the disease. Good comes in a hurry like the doctor.”
To bulletproof their research, scientists manipulated people.
They forced them to either make decisions faster or to take extra time. Those who were forced to use intuition gave much more money to the common good than those who relied on reflection.
The findings confirmed that our first impulse is selfless. It makes sense as we live in a world where it pays to cooperate.
The Enemy Lives Within
Our nature is inherently good. We are born with an ability to distinguish right from wrong. But we are not exempt from acting violently or selfishly.
That’s what cynics get wrong when they want to describe our nature as evil. They only see one side. And use wars and violent acts to make their point.
We should not confuse an act with our nature. That wars exist doesn’t mean that humans are predisposed to violence.
As education expert Alfie Kohn said, every society has made pottery, but that doesn’t mean we have a pottery-making gene.
The good and bad debate is endless. We are not either good or bad, but both.
Buddhism encourages us to be cautious about opposing concepts. Thinking in binary terms is deceiving. Good and evil are two sides of the same coin. We must integrate both.
“Life is neither good or evil, but only a place for good and evil.” — Marcus Aurelius
The struggle between good and evil causes more violence. It creates a sense of moral superiority that divides people. It creates an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality.
The story of good and evil sells because it’s easy to understand, as David Loy wrote here, explains. It feeds on deception. Once we label someone as evil, we don’t want to understand them. We see them as the enemy.
When we label people, we lose the opportunity to address the causes of their actions. Hate, bigotry, and desperation seed more violence.
“If you want to hurt someone, it is important to demonize them first — in other words, fit them into your good-versus-evil story. That is why the first casualty of all wars is truth.” — David Loy
Hate is induced. But so are empathy and tolerance — nonviolence can also be taught.
Our mind is a constant battle — even if we don’t notice it. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.”
Two wolves are fighting inside your mind to see which will take over. One is full of anger, greed, resentment, and doubt. The other wolf is full of joy, compassion, kindness, and clarity.
Which wolf will win?
The one you feed the most.