Are human beings born good and corrupted by society or born bad and redeemed by civilization? Lately, goodness has been on a roll, scientifically speaking. It turns out that even 1-year-olds already sympathize with the distress of others and go out of their way to help them.Moral Puzzles That Tots Struggle With (Zazes, Flurps and the Moral World of Kids):
But the most recent work suggests that the origins of evil may be only a little later than the origins of good.
Our impulse to love and help the members of our own group is matched by an impulse to hate and fear the members of other groups. In "Gulliver's Travels," Swift described a vicious conflict between the Big-Enders, who ate their eggs with the big end up, and the Little-Enders, who started from the little end. Historically, largely arbitrary group differences (Catholic vs. Protestant, Hutu vs. Tutsi) have led to persecution and even genocide.
When and why does this particular human evil arise? A raft of new studies shows that even 5-year-olds discriminate between what psychologists call in-groups and out-groups. Moreover, children actually seem to learn subtle aspects of discrimination in early childhood. [. . .]
The adults were more likely to say that angry faces were black. Even people who would hotly deny any racial prejudice unconsciously associate other racial groups with anger.
But what about the innocent kids? Even 3- and 4-year-olds were more likely to say that angry faces were black. In fact, younger children were just as prejudiced as older children and adults.
Is this just something about white attitudes toward black people? They did the same experiment with white and Asian faces. Although Asians aren't stereotypically angry, children also associated Asian faces with anger. Then the researchers tested Asian children in Taiwan with exactly the same white and Asian faces. The Asian children were more likely to think that angry faces were white. They also associated the out-group with anger, but for them the out-group was white.
Was this discrimination the result of some universal, innate tendency or were preschoolers subtly learning about discrimination? For black children, white people are the out-group. But, surprisingly, black children (and adults) were the only ones to show no bias at all; they categorized the white and black faces in the same way. The researchers suggest that this may be because black children pick up conflicting signals—they know that they belong to the black group, but they also know that the white group has higher status.
These findings show the deep roots of group conflict. But the last study also suggests that somehow children also quickly learn about how groups are related to each other.
Here's a question. There are two groups, Zazes and Flurps. A Zaz hits somebody. Who do you think it was, another Zaz or a Flurp?Here's a question. There are two groups, Gopniks and Ellsworths. A Gopnik tells somebody "we do have to teach our children how to widen the moral circle, and to extend their natural compassion and care even to other groups". Do you think she was asking the Gopniks to extend their "natural compassion and care" even to the Ellsworths, or do you think she was lecturing at the Ellsworths?
It's depressing, but you have to admit that it's more likely that the Zaz hit the Flurp. That's an understandable reaction for an experienced, world-weary reader of The Wall Street Journal. But here's something even more depressing—4-year-olds give the same answer.
In my last column, I talked about some disturbing new research showing that preschoolers are already unconsciously biased against other racial groups. Where does this bias come from? [. . .]
In 2012 she asked young children about the Zazes and Flurps. Even 4-year-olds predicted that people would be more likely to harm someone from another group than from their own group. So children aren't just biased against other racial groups: They also assume that everybody else will be biased against other groups. And this extends beyond race, gender and religion to the arbitrary realm of Zazes and Flurps. [. . .]
But in the new study, Dr. Rhodes asked similar moral questions about the Zazes and Flurps. The 4-year-olds said it would always be wrong for Zazes to hurt the feelings of others in their group. But if teachers decided that Zazes could hurt Flurps' feelings, then it would be OK to do so. Intrinsic moral obligations only extended to members of their own group.
The 4-year-olds demonstrate the deep roots of an ethical tension that has divided philosophers for centuries. We feel that our moral principles should be universal, but we simultaneously feel that there is something special about our obligations to our own group, whether it's a family, clan or country.
"You've got to be taught before it's too late / Before you are 6 or 7 or 8 / To hate all the people your relatives hate," wrote Oscar Hammerstein. Actually, though, it seems that you don't have to be taught to prefer your own group—you can pick that up fine by yourself. But we do have to teach our children how to widen the moral circle, and to extend their natural compassion and care even to the Flurps.
Larry Gopnik: And... what happened to the goy?
Rabbi Nachtner: The goy? Who cares?
Or, if you prefer non-fiction, Alison's brother Adam has a heartwarming essay about how he learned to look past "impaled Iranians" to find humor in the Book of Esther and learn the true meaning of Purim.
"Rabbi," I began, "I was not raised as an observant Jew, but I am nonetheless of a Jewish background, and I am naturally concerned to show some grasp of a tradition that, though familiar in spirit, is still alien to me in many ways." I don't know; that's how I thought you ought to talk to a rabbi. Anyway, I eventually explained that I couldn't make head or tail of the Book of Esther.
"It's a spoof, a burlesque, really," he almost mumbled. He picked up my Bible, riffled through it as though there were a kind of satisfaction just in touching the pages, and then frowned. "This is a Christian Bible," he said, genuinely puzzled. [. . .]
It's a light book with a serious message. [. . .] Esther is the comic book, a book for court Jews, with a fairy-tale, burlesque spirit." [. . .]
"It is?" I said.
"Yes. You see, Mordecai is a classic Jew of the Diaspora, not just exiled but entirely assimilated--a court Jew, really. It's a book for court Jews. [. . .] The worldliness and the absurdity are tied together--the writer obviously knows that the king is a bit of idiot--but the point is that good can rise from it in any case. Esther acts righteously and saves her people, and we need not worry, too much, about what kind of Jew she was before or even after. [. . .] This is the godless, comic book of Jews in the city and how they struggle to do the righteous thing."
I was stunned. This was, as they say, the story of my life. A funny book about court Jews...I had been assigned to burlesque it when the text was preburlesqued, as jeans might be preshrunk.
We talked for a while longer, about the background of Haman as a Jew hater, and of how the most startlingly contemporary thing in the book was the form of anti-Semitism; even twenty-five hundred years ago in Persia, the complaint against the Jews was the same as it is now. ["chief councillor, Haman, decides to start a pogrom against the Jews, for all the usual reasons: They are tight and clannish and obey only themselves."] In the end, the rabbi gave me a signed copy of the Bible, the Jewish Bible, the Tanach. (Signed by him, I mean.)
We got together a couple of times after that, and eventually I decided to try and go ahead with the Purimspiel. He said, "Why not? What have you got to lose?" [. . .]
In the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, hundreds of people in dinner jackets and sequined dresses were wearing masks, although this made them look less festive than vaguely embarrassed, as though they were worried about being seen by their friends. I had forgotten the look and feel of a New York benefit [. . .]
What did I tell them? Well, I did the "New York as Persia, Donald and Ivana" bit ["Ahasuerus was Donald Trump: dumb as an ox, rich, lecherous, easily put out, and living in a gaudy apartment."], and then I did a bit I'd made up that afternoon on Haman. That got a modest laugh, and, encouraged, I went on to do the "man goes to see a rabbi" bit. I said that, once I'd thought of transposing the story to New York, I had gotten stuck on Moredecai. Who could Mordecai be in the modern city? I had gone to see a rabbi, and the rabbi had told me that the Book of Esther was in part a spoof, a burlesque: a comedy in which worldly people took risks and did unworldly things, and that Mordecai, if he was anyone, was us--the assimilated court and city Jews. And this was sort of amazing to me [. . .] But I saw now that there was a connection between a certain kind of comedy, the comedy of assimilation, and a certain kind of courage, the courage to use your proximity to power, bought at the price of losing your "identity," to save your kinsmen. The real moral center of the story, I saw now, lay in the tiny, heartbreaking, and in many ways comic moment when Esther--trayf-eating, dim-witted, overdressed, sexy Esther--appears before the king, who hasn't found her particularly sexy lately. [. . .] But she did, and the Jews were saved, for once. [. . .]
Though I am not strangely exhilarated by my experience as a Purimspieler, I did find something significant in the Book of Esther, and I am certainly glad I did it. [. . .] Even if it was too late to be an everyday, starting Jew, one could still be, so to speak, Jewish in the clutch.