Are Babies Moral?
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
“To have a genuinely moral system, in other words, some things first have to matter, and what we see in babies is the development of mattering.”
I’m in the midst of another parenting transition where my son’s development from infant to toddler has me focusing less on basics and more on behavior. “Hitting and biting are common during this time” (so true!) is a sentence included in the welcome packet I received recently from his new toddler-room teachers. So this week’s New York Times Magazine story on “The Moral Lives of Babies” caught my eye.
Contrary to historic theories that babies are a moral “blank slate,” the article describes new research out of Yale University that indicates babies may have a “rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life.” This five-minute video demonstrates some of the research experiments behind these findings of whether babies can tell right from wrong. It’s a helpful way in to this lengthy article on behavioral testing and our ongoing fascination with the question of nature or nurture and human development.
[updated May 16, 2010: added the embed video]
My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor. That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.
—NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, in his letter to Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Goodell handed “Big Ben” a six-game suspension in his most recent action against a player violating the National Football League’s personal conduct policy. Goodell called it “early-intervention.”
Is he raising the ethical bar for professional athletes?
Salvation somehow seemed closer — yet we also knew that we could be killed at any moment. The goal was to hang on a little longer. … The fury of the Haitian earthquake, which has taken more than 200,000 lives, teaches us how cruel nature can be to man. The Holocaust, which destroyed a people, teaches us that nature, even in its cruelest moments, is benign in comparison with man when he loses his moral compass and his reason.
— —Samuel Pisar, from an excellent Op-Ed in The New York Times titled “Out of Auschwitz”
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Ethicality of Profession v. Salary
Trent Gilliss, online editor
David McCandless has created this rather provocative infographic for the Guardian’s Datablog (click through for larger image). He’s mapped data on public sector salaries in the UK to a 2008 Gallup poll rating honesty and ethical standards of 21 professions in the U.S. (nurses have worn the crown for nine out of the last ten years).
Having lived in Oxford and worked in London for a short while, I’m somewhat suspicious of mapping opinions of what Americans perceive to be the ethicality of professions to the actual professions of UK subjects. But, it’s fun to think about and talk over with your friends and colleagues.
I have to admit my solar plexus is aching a bit when I see that journalists are tightly clumped with bankers, attorneys, plumbers, and real estate agents on the low end of the respectability quadrant. At least stock brokers and savvy politicians make a better living wage for having “similar” moral integrity. Perhaps I should be a fireman or a high school teacher…
And your observations?
Countdown to Compassion
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Last time we put out our program with Karen Armstrong, one of our producers wrote about Karen Armstrong’s call to build an international “Charter for Compassion.” In her speech, Armstrong states that “I think it’s time that we moved beyond the idea of toleration, and moved toward appreciation of the other.”
Now, we are once again replaying “The Freelance Monotheism of Karen Armstrong” one week before the Charter for Compassion itself is unveiled. In some ways, the charter’s mission is surprisingly simple — it’s essentially a call for everyone around the world to follow the Golden Rule. Less than a month ago, Armstrong articulated this mission in a letter co-signed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
“It is not simply a statement of principle; it is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time. In addition to participating in one of the many launch events, we invite each individual to adopt the charter as their own, to make a lifelong commitment to live with compassion.”
It seems a little serendipitous to me that the charter is being released on November 12, the same day we’re releasing our program with Buddhist thinker Matthieu Ricard to podcasters. Ricard is another person very interested in the idea of compassion. In his conversation with Krista, he offers the idea that compassion is a skill that we develop with practice: “You don’t learn to play the piano by playing 20 seconds a week,” he says, and much like we exercise to keep our bodies fit, we should also be practicing compassionate thinking to remain spiritually fit.
While the charter’s mission is to tell the world why we should be compassionate, Ricard is teaching how we can be compassionate.
I’m interested to see what happens after the charter is officially revealed. How will it be received? On what terms will it put forth its mission? Will anyone notice?
Cleanliness Is Next To …
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Editor’s note [9.5.2009, 2:21pm]: a link was removed from the stricken language below and a link to a more in-depth article by Rivkah Slonim explaining the family purification ritual was added. We regret the error.
I find myself fascinated by this story from a few years ago about some Jewish feminists’ renewed interest in the 3,500-year-old tradition of the mikvah. The mikvah is a purification ritual involving immersion in water
(a precursor to Christian baptism), and was mandatory for Jewish women at the end of their menstrual cycle. What was once considered an anachronistic and even demeaning ritual, as NPR’s Tovia Smith reports, has been adapted for contemporary life:
“…the mikvah is also being used today as a kind of spiritual therapy, for everything from getting over a miscarriage, to completing a round of chemotherapy, finishing a doctoral degree or breaking up with a boyfriend.”
Of course, Judaism doesn’t have a monopoly on cleansing and purification rituals. Islam has the practice of ablution, or ritualized cleansing, in preparation for prayer; and many Hindus gather during the 2,000-year-old Kumbh Mela pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges river and absolve their sins. To list all of the world’s cleansing rituals here would be unwieldy, but they seem to be common throughout many faiths, cultures, and nations.
Within the last few years there has been a bit of scientific research on the psychological relationship between cleanliness and morality, which has revealed what’s been called “The Lady Macbeth Effect” — in reference to the fifth act of Shakespeare’s play, when Lady Macbeth obsessively washes her hands in an attempt to ease her conscience. One study showed a tendency to seek physical cleanliness when thinking guilty thoughts, while another demonstrated how thinking about physical cleanliness can cause one to be less judgmental.
I find this interesting not just in the context of larger spiritual traditions, but also in day-to-day life. For me, sometimes simple pedestrian rituals like taking a shower can serve as a point of transition and reflection. How does cleanliness play a role in your spiritual and moral life?
(image: detail of John Singer Sargent’s Ellen Tarry as Lady Macbeth, via freeparking/Flickr)
Whistleblowers, Resistors, and Defectors
Nancy Rosenbaum, Associate Producer
As I continued to do research for our upcoming program, “The Long Shadow of Torture,” I discovered an Australian public radio documentary that follows up with some of the original participants in Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments from the 1960s. In those experiments, participants were instructed to deliver increasingly intense electric shocks to a 50-something man whenever he answered a word problem incorrectly. Milgram, a social psychologist at Yale University, wanted to see how far ordinary citizens would go in inflicting harm on another person while under direction from an authority figure. What the participants didn’t know is that the whole experiment was rigged — the electroshock machine was a fake and the man receiving the shocks was an actor.
Milgram discovered that under the right social conditions many people will go along with what they’re told to do. One of the people who resisted during the Milgram experiment was WWII veteran and Communist Party activist Joseph Dimow. In his 2008 interview, Dimow says that being persecuted for his involvement with “the CP” gave him “the grit” to challenge authority. But he also wonders about the choices he might have made if the Communist Party had ordered him to things that were similarly harmful. Would he have complied out of a desire to belong and be accepted by the group? In the audio clip above, he contemplates these questions in his own words.
In Krista’s interview with Darius Rejali, he mentions Sgt. Joseph Darby (pictured above), the whistleblower who notified Army Criminal Investigation Command about detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. Rejali says it’s hard to know what moved him. In 2005 Darby received a JFK Profile in Courage Award. Here is an excerpt from his acceptance speech:
I’d like to tell you a small story. When we first entered the country of Iraq, crossing from Kuwait to Iraq, there’s a half mile of no man’s land, a barren desert with no moving vehicles, no people, no life. As we crossed that, I can honestly tell you today that I could not remember why I had left my wife and my family. And I did not know what waited for me on the other side.
But a few weeks later in Hillah, I had an experience that changed that. Our patrol was approached by a small group of children. And a small, unbathed girl around seven in a one-piece dress came and tugged on my uniform and said, “Mister, give me food.”
As I looked into her eyes, my doubt evaporated. I knew why we were there and I knew that we had to be there. And I knew that while we were there, we represented something larger than ourselves. We represented our country, its values, its principles, its morals.
Six months later, I was faced with the toughest decision. On one hand, I had my morals and the morals of my country. On the other, I had my comrades, my brothers in arms.
Today, for the first time since I’ve returned home, I am able to stand here publicly and be proud of my decisions to put the values of my country and its reputation ahead of everything else.