Tag: Thomas Hobbes

Proximate vs Root Causes: Why You Should Keep Digging to Find the Answer

“Anything perceived has a cause.
All conclusions have premises.
All effects have causes.
All actions have motives.”
— Arthur Schopenhauer

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The Basics

One of the first principles we learn as babies is that of cause and effect. Infants learn that pushing an object will cause it to move, crying will cause people to give them attention, and bumping into something will cause pain. As we get older, this understanding becomes more complex. Many people love to talk about the causes of significant events in their lives (if I hadn’t missed the bus that day I would never have met my partner! or if I hadn’t taken that class in college I would never have discovered my passion and got my job!) Likewise, when something bad happens we have a tendency to look for somewhere to pin the blame.

The mental model of proximate vs root causes is a more advanced version of this reasoning, which involves looking beyond what appears to be the cause and finding the real cause. As a higher form of understanding, it is useful for creative and innovative thinking. It can also help us to solve problems, rather than relying on band-aid solutions.

Much of our understanding of cause and effect comes from Isaac Newton. His work examined how forces lead to motion and other effects. Newton’s laws explain how a body remains stationary unless a force acts upon it. From this, we can take a cause to be whatever causes something to happen.

For example, someone might ask: Why did I lose my job?

  • Proximate cause: the company was experiencing financial difficulties and could not continue to pay all its employees.
  • Root cause: I was not of particular value to the company and they could survive easily without me.

This can then be explored further: Why was I not of value to the company?

  • Ultimate cause: I allowed my learning to stagnate and did not seek constant improvement. I continued doing the same as I had been for years which did not help the company progress.
  • Even further: Newer employees were of more value because they had more up-to-date knowledge and could help the company progress.

This can then help us to find solutions: How can I prevent this from happening again?

  • Answer: In future jobs, I can continually aim to learn more, keep to date with industry advancements, read new books on the topic and bring creative insights to my work. I will know this is working if I find myself receiving increasing amounts of responsibility and being promoted to higher roles.

This example illustrates the usefulness of this line of thinking. If our hypothetical person went with the proximate cause, they would walk away feeling nothing but annoyance at the company which fired them. By establishing the root causes, they can mitigate the risk of the same thing happening in the future.

There are a number of relevant factors which we must take into account when figuring out root causes. These are known as predisposing factors and can be used to prevent a future repeat of an unwanted occurrence.

Predisposing factors tend to include:

  • The location of the effect
  • The exact nature of the effect
  • The severity of the effect
  • The time at which the effect occurs
  • The level of vulnerability to the effect
  • The cause of the effect
  • The factors which prevented it from being more severe.

Looking at proximate vs root causes is a form of abductive reasoning- a process used to unearth simple, probable explanations. We can use it in conjunction with philosophical razors (such as Occam’s and Hanlon’s) to make smart decisions and choices.

In Root Cause Analysis, Paul Wilson defines root causes as:

Root cause is that most basic reason for an undesirable condition or problem which, if eliminated or corrected, would have prevented it from existing or occurring.

In Leviathan, Chapter XI (1651) Thomas Hobbes wrote:

Ignorance of remote causes disposeth men to attribute all events to the causes immediate and instrumental: for these are all the causes they perceive…Anxiety for the future time disposeth men to inquire into the causes of things: because the knowledge of them maketh men the better able to order the present to their best advantage. Curiosity, or love of the knowledge of causes, draws a man from consideration of the effect to seek the cause; and again, the cause of that cause; till of necessity he must come to this thought at last that there is some cause whereof there is no former cause.

In Maxims of the Law, Francis Bacon wrote:

It were infinite for the law to consider the causes of causes, and their impulsions one of another; therefore it contented itself with the immediate cause, and judgeth of acts by that, without looking to any further degree.

A rather tongue in cheek perspective comes from the ever satirical George Orwell:

Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove Man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished forever.”
The issue with root cause analysis is that it can lead to oversimplification and it is rare for there to be one single root cause. It can also lead us to go too far (as George Orwell illustrates.) Over emphasising root causes is common among depressed people who end up seeing their existence as the cause of all their problems. As a consequence, suicide can seem like a solution (although it is the exact opposite.) The same can occur after a relationship ends, as people imagine their personality and nature to be the cause. To use this mental model in an effective manner, we must avoid letting it lead to self blame or negative thought spirals. When using it to examine our lives, it is best to only do so with a qualified therapist, rather than while ruminating in bed late at night. Finding root causes should be done with the future in mind, not for dwelling on past issues. Expert root cause analysts use it to prevent further problems and create innovative solutions. We can do the same in our own lives and work.

“Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Establishing Root Causes

Establishing root causes is rarely an easy task. However, there a number of techniques we can use to simplify the deduction process. These are similar to the methods used to find first principles:

Socratic questioning
Socratic questioning is a technique which can be used to establish root causes through strict analysis. This a disciplined questioning process used to uncover truths, reveal underlying assumptions and separate knowledge from ignorance. The key distinction between Socratic questioning and normal discussions is that the former seeks to draw out root causes in a systematic manner. Socratic questioning generally follows this process:

  1. Clarifying thinking and explaining origins of ideas. (What happened? What do I think caused it?)
  2. Challenging assumptions. (How do I know this is the cause? What could have caused that cause)
  3. Looking for evidence. (How do I know that was the cause? What can I do to prove or disprove my ideas?)
  4. Considering alternative perspectives. (What might others think? What are all the potential causes? )
  5. Examining consequences and implications. (What are the consequences of the causes I have established? How can they help me solve problems?)
  6. Questioning the original questions. (What can I do differently now that I know the root cause? How will this help me?)

The 5 Whys
This technique is simpler and less structured than Socratic questioning. Parents of young children will no doubt be familiar with this process, which necessitates asking ‘why?’ five times to a given statement. The purpose is to understand cause and effect relationships, leading to the root causes. Five is generally the necessary number of repetitions required. Each question is based on the previous answer, not the initial statement.

Returning to the example of our hypothetical laid off employee (mentioned in the introduction), we can see how this technique works.

  • Effect: I lost my job.
  • Why? Because I was not valuable enough to the company and they could let me go without it causing any problems.
  • Why? Because a newer employee in my department was getting far more done and having more creative ideas than me.
  • Why? Because I had allowed my learning to stagnate and stopped keeping up with industry developments. I continued doing what I have for years because I thought it was effective.
  • Why? Because I only received encouraging feedback from people higher up in the company, and even when I knew my work was substandard, they avoided mentioning it.
  • Why? Because whenever I received negative feedback in the past, I got angry and defensive. After a few occurrences of this, I was left to keep doing work which was not of much use. Then, when the company began to experience financial difficulties, firing me was the practical choice.
  • Solution: In future jobs, I must learn to be responsive to feedback, aim to keep learning and make myself valuable. I can also request regular updates on my performance. To avoid becoming angry when I receive negative feedback, I can try meditating during breaks to stay calmer at work.

As this example illustrates, the 5 whys technique is useful for drawing out root causes and finding solutions.

Cause and Effect Mapping

This technique is often used to establish causes of accidents, disasters, and other mishaps. Let’s take a look at how cause and effect mapping can be used to identify the root cause of a disaster which occurred in 1987: The King's Cross fire. This was a shocking event, where 31 people died and 100 were injured in a tube station fire. It was the first fatal fire to have occurred on the London Underground and led to tremendous changes in rules and regulations. This diagram shows the main factors which led to the fire, and how they all combined to lead to the tragic event. Factors included: flammable grease on the floors which allowed flames to spread, flammable out of date wooden escalators, complacent fire staff who failed to control the initial flames, untrained staff with no knowledge of how to evacuate people, blocked exits (believed to be due to cleaning staff negligence) and a dropped match (assumed to have been discarded by someone lighting a cigarette.)

Once investigators had established these factors which led to the fire, they could begin looking for solutions to prevent another fatal fire. Of course, solving the wrong problem would have been ineffective. Let’s take a look at each of the causes and figure out the root problem:

  • Cause: A dropped match. Smoking on Underground trains had been banned 3 years prior, but many people still lit cigarettes on the escalators as they left. Investigators were certain that the fire was caused by a match, and was not arson. Research found that many other fires had began in the past, yet had not spread. This alone did not explain the severity of this particular fire. Better measures have since been put into place to prevent smoking in stations (although Londoners can vouch for the fact that it still occasionally happens late at night or in secluded stations.)
  • Cause: flammable grease on escalators. Research found that this was indeed highly flammable. Solving this would have been almost impossible- the sheer size of stations and the numbers of people passing through them made thorough cleaning difficult. Solving this alone would not have been sufficient.
  • Cause: wooden escalators. Soon after the fire, stations began replacing these with metal (although it took until 2014 for the entire Underground network to replace every single one.
  • Cause: untrained staff. This was established to be the root cause. Even if the other factors were resolved, the lack of staff training or access to fire fighting equipment still left a high risk of another fatal incident. Investigations found that staff were only instructed to call the Fire Brigade once a fire was out of control, most had no training and little ability to communicate with each other. Once this root cause was found, it could be dealt with. Staff were given improved emergency training and better radio tools for communicating. Heat detectors and sprinklers were fitted in stations.

From this example, we can see how useful finding root causes is. The lack of staff training was the root cause, while the other factors were proximate causes which contributed.

From this information, we can create this diagram to illustrate the relationship between causes.

“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions … In nature, there is no effect without a cause … Experience never errs; it is only your judgments that err by promising themselves effects such as are not caused by your experiments.”

- Leonardo da Vinci

How We Can Use This Mental Model as Part of our Latticework

  • Hanlon’s Razor — This mental model states: never attribute to malice that which can be attributed to incompetence. It is relevant when looking for root causes. Take the aforementioned example of the Kings Cross fire. It could be assumed that staff failed to control the fire due to malice. However, we can be 99% certain that their failure to act was due to incompetence (the result of poor training and miscommunication.) When analysing root causes, we must be sure not to attribute blame where it does not exist.
  • Occam’s Razor — This model states: the simplest solution is usually correct. In the case of the fire, there are infinite possible causes which could be investigated. It could be said that the fire was started on purpose, the builders of the station made it flammable on purpose so they would be required to rebuild it that the whole thing is a conspiracy theory and people actually died in an alternate manner. However, the simplest solution is that the fire was caused by a discarded match. When looking for root causes, it is wise to first consider the simplest potential causes, rather than looking at everything which could have contributed.
  • Arguing from first principles — This mental model involves establishing the first principles of any given area of knowledge- information which cannot be deduced from anything else. Understanding the first principles of how fire spreads (such as the fire triangle) could have helped to prevent the event.
  • Black swans — This model, developed by Nassim Taleb is: “an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact…. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.” The King's Cross fire was a black swan- surprising, impactful and much analyzed afterwards. Understanding that black swans do occur can help us to plan for serious events before they happen.
  • Availability bias — This model states: we misjudge the frequency of events which have happened recently and information which is vivid. Imagine a survivor of the Kings Cross fire who had also been on a derailed train a few months earlier. The intensity of the two memories would be likely to lead them to see travelling on the Underground as dangerous. However, this is not the case – only one in 300 million journeys experience issues (much safer than driving.) When devising root causes, we must be sure to consider all information, not just that which comes to mind with ease.
  • Narrative fallacy — This model states: we tend to turn the past into a narrative, imagining events as fitting together in a manner which is usually false.
  • Hindsight bias — This model states: we see events as predictable when looking back on them.
  • Confirmation bias — This model states: we tend to look for information which confirms pre-existing beliefs and ideas.

Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

Most great thinkers have speculated about the kind of leadership that might give rise to a better society, analyzing it through what's sometimes called a “normative” lens: What should we be doing?

In Leviathan, for example, Thomas Hobbes argued for a single, absolute sovereign to hold together the social contract. He was addressing a debate over how leaders should act—whether they should follow their citizens' wishes or act in the interests of future generations, against current pressures.

Other thinkers have focused on the real-world, actual path to leadership, leaving justice and civic virtue out of it; a more “descriptive” lens. For example, Robert Caro's The Power Broker, required reading at many college campuses, focuses on just that idea. How does power actually work? (Part of his answer was that power doesn't always corrupt, but it does always reveal.)

Or take Niccolò Machiavelli’s well-known brand of statecraft:

Whoever desires to establish a kingdom or principality where liberty and equality prevail, will equally fail, unless he withdraws from that general equality a number of the boldest and most ambitious spirits, and makes gentlemen of them, not merely in name but in fact, by giving them castles and possessions, as well as money and subjects; so that surrounded by these he may be able to maintain his power, and that by his support they may satisfy their ambition.

Machiavelli may not have had access to statistical analytic tools, but the cross-national data seems to back up his crony-focused approach, according to the four authors of The Logic of Political Survival.

Over the course of 500+ pages of formal game theory proofs and model testing, they make a strong case for what they call Selectorate Theory.

That book is a bit dense, so for the layperson, two of the authors—Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith—also distilled their findings into the far more readable The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics.

Their idea is that governance—public or corporate—is driven by the self-interested effort of leaders to acquire and keep their power.

Under this lens, all policy decisions are a play for the loyalty of key backers, whether it’s the inner circle in a dictatorship or a whole populace in a democracy.

The logic of a leader’s political survival dictates all of the varieties of governments we see, from monarchies or corporate boards to communist states and democracies. According to Selectorate Theory, it boils down to the relative size of three groups:

The Nominal Selectorate (interchangeables), which has at least some small voice in choosing the leader. This is the pool of potential supporters.

Example: Millions of individual voters or small shareholders.

The Real Selectorate (influentials), who actually choose the leader.

Example: Senior members of the Saudi royal family or big institutional shareholders.

The Winning Coalition (essentials), whose support is critical both to gaining the leadership and to keeping it.

Example: A handful of board members and senior management.

Our starting point is the realization that any leader worth her salt wants as much power as she can get, and to keep it for as long as possible. Managing the interchangeables, influentials, and essentials to that end is the act, art, and science of governing.

The difference in the relative size of these groups determines how much a leader can get away with and what the quality of life is like for those at the bottom of the system.

Dictatorships are governments based on a small winning coalition formed of a handful of generals, bureaucrats and regional leaders. The real selectorate is also small, and drawn from a large population.

In democracies, the opposite is true: the winning coalition is large, and the real selectorate is almost as large as the nominal selectorate. This means that dictators can keep their jobs by handing out private goods to their cronies, whereas democratic leaders have to dole out public goods to maintain their power. That seems to square pretty well with observations in the real world.

De Mesquita and Smith place the governance of most publicly-traded companies on the dictator side of the scale. A very small number of people usually determine the political survival of a CEO – small enough that the CEO can maintain power by making this small group happy rather than working for all of the shareholders.

In cases where companies have large groups whose approval is essential for leadership, public goods like increasing share value reward everyone and become the focus of the leader.

Much of political theory has focused on what justice and civic virtue looks like, without much evidence of the way things really work. But to change the world for the better, it is not enough to take a philosophical position. Wishful thinking has never been a wise starting point.

De Mesquita and Smith conclude that leaders shouldn’t be taken at face value on their motives.

Appeals to ideological principles and rights are generally a cover. J.P. Morgan had it right: There is always some principled way to defend any position, especially one’s own interests.

They propose five rules to keep a hold on power in any system:

1. Keep your “Winning Coalition” as small as possible.

The smaller the symbiotic group of people beholden to you, the more efficient it is to retain leadership through giving private benefits.

2. Keep your “Nominal Selectorate” as large as possible.

You’ll want to keep your inner circle on its toes by having many people waiting in the wings to replace them. You also want a large tax base to draw from.

3. Control the flow of revenue.

State bankruptcy is a political crisis. It either means the leader cannot purchase political loyalty from key backers or, in a democracy, cannot afford pork-barrel projects to buy popularity.

4. Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal.

And make sure you’re the only one with access to the treasury.

5. Don’t take money out of your supporters’ pockets to make the people’s lives better.

Starving illiterates don’t make good revolutionaries, whereas dissatisfied cronies can oust you.

As a ruler, your inner circle may include very few of the people who brought you to power in the first place. Your fellow revolutionaries may be too much in the habit of revolution to be safe colleagues going forward. As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince:

It is easier for the prince to make friends of those men who were contented under the former government, and are therefore his enemies, than of those who, being discontented with it, were favourable to him and encouraged him to seize it.

Much as we may wish it weren’t the case, the authors’ data suggest corrupt dictatorships or oligarchies handled in this way are actually quite stable and long-lasting.

As long as the leader offers more benefits to his essentials than they could expect from alternate leadership, the incumbent enjoys a large advantage, and coup attempts often fail. For example, from 1917 until the 1980s, all but one Soviet leader ruled until his natural death. The exception, Kruschev, was deposed after reneging on promises to cronies.

The three most important characteristics of a coalition are: (1) Loyalty; (2) Loyalty; (3) Loyalty. Successful leaders surround themselves with trusted friends and family, and rid themselves of any ambitious supporters.

Though the logic of politics cannot be changed, it can be applied to finding windows for change.

The beginning of a leader’s rule or his or her terminal illness mark unstable periods of the reign, particularly if an heir has not been assigned and groomed. Sometimes it's a financial angle: Under severe financial pressure, even an autocratic leader may see that political reform holds the best promise of political survival.

(In Taiwan, for example, Chiang Kai-Shek expanded his own coalition, in response to various pressures, until one day he found himself in a democracy.)

If an autocrat's “inner circle” feels that their future is insecure, they will be incentivized to improve the lot of the nominal selectorate in case they someday find themselves on the outside. Mobs may take to the streets or storm government buildings when they are encouraged to do so by someone powerful, like a military leader. And with this blessing from the inner circle, the power of the people can often topple the leadership.

While there is a lot of precedent for nasty regimes being overthrown, certain conditions are necessary to prevent another dictatorship from taking hold. Countries without the political curse of natural resource wealth are more likely to succeed in democratic revolution, because they rely on a well-fed and productive populace to sustain them. The overall structure of the populace and its underlying stability or instability, cohesiveness or disjointedness matters greatly.

And in the end, given that political regimes are extremely complex systems, some of this can simply be hard to predict.

If you liked this post, you might also love:

Breaking the Rules to Rise to Power: How Norm Violators Gain Power in the Eyes of Others – Idealists among us would hope that people with power who break the rules quickly and loudly fall off the corporate ladder. But, as the research asks, is this the case? Or does the very act of breaking the rules fuel perceptions of power and make the person more powerful?

Why Performance Won’t Get You Promoted – If you’re going to play the game you should at least educate yourself on the unwritten rules. In an NPR interview, Stanford business professor Jeffrey Pfeffer highlights why performance won’t get you promoted and why power is corrupting.

Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil

"Children are sensitive to inequality, then, but it seems to upset them only when they themselves are the ones getting less."
“Children are sensitive to inequality, then, but it seems to upset them only when they themselves are the ones getting less.”

Morality fascinates us. The stories we enjoy the most, whether fictional (as in novels, television shows, and movies) or real (as in journalism and historical accounts), are tales of good and evil. We want the good guys to be rewarded— and we really want to see the bad guys suffer.

So writes Paul Bloom in the first pages of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. His work, proposes that “certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. They do not come from the mother’s knee … ”

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What is morality?

Even philosophers don't agree on morality. In fact, a lot of people don't believe in morality at all.

To settle on some working terminology, Bloom writes:

Arguments about terminology are boring; people can use words however they please. But what I mean by morality—what I am interested in exploring, whatever one calls it— includes a lot more than restrictions on sexual behavior. Here is a simple example (of morality):

A car full of teenagers drives slowly past an elderly woman waiting at a bus stop. One of the teenagers leans out the window and slaps the woman, knocking her down. They drive away laughing.

Unless you are a psychopath, you will feel that the teenagers did something wrong. And it is a certain type of wrong. It isn’t a social gaffe like going around with your shirt inside out or a factual mistake like thinking that the sun revolves around the earth. It isn’t a violation of an arbitrary rule, such as moving a pawn three spaces forward in a chess game. And it isn’t a mistake in taste, like believing that the Matrix sequels were as good as the original.

As a moral violation, it connects to certain emotions and desires. You might feel sympathy for the woman and anger at the teenagers; you might want to see them punished. They should feel bad about what they did; at the very least, they owe the woman an apology. If you were to suddenly remember that one of the teenagers was you, many years ago, you might feel guilt or shame.

Punching someone in the face.

Hitting someone is a very basic moral violation. Indeed, the philosopher and legal scholar John Mikhail has suggested that the act of intentionally striking someone without their permission— battery is the legal term —has a special immediate badness that all humans respond to. Here is a good candidate for a moral rule that transcends space and time: If you punch someone in the face, you’d better have a damn good reason for it.

Not all morality has to do with what is wrong. “Morality,” Bloom says, “also encompasses questions of rightness.”

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Morality from an Evolutionary Perspective

If you think of evolution solely in terms of “survival of the fittest” or “nature red in tooth and claw,” then such universals cannot be part of our natures. Since Darwin, though, we’ve come to see that evolution is far more subtle than a Malthusian struggle for existence. We now understand how the amoral force of natural selection might have instilled within us some of the foundation for moral thought and moral action.

Actually, one aspect of morality , kindness to kin, has long been a no-brainer from an evolutionary point of view. The purest case here is a parent and a child: one doesn’t have to do sophisticated evolutionary modeling to see that the genes of parents who care for their children are more likely to spread through the population than those of parents who abandon or eat their children.

We are also capable of acting kindly and generously toward those who are not blood relatives. At first, the evolutionary origin of this might seem obvious: clearly, we thrive by working together— in hunting, gathering, child care, and so on— and our social sentiments make this coordination possible.

Adam Smith pointed this out long before Darwin: “All the members of human society stand in need of each others assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.”

This creates a tragedy of the commons problem.

But there is a wrinkle here; for society to flourish in this way, individuals have to refrain from taking advantage of others. A bad actor in a community of good people is the snake in the garden; it’s what the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins calls “subversion from within.” Such a snake would do best of all, reaping the benefits of cooperation without paying the costs. Now, it’s true that the world as a whole would be worse off if the demonic genes proliferated, but this is the problem, not the solution— natural selection is insensitive to considerations about “the world as a whole.” We need to explain what kept demonic genes from taking over the population, leaving us with a world of psychopaths.

Darwin’s theory was that cooperative traits could prevail if societies containing individuals who worked together peacefully would tend to defeat other societies with less cooperative members— in other words, natural selection operating at the group, rather than individual, level.

Writing of a hypothetical conflict between two imaginary tribes, Darwin wrote (in The Descent of Man): “If the one tribe included … courageous, sympathetic and faithful members who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other.”

“An alternative theory,” Bloom writes, “more consistent with individual-level natural selection:”

is that the good guys might punish the bad guys. That is, even without such conflict between groups, altruism could evolve if individuals were drawn to reward and interact with kind individuals and to punish— or at least shun —cheaters, thieves, thugs, free riders, and the like.

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The Difference Between Compassion and Empathy

there is a big difference between caring about a person (compassion) and putting yourself in the person’s shoes (empathy).

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How can we best understand our moral natures?

Many would agree … that this is a question of theology, while others believe that morality is best understood through the insights of novelists, poets, and playwrights. Some prefer to approach morality from a philosophical perspective, looking not at what people think and how people act but at questions of normative ethics (roughly, how one should act) and metaethics (roughly, the nature of right and wrong).

Another lens is science.

We can explore our moral natures using the same methods that we use to study other aspects of our mental life, such as language or perception or memory. We can look at moral reasoning across societies or explore how people differ within a single society— liberals versus conservatives in the United States, for instance. We can examine unusual cases, such as cold-blooded psychopaths. We might ask whether creatures such as chimpanzees have anything that we can view as morality, and we can look toward evolutionary biology to explore how a moral sense might have evolved. Social psychologists can explore how features of the environment encourage kindness or cruelty, and neuroscientists can look at the parts of the brain that are involved in moral reasoning.

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What are we born with?

Bloom argues that Thomas Jefferson was right when he wrote in a letter to his friend Peter Carr: “The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree.” This view, that we have an ingrained moral sense, was shared by enlightenment philosophers of the Jefferson period, including Adam Smith. While Smith is best known for his book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, he himself favored his first book: The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The pages contain insight into “the relationship between imagination and empathy, the limits of compassion, our urge to punish others’ wrongdoing,” and more.

Bloom quotes Smith's work to what he calls an “embarrassing degree.”

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What aspects of morality are natural to us?

Our natural endowments include:

  • a moral sense— some capacity to distinguish between kind and cruel actions
  • empathy and compassion— suffering at the pain of those around us and the wish to make this pain go away
  • a rudimentary sense of fairness— a tendency to favor equal divisions of resources
  • a rudimentary sense of justice— a desire to see good actions rewarded and bad actions punished

Bloom argues that our goodness, however, is limited. This is perhaps best explained by Thomas Hobbes, who in 1651, argued that man “in the state of nature” is wicked and self-interested.

We have a moral sense that enables us to judge others and that guides our compassion and condemnation. We are naturally kind to others, at least some of the time. But we possess ugly instincts as well, and these can metastasize into evil. The Reverend Thomas Martin wasn’t entirely wrong when he wrote in the nineteenth century about the “native depravity” of children and concluded that “we bring with us into the world a nature replete with evil propensities.”

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In The End …

We're born with some elements of morality and others take time to emerge because, they require a capacity for reasoning. “The baby lacks a grasp of impartial moral principles—prohibitions or requirements that apply equally to everyone within a community. Such principles are at the foundation of systems of law and justice.”

There is a popular view that we are slaves of the passions …

that our moral judgments and moral actions are the product of neural mechanisms that we have no awareness of and no conscious control over. If this view of our moral natures were true, we would need to buck up and learn to live with it. But it is not 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.

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Still Curious? Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil goes on to explore some of the ways that Hobbes was right, among them: our indifference to strangers and our instinctive emotional responses.