Facial Movements and Babies: Morality Re-defined?

Over a hundred years ago, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud presented a very famous structural model of morality and personality consisting of three parts, each developing over a span of a few years. The first part, and the part we are born with, is the “id.” The id is the part of human brain activity that drives the pleasure principle; the id is concerned with satisfying basic instincts, regardless of the situation. The second structure, which develops over the next three years, is the ego. The ego is related to a child’s understanding of the “other,” or how other people may have their own needs and desires that need to be filled as well. Freud’s last structure, and the part that this entry is concerned with addressing, is the “superego.” Freud believed that the superego develops by age five in children, and it is responsible for guiding humans in questions of morality or ethics. Freud believed that the superego developed as a result of the environment and rules from primary and secondary caregivers.

While Freud’s theory has provided a base for many other psychologists to create their own versions of human personality and morality, two recent entries in the blogosphere focus on findings which portray morality in a novel way, as something innate and necessary for human survival. The first entry is by John M. Grohol from the Psychcentral blog entitled “Is Morality a Basic Instinct?” In the entry, Grohol examines new research in which scientists studied facial movements to draw parallels between physical and moral disgust in order to show how they may be related on a primitive level. The second entry, written by Jonah Lehrer from The Frontal Cortex blog, is entitled “Babies and Morality.” Lehrer examines an argument made by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, which suggests that perhaps human morality lies in “cooperative breeding” and may be “rooted in the cries and smiles of infants.” My responses to both of these entries can be found below and at their respective sites.

“Is Morality a Basic Instinct”

Having taken numerous child development psychology classes in school, I found this entry to be extremely interesting and thought-provoking. Most developmental theories taught today are based on the earlier works of psychologists like Freud, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Ainsworth, which mainly believe that morality is a learned, experiential construct—something that is gained through social rules from primary caregivers. The idea that morality could be “hard-wired into our brains” goes against much of what I have already learned; therefore, I have a few questions about the study itself.

Upon reading the study, I was struck by the specificity of the conclusion based solely upon evidence relating the facial movements for disgust and moral disgust. I can understand how conditioned taste aversion would cause facial movement in the levator labii region, as this was something that may have “evolved from a functional role in regulating sensory intake,” which Darwin suggested long ago. Furthermore, I can believe that similar movement in the levator labii region would result from disgust in the unfair conditions in the Ultimatum Game, but how did this movement come to be an accepted construct for morality? Furthermore, in the article you cite, the author quotes Adam Anderson when he says, “Surprisingly, our sophisticated moral sense of what is right and wrong may develop from a newborn’s innate preference for what tastes good and bad.” Do you think this is a fair assertion to make when the journal article from Science says that “anger and sadness endorsement…did not correlate with levator labii region activity,” and that “contempt, another emotion that has been theoretically linked to immorality also did not correlate with the activation of the levator labii region?” Given that previous research has shown that anger has opposing neurological and physical patterns, do you foresee any way to test for other aspects of morality or immorality beyond the facial movements and self-report for disgust?

While I feel that the assumptions being made might be premature without further research, this entry was an extremely interesting read, giving me something else to think about today. Thank you for this post, and I look forward to hearing from you or other bloggers in the future.

“Babies and Morality”

This is an interesting post, which presents the idea of morality as something not derived from our complex brains, but rather as a result of the evolution of humans as “cooperative breeders.” This, like another blog entry found on PsychCentral, presents a new way of looking at human morality, which goes against the previous notion that morality and ethics are learned from experience from a caregiver or society. Dr. Hrdy argues in the article that the ability “to cooperate in groups, to empathize with others and to wonder what others are thinking and feeling” arose in response to the “selective pressures of being in a cooperatively breeding social group.” While I agree that on some level, this does make sense, but is this purely speculation on Dr. Hrdy’s part or does she have empirical evidence to back up this assertion? Furthermore, I am not so sure that the article you are citing truly allows you to dismiss the notion that human morality is a system of behaviors “attributed to the Ten Commandments, Kant, etc.”

I personally feel that human morality and ethics span far wider than our dealings with babies, and it is constantly shifting to keep up with the changing times. While in some aspects, I can identify with some of what Dr. Hrdy believes is true, it simply does not account for a myriad of other daily human interactions, and thus is inadequate for explaining morality as a whole. Also, just because I can see how it might be true, doesn’t mean that it is the best explanation for how the world works. In conclusion, the article unfairly assumes that humankind is wholly altruistic and uses this idea as a basis for morality, but this is a hasty assumption that, while new and different, is unproven. Until I am given any sort of empirical evidence to believe otherwise, the article and your post isn’t much more than an interesting, thought-provoking idea.

1 comment:

  1. Kevin, your comments regarding morality and how we define it are very interesting. As this is not my area of expertise, I found it refreshing that you began your post by describing specifically what the id, ego, and superego are. While these are terms that I have seen and associate with Freudian thought, your brief description of them provided me with references to guide me through your article. In doing this, you also didn’t label the reader as an outsider. I think this definitely allowed any reader to connect to your blog. However, as you describe which blog posts you have commented on, you write of “’cooperative breeding’ and may be ‘rooted in the cries and smiles of infants’.” Divulging in what this actually means in your first paragraph would have provided a great basis on which to better explain your comment to the second blog post. I can understand that perhaps, the article itself may have been written in such a way that was hard to explain and this may have prevented you from effectively summarizing it in the first paragraph.

    Your first comment is well-written, albeit some minor spelling errors. The websites you linked to really complemented the comment. Doing this allowed the reader to ease through that comment and supplement their understanding with useful information. I commend your ability to relate what you have learned in class to this blog, and displayed this interest to the author of the post you commented on. However, it does seem that your additional knowledge of this matter translated into choppy sentences (in the first few lines of your first comment). Despite this, you were vigilant in pointing out gaps in the research presented and this was broadened even more in your second comment.

    After reading both the blog post, “Babies and Morality,” as well as your comment to it, I can’t help but agree with you. You not only criticized the original New York Times article’s lack of evidence, but pointed out that assumptions cannot be made without it. In your first comment, you included much research that definitely strengthened your comment. This was the only place I felt your second comment may be lacking. Your arguments, specifically stating how there was little empirical evidence to back this up, were relatively strong and I feel as though the added evidence would have definitely placed the ball in your opponent’s court (the author of the original blog post). Albeit some word repetition, reading your comments provided an enlightening experience to an issue that I had never considered.


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