Bioethics Discussion Blog: Altruistic Toddlers Do Exist

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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Altruistic Toddlers Do Exist

Continuing on with the thread of my July 6, 2005 posting here, there is an article in the March 3 2006 issue of Science titled "Altruistic Helping in Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees" by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello. The authors'abstract of their paper follows:

"Human beings routinely help others to achieve their goals, even when the helper receives no immediate benefit and the person helped is a stranger. Such altruistic behaviors (toward non-kin) are extremely rare evolutionarily, with some theorists even proposing that they are uniquely human. Here we show that human children as young as 18 months of age (prelinguistic or just-linguistic) quite readily help others to achieve their goals in a variety of different situations. This requires both an understanding of others' goals and an altruistic motivation to help. In addition, we demonstrate similar though less robust skills and motivations in three young chimpanzees."

These toddlers were able to discriminate when, as part of the test, an object was apparently accidentally vs intentionally dropped. They retrieved and returned the object if they recognized that the dropping was accidental.

It is good to see that research scientists are trying to explain the phenomenon of ethical behavior and expand ethics from philosophical discussions to science. ..Maurice.

6 Comments:

At Monday, March 06, 2006 6:54:00 AM, Anonymous Bob Koepp said...

Dr Mo -
I'm not sure how this furthers the cause of "scientific ethics." In fact, you seem to assume that altruistic, helping behavior is ethical. But that certainly isn't a scientific judgment. And if the kids and chimps are demonstrating "helping behavior" simply because they want to be "part of the action," well, what's ethical about that?

 
At Monday, March 06, 2006 9:17:00 AM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Bob, to me if a study is performed using the scientific method to establish the evolution of a behavior, that which is considered an ethical behavior, such as altruism (doing something for someone in need with no personal benefit)then it (altruism) takes on a different appearance. The appearance is one of a phenomenon in behavior which has a biological correlation (for example, the evolutionary component) rather than purely philosophical interpretation and explanation.

With regard to the "helping behavior", the fact that the study demonstrated that the toddlers descriminated and would not pick up and return the object when they observed it was intentionally dropped suggests that they were not interested to be just "part of the action" (such as a dog returning a thrown stick) but wanted to help someone in need. To me that changes the behavior to something ethical. ..Maurice.

 
At Monday, March 06, 2006 9:43:00 AM, Anonymous Bob Koepp said...

Mo -
Let's see, if instead of returning a thrown stick my dog fetches the newspaper, or even my meds when I need them, does that make my dog's behavior ethical?

If the kids believed the object was _intentionally_ dropped, then being "part of the action" might not mean picking up and returning the object, would it?

Lest we forget, helping behavior can also be directed to facilitating all sorts of very nasty things. Is wiping the brow of the exhausted torturer to be applauded?

If scientific investigations of ethical behavior are to be taken seriously, they need to be somewhat sensitive to the question of what makes an act ethical in the first place. Otherwise, whatever it is we learn from the investigations, it probably won't be about ethics.

 
At Monday, March 06, 2006 4:01:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

Bob, are you saying that some acts that are considered altruistic could be also ethical but there might be some acts which have nothing to do with ethics? I presume you mean that a dog fetching the owner's newspaper on the door step and bringing it into the house after observing that a paper was present would have nothing to do with ethics because this is not reasonably altruistic but perhaps trained with some food or friendly patting as a reward. I would agree. In the case of the toddlers studied, their behavior to pick up objects that were accidentally dropped was likely not a trained response. Would the child recognize or even expect a simple "thank you" from the stranger-researcher as a self-benefit?

According to the Columbia University Press Encyclopedia: "altruism (ăl'trūĭz'əm) , concept in philosophy and psychology that holds that the interests of others, rather than of the self, can motivate an individual. The term was invented in the 19th cent. by the French philosopher Auguste Comte, who devised it as the opposite of egoism. Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill, English contemporaries of Comte, accepted the worth of altruism but argued that the true moral aim should be the welfare of society, rather than that of individuals."

For those visitors interested, there is a discussion of altruism in ethics in Wikipedia.

The zoologic use of the term is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary :”Instinctive cooperative behavior that is detrimental to the individual but contributes to the survival of the species.” For those who want to read more about “biologic altruism” go to the Stanford website.

With regard to "wiping the brow of the exhausted torturer", well.. I am not sure such wiping would be necessarily altruistic since the wiper might be the next person to be tortured and this act of kindness might prevent the wiper's torture and thus would have been done in self-interest! ..Maurice.

 
At Monday, March 06, 2006 5:19:00 PM, Anonymous Bob Koepp said...

Maurice -
I assure you that I value altruism very highly, and I don't dispute that toddlers are responsive to the apparent interests of those around them. I'll even surmise that ethics is virtually unimaginable without this sort of sympathetic awareness of others' interests.

The proffered explanation of this sort of awareness of others' interests, however, does not discriminate whether the interests served are themselves good or bad. My clumsy example of the torturer was only meant to illustrate that our interest in helping others can explain complicity in evil just as well as it explains compassionate giving. So it doesn't seem to me that we've gained any insight into the ethical dimensions of the behavior in question.

 
At Monday, November 26, 2007 7:06:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I needed it to wotk on a paper of mine.
Linda

 

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