How Babies Learn Philosophy

by Benjamin Studebaker

Often, when subjectivists and nihilists claim that human beings construct their own conceptions of morality, they ignore the manner in which those constructions arise in the first place. How do people develop their moral beliefs? I argue that we acquire our initial beliefs through a process of social learning that all babies in all times and social contexts participate in. This kind of learning implies an inherent belief in the primacy of the objective, of the external world, and is inconsistent with the subjectivist view.

Psychological research on social learning indicates that babies are from birth possessed by the question of “what should I do?” They do not self-generate answers to this question or find that they already have some inherent sense of what the right answers are intrinsic to them as people. Rather, they answer these questions a posteriori, through observation and experience. They respond to an array of triggers:

  1. Live Model–babies emulate the behavior of the real people around them.
  2. Verbal Instruction–once capable of understanding speech, babies do what they are instructed to do by other people.
  3. Symbolic–babies use the behavior of fictional characters and people in the media for models and anti-models.

In all of these cases, they learn vicariously. If they see other beings rewarded for a behavior, they copy it. If they see other beings punished, they avoid it. Naturally, if they themselves are rewarded or punished for something, they’ll respond to that as well.

In each of these cases, the baby is not the author of its own conception of what behaviors are good and what are bad. All socialization for babies consists in emulating or avoiding the examples of the various other beings that the babies come into contact with. In a very real sense, this is a philosophical methodology that all babies participate in–they reach truth claims about how they should behave based on experience, both personal and vicarious. Babies are empiricists.

This is not to say that the baby is without a nature of its own–we have genetic predispositions and pre-written reactions to various kinds of situations and substances. But this genetic nature is not self-selected, and so it cannot be said to be constructed in any meaningful sense.  This leaves us with socialization, and if every person is being socialized by everyone else, taking surrounding beings as examples, no one person or group is the author of the predominant social values that result. Our social values are developed by processes we do not control, but they are not constructed by us in any agentic sense.

Adult philosophy often involves questioning the values we picked up as children. We observe that there are conflicts, often very large and intractable, between the moral principles we pick up by watching others and those we pick up from instruction. As a result, we being to question the learning methodology we employed as children, we desire to “think for ourselves” rather than adopt the practices of others. The trouble is that this very belief in the need to self-examine our moral beliefs itself results from social learning. Without examples of others who have acquired differing values and defend them by appeal to argument, we would be unaware that doing this was a choice in the first place. Of the utmost importance is that, in modern society, we see that such people are not persecuted in our societies but are instead given fancy academic jobs writing books. We learn vicariously that not only can we question our beliefs, but that we might be rewarded for so doing, and when we come into contact with other people who already think this way, they impress upon us the value of doing so.

No matter how we slice it, all of the beliefs and values we have are ultimately traceable either to our genetics or to the people we have taken up as models and anti-models throughout our lives. We all mutually shape each other and we are consequently all part of one another’s worldviews. We cannot conceive of a truly subjective being disembodied from outside influences. No human being has ever been constituted in this way–babies cannot survive without help from someone or something, and whatever that thing is, they’re going to model after it. Our perspectives are all colored by one another, and consequently there are inevitably going to be things that transcend individual perspective, that bind all people regardless of time or place. These things will inevitably be among the most important things in life, the things necessary for survival and for the continuation of humankind.

This is not to say that we’re all the same, or that people do not vary from one another–to a large extent, our personalities have genetic roots that are uniquely our own, but the fact that those roots are genetic means that they are discoverable and comprehensible. We can learn what genes and natural traits others have and to a large extent understand and access those elements of their perspectives. We like to imagine ourselves as impermeable individuals, beings who have privileged access to self-knowledge, but if the very content of who we are is the product of external processes that others can identify both in us and in themselves, we may be more interconnected and more mutually comprehensible than we realize.

What meaningful consequences come out of all of this? Well the view that people with from different cultures, language backgrounds, or time periods cannot fully understand one another, that their worldviews are fundamentally different and incommensurable, is ignoring the fundamental similarity of the social and genetic forces that form people. It overestimates the size of the differences among us. Even if I do not share the same specific social models or genetic code a person from a drastically different background has, I share the same kind of biological material, the same fundamental method of learning and developing, the same basic needs and wants, and this gives me shared ground against which I can evaluate his beliefs and he can evaluate mine. We all need sustenance, we all seek comfort, we all want companionship, we all want to feel safe. We all model ourselves after those whom we have been exposed to that appear to successfully acquire these things, and we avoid emulating those that we see fail to do so. In different circumstances different means of reaching these ends will predominate, and social norms will look rather different, but they will nonetheless have been developed with the same object in mind. This means that no matter how different two societies of people may be, there is always a level on which they can understand and judge one another, by assessing how effectively that society’s particular means is at reaching the ends we all share given the situation that society finds itself in. By recognizing the ways in which we are the same, we can avoid relativism and subjectivism and hold all groups of people, in all times and places, to some of the same standards.