A recent study reports that religion makes children more selfish. Another headline says that nonreligious children are more generous, and another casts the study results in terms of altruism. If true, this devastates the case for raising children with religion, right? After all, scientists said it, so that settles it.
Not so fast. Let me recap the basics of the study first. It included a “dictator game” to see how many stickers a child subject would reallocate when told of another child who was unfortunate enough to have no stickers. According to the study, kids from secular homes gave more stickers on average than kids from Christian and Muslim homes.
In another part of the study, the child subject watches someone being mean to someone else, and then is asked to evaluate the degree of punishment the transgressor should receive. Muslim kids assigned more severe punishment than the Christian kids did, and Christian kids assigned a more severe punishment than the secular kids did. From these findings, it is alternately reported that kids from religious homes are less generous, altruistic, and moral than their secular cohort.
While altruism, generosity, and selfishness all touch on what it means to be moral, these attitudes don’t exhaust what morality is. And by morality I mean ethics. Neither the researchers nor the journalists provide a meta-ethical context for understanding these observed behavioral differences. What difference would that make?
Scientists Can’t Wrangle Virtue
There are many ethical theories by which we might understand an action as moral. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle gave us a big one, the concept of virtue. A virtue is not an unmitigated good. A deficit or an excess of what would otherwise be a virtuous attitude results in vice. Take patience for example. Snapping angrily at your child on her first request for ice cream is a vicious deficit of patience. But letting your child run the credit card up–to its limit–with ice cream purchases is a vicious excess of patience.
In addition to having the right amount of an attitude at the right time, a virtuous person must know he is doing the right thing at the right time. And he must intend it. Let’s say that Uncle Scrooge walks past the orphanage, and while quickening his pace to avoid a volunteer collecting donations, he trips on a cobblestone. Some change he was gripping tightly happens to fly into the collection bucket. The volunteer profusely thanks Scrooge for his generosity, while Scrooge screws his face in dismay. First, Scrooge may not have known it was right to donate his change then. Second, from what we know of him, and his reaction, we conclude he didn’t intend to donate. If you know the episode “Jaynestown” from the TV show Firefly, you have another example of this. No knowledge, no intention, no virtue.
As the study itself acknowledges, the child subjects are still developing. For all we know, they don’t know that they are behaving virtuously as opposed to just doing what feels good. We know nothing of their parents’ theology, ideology, or worldview besides the labels the researchers choose to categorize them by. Without interviewing the subject, a scientist can’t accurately describe the subject’s motive. He can impose his explanation upon what he observes, but this fails to take the subject’s life of the mind seriously. Whatever else the researchers are trying to do, it isn’t research about morality.
What if Altruists are Suckers?
Granted the idea of virtue and vice, can there be such a thing as too much generosity? If we take the consequence of evolutionary behavior as the standard for morality, it’s certainly possible. Spurred by the evolutionary game theory in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, philosopher J. L. Mackie proposed that altruistic behavior could be counterproductive for the survival of a species. He relates this in an evolutionary survival game where a species of birds has developed the behavior of grooming each other in order to remove pesky bugs they can’t reach on the back of their own heads. An individual bird of the species can exhibit one of three types of behavior: sucker, cheat, or grudger. A sucker always grooms another bird no matter what. A cheat loves to be groomed, but never grooms another bird in return. A grudger grooms another bird, but will stop grooming another bird that takes advantage of her generosity. If the population is mostly grudgers, then cheats won’t thrive. But if there are enough “altruistic” suckers, grudgers could proliferate, even to the point where their “selfish” behavior drives the species extinct.
Mackie suggests that altruism may not be the most moral attitude after all. He identifies himself as a grudger: tit for tat, eye for an eye. It appeals to the innate sense of justice. After all, under normal circumstances, who would let a murderer go free? The secular children in the altruism study more arguably would do so, perhaps thinking they are being kind by overlooking another’s trespass. In this case, Mackie and thoughtful people might side with the Muslim children in their assessment of the appropriate punishment and who is more “moral.” Now the study doesn’t give us a clear sense of what degree of punishment is appropriate or virtuous. It hints that assigning “harsher” punishment is less moral, but why that would be the case is unclear.
So in sum, the altruism study and articles reporting on it miss two important things. First, because there is no ethical framework in view, we have no evaluative context for the children’s actions, and no actual understanding of their motivations. Instead, it is assumed that generous behavior is what makes for morality, and that desiring a wrongdoer be punished is a moral failing. But these assumptions are far from granted for critically thinking people. Second, the study fails to acknowledge an evolutionary scenario where altruism can be counterproductive. Instead of research and journalism that takes these two realities seriously, we have fodder for fit for the social media one-upmanship that fuels the spurious science-versus-religion narrative.
PS: With respect to the “dictator game” the experimenters conduct with sticker allocation, check out this blog post citing a study where the validity of dictator games are undermined by “experimenter demand effects.”
 Mackie, J. L.. 1978. “The Law of the Jungle: Moral Alternatives and Principles of Evolution”. Philosophy 53 (206). Cambridge University Press: 455–64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3749875.