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Wealth and the Baby Lab

 

In the space of a month, once again we have witnessed here in the US the murder of black people by white people, both civilian and uniformed, and we have witnessed the instant and total poverty of a major segment of our population. The two are not unrelated.

The exact percentages vary, but about 40% of our population live paycheck to paycheck, and do not have $400 dollars to pay for an emergency. That is a staggering number and it points to the volatility in our social and economic systems. There’s plenty of money around. Where is it? Answer: in the hands of the super wealthy, plainly and simply. This is a recipe for disaster, and disaster has struck, in our health, our economy, our government, and our society. It is impossible to maintain a healthy, stable, and functioning society with that level of inequality. Putting all the money in the hands of the wealthy prevents that money from financing schools, health care, and all other services provided by state and local government that create and sustain the common good. Obviously and criminally, Republicans have shown themselves to not give a damn about stable society and the common good and instead are looting the federal treasury to increase their own and their friends’ wealth and power, and in the process sowing seeds of chaos and authoritarianism. It avoids the issue when we focus on the number of people who are unemployed. We must instead ask why they have so little in the first place, not even a spare $400.

But obscene concentration of wealth is not the only problem. There is human nature as well. I recently learned of the Yale University Infant Cognition Center, commonly known as the Baby Lab. Studying babies as young as 3 months old, the lab has discovered some traits of humans that seem to be inborn. For example, babies by a margin of 75% prefer nice puppets over mean puppets. Seems reasonable. Another experiment showed that babies also have an inner sense of justice/punishment. Instead of playing ball with another puppet, a puppet takes the ball and runs away. Later, the ball stealer tries to open a box to access some toys. Another puppet helps him to do that, while a third puppet jumps on top of the box lid to prevent the ball stealer from getting into the box. In this case, the babies, by a margin of 81%, favored the puppet who prevented the ball stealer from opening the box. In other words, the ball stealer needed to be punished and not helped. Taken together, these experiments indicate that human beings could come into the world with a built-in sense of right and wrong, and punishment for the one who does wrong. This conclusion is at odds with those who say that all behavior arises from social interaction.

It might be comforting to believe that we are born into the world this way, but there is a dark side, another experiment that is troubling. A baby is offered Cheerios and graham crackers, and chooses Cheerios. Then the baby watches as two puppets choose, one taking the crackers and one taking the cereal. When offered the puppets, the baby embraces the one who chose as the baby did. Simple enough. Then the puppet who chose the crackers, “the other”, is seen trying to open a box. One puppet unsuccessfully tries to help him open the box but fails. A third puppet not only does not try to help open the box, but jumps on the lid to prevent the box being opened. Who does the baby prefer? Not the one who tried to help the “other”, but instead the one who jumped on the lid preventing the “other”- the one who chose crackers- from opening the box. In other words, the babies, by a margin now of 87%, want the “other” to be treated meanly, just because it chose crackers instead of Cheerios, as the babies chose. We want others to be punished just because they are different.

If all of this is indeed the case, it implies that we are born with both a sense of right and wrong and a discriminatory state of mind. But, and this is a big but, tests with older children show that we can overcome our discrimination and learn to treat others fairly. And here is where the common good re-enters the picture. If society is plundered by the wealthy, the common person with no resources will feel insecure and threatened, will in fact be less educated and in poorer health, and will be more apt to take out that frustration on the “other”. Rampant, extreme inequality, will exacerbate our dislike of that which differs from us and will create increasing division and chaos. One might hope that the opposite would also be the case, namely, that equality will rekindle our other innate sense, that of fairness, right and wrong, and make it operative in our life together.

 

Dr. Carl Krieg received his BA from Dartmouth College, MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the author of What to Believe? the Questions of Christian Faith, and The Void and the Vision. As professor and pastor, Dr. Krieg has taught innumerable classes and led many discussion groups. He lives with his wife, Margaret, in Norwich, VT.

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