In standard approaches to folk psychology, our folk psychological reasoning is taken to be a species of causal reasoning. And while there is some attention to other kinds of reasoning in the developmental literature, notably teleological reasoning, most of the research I’ve run across on children’s social reasoning and explanations are also put in terms of causal reasoning. But given my take on explanations as offering justifications for behavior, I’m really interested in investigating the role, evolution, and development of normative reasoning, or seeing the world through a normative lens.
Lately I’ve been thinking that social minds may, in general, have an ability to engage in reasoning about how others should act. I call this normative sense naïve normativity. I’m developing an idea of Hannah Ginsbourg’s whose notion of primitive normativity refers to a kind of normativity that can be had without recognizing rules, but is had by those who have the appropriate experiences, have the motivation to “go on” from that experience in the right way, and experience some sense of appropriateness when engaging in the proper action (Ginsborg 2011). Her primitive normativity rests on understanding oughts or appropriateness without requiring the ability to articulate that understanding, and without the need for language or metacognitive abilities. For examples, a child demonstrates primitive normativity when she sorts red blocks from blue blocks into two distinct groups.
I like the block example because it illustrates the notion of belonging, which is perhaps the most primitive of normative notions. Konrad Lorenz noticed it in young goslings who acted as though they belonged with whatever creature they first saw after hatching. An imprinting mechanism allows many species to easily solve the belonging problem, and fulfills Ginsborg’s criteria for primitive normativity (assuming the appropriate consciousness response in the goslings). Lorenz’s graylag goslings, who first saw him after hatching, imprinted on Lorenz and followed him around as if they belonged with him. These goslings had the right kind of experience (they observed Lorenz in the critical period about 13 hours after hatching), they had the innate disposition to respond to that experience in a certain way (the imprinting mechanism), and we may surmise they had the right kind of affect—calm and even comforted around their human “mother”, and upset when separated.
I suspect that the child’s ability to sort blocks is based on an earlier recognition of social belonging, much like the hatchlings’ ability to realize that they belong with the creature they imprint upon. Social belonging is a basic kind of ought, which we can formulate as an understanding that I go with these people here rather than those people there. Naïve normativity is the capacity to think about how we do things around here. It adds to Ginsborg’s notion the ability to distinguish in-group from out-group members; there is the we of how we do things around here, and there is the way we do things. So engaging in naïvely normative reasoning requires in-group identification as well as identification of proper behaviors of the in-group. Human infants are great at discriminating their most important in-group member. They are able to recognize and distinguish between their mother’s breast and that of another lactating female (Cernoch & Porter 1985; Macfarlane 1975; Russell 1976), the mother’s face (Sherrod 1979; Walton, Bower and Bower 1992) and voice (DeCasper & Fifer 1980, Fifer 1987; Standley & Madsen 1990). The multimodal recognition of the mother is a key aspect to the sense of belonging to that individual rather than to another. The ability to recognize who one belongs with early in infancy facilitates the ability to learn culturally specific behaviors, and leads children across cultures to quickly show large differences in habitual behaviors such as sleeping, toileting, artifact use, or eating. Among industrialized societies the differences are often small, but when comparing industrialized to small-scale societies, the norms surrounding these sorts of early developing cultural behaviors are stark. (I really enjoyed Meredith F. Small’s Book Our Babies Ourselves on this.)
Naïve normativity is an understanding of the way we do things around here that does not depend on conformity to an antecedently recognized rule. While we can later extract rules from our normative practices, the rules are not needed for the development of the normative practices and the expectations that community members will practice these cultural behaviors.
This early understanding of naïve normativity is related to the infant’s early sensitivity to intentional agency. In-group members are agents, they behave in certain ways, and these are behaviors to aim for. So, agency understanding is tied up with naïve normativity. This is going to be especially true when the in-group members are cognitively flexible, and can respond differently toward the same set of stimuli. So I’ve been playing around with variations on this argument:
- Cognitively flexible behavior is not directly caused by observable environmental features.
- So, the ability to anticipate cognitively flexible behavior cannot be an example of simple causal reasoning.
- Instead, this ability is either an example of complex causal reasoning, or it is an example of normative reasoning.
Complex causal reasoning might look like a theory of mind. The normative reasoning, on the other hand, is a case of matching the situation to the group norms and expecting the target to do what she should do considering her role in the group.
Naïve normativity may be central to human social cognition without being unique to humans. If normativity is an early-developing and foundational cognitive ability that is necessary for social interaction, and if it is unique to humans, then there are downstream consequences for other capacities that may also be unique to humans. But if we share this basic sensitivity with some other animals, there is a challenge to some uniqueness views that are currently on the table. Lori Gruen and I wrote a book chapter “Empathy in Other Apes” that appears in Heidi Maibom’s collection Empathy and Morality out this year with OUP. In the chapter we discuss some of the norms that other apes might be sensitive to—from protesting infanticide to helping others cross the road to dismantling poacher traps. Acting according to norms, and expecting others to act according to norms doesn’t need to make you a moral agent. But there may be evidence of another kind of agency in other animals, and that’s what I’ll post on next!
Note: The cover photo is by Anne Russon. At Camp Leaky, she observed lots of cases where orangutans seemed to think that humans are their in-group. In this photo, Supinah is imitating the behavior of the cooks, filling the stove with fuel. Notice that her infant is looking on.