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Many Minds

Jun 9, 2021

Let’s say you’re out on the open sea, having a leisurely sail, when you suddenly encounter not one but two sinking boats. One is a boat with two dogs in it; the other is a boat with a single human in it. You can only save one of the boats, so which one do you pick?

The answer may seem obvious—you save the boat with the human, right? For many adults—even those who have a special love for animals—there’s little question that a human life is simply worth more, perhaps way more, than an animal life. But where does this pro-human bias come from? Is it in our nature? Is it drilled into us by culture, maybe by Western culture in particular? Would young children also place more value on human lives than on animal lives?

This is the question at the core of a recent paper by Matti Wilks, Lucius Caviola, Guy Kahane, and Paul Bloom. The team found—rather strikingly I have to say—that children simply don’t show the same pronounced pro-human biases that adults do, or at least not as pronounced. On today’s episode I have Matti Wilks on to go behind this paper with us. She’s a postdoc at Yale University, studying moral cognition and how we judge the moral worth of others. Matti and I discuss children’s moral development; we touch on the psychology and philosophy of speciesism; we talk about why tragic trade-off dilemmas—like the one involving the boats—are just so engaging. We also talk about a number of questions this paper raises but can’t yet answer, questions for future work.

Really stoked to discuss this research on the show, folks. We talk about some themes we’ve touched on before—for instance, speciesism and child development—and some we haven’t—like the origins of morality. This is also just one of those super-cool and generative studies, one you know is going to inspire a bunch of follow-up work. Alright folks, hope you enjoy this chat as much as I did. On to my conversation with Dr. Matti Wilks.

The paper we discuss is here. A transcript of this show is available here.


Notes and links

4:40 – The term “speciesism” was first broadly popularized by Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation.

5:40 – A prior study by Dr. Wilks’ co-author, Lucius Caviola, on the psychology of speciesism.

6:30 – A prior study led by Karrie Neldner, with Dr. Wilks as a co-author, on the “moral circle” of children.

7:15 – Some of the first experimental work on the construct of the “moral circle” was done by Charlie Crimston and colleagues.

12:00 – A paper on the emergence of in-group biases in children.

13:00 – There was a lively discussion on Reddit of this paper—and the tragic trade-off dilemmas it used as stimuli.

13:40 – A paper by Peter Blake and colleagues showing that children at a certain age know they should share but still do not.

20:15 – Dr. Wilks has also done work on children’s moral concern for robots.

27:40 ­– Our previous episode with Melanie Challenger, in which we discuss “dementalization.”


Dr. Wilks’ end-of-show recommendation:

The Moral Standing of Animals: Towards a Psychology of Speciesism, a paper by Lucius Caviola and colleagues