In an increasingly interconnected world where humanity faces unprecedented threats to its very existence, human survival may depend on the ability of nations and schools to educate their young in skills like cooperation and collaborative problem solving, along with universal values such as care and compassion for others.
Such values emphasize not only the flourishing of oneself and one’s ‘in-groups,’ but also the flourishing of others who are not as close to us and who are members of so-called ‘out groups.’
In this chapter, the Dalai Lama and presenters make the case for integrating care and compassion into education, and a developmental psychologist explains why it’s important that we nurture the innate human desire to care for others—and extend this care to all humanity and all living creatures. This coming together of traditional wisdom and science to inform educational practice is reflected in those social and emotional learning (SEL) programs described in Chapter 5.
Universal Values and the Science of Human Nature
In Ethics for a New Millennium, the Dalai Lama writes, “In the past, the respect people had for religion meant that ethical practice was maintained through a majority following one religion or another. But this is no longer the case. We must therefore find some other way of establishing basic ethical principles.” In this book and its 2011 follow-up, Beyond Religion, the Dalai Lama charted that path, mapping out an innovative ethical system he calls secular ethics that disentangles values from religion, basing them instead on common sense, reason, perspective taking, imagination, and human nature, which he asserts are universal.
“This is where I think His Holiness’s role has been very important,” commented Thupten Jinpa at the Dharamsala convening, “advocating a discourse on ethics that is grounded in universal values… and that appeals to a notion of compassion that is independent of religion.”
But what does science have to say about the roots of kindness and compassion in human nature? “Moral development begins in our biology but is completed by culture and reason and our experiences with other people,” affirmed Robert Roeser, a developmental and educational psychologist at Pennsylvania State University. Roeser has devoted much of his career to studying the moral development of children.
Human beings are social animals, he stated, and as such, are born with what the Dalai Lama calls “a seed of compassion”—a natural capacity to care about others. “We extend kindness to our family and to those near and dear to us quite naturally, but the challenge is to learn to extend care and kindness to those that we don’t know very well, strangers, people who have different social backgrounds or belief systems, and those who are not readily perceived as “self-similar.”
Addressing the Dalai Lama he said, “You articulated it so beautifully when you said, ‘The struggle in this regard is to overcome feelings of partiality.’ I think that this is very similar to what we are learning [in developmental psychology] regarding the “bounded nature of our initial sense of care.”
As an example, he explained that studies show that infants just a few days old respond strongly to the crying of other infants—they get upset, and they don’t respond as much if you play their own crying back to them, he reported. One interpretation of these findings is that “the baby seems to have an implicit sense that someone else is suffering and gets upset by that,” Roeser said.
Babies also seem to be able to tell the difference when someone treats another kindly versus unkindly, and they prefer kindness. To show how researchers determined that, Roeser played a video taken from a 60 Minutes documentary on work done by Dr. Karen Wynn and her colleagues at Yale University. In the video, a five-month-old baby was watching a puppet show. The main character—a striped tiger—struggled to open a box with a toy inside. In the first take, a puppy wearing a yellow shirt struggled alongside him, helping him open it. In the second take, a puppy wearing a blue shirt jumped on the box, slamming it shut. When researchers later held up the two puppies and allowed the babies to pick one, they overwhelmingly reached for the puppy in the yellow shirt who helped out. (Eighty-seven percent of preverbal infants studied, ages 3-5 months, chose the helper, said Roeser.) “This gives us the sense that infants prefer those who help others to those who hinder others.”
Sounds like good news… Maybe humans are basically good? Alas, that isn’t the whole story.
Roeser then shared with the Dalai Lama a video of a second puppet show researchers used in a subsequent experiment. This time, before the show, researchers offered each baby a choice of two kinds of foods and encouraged each to pick the food they liked better. (The babies were somewhat older: 9-14 months.) The main character in the puppet show described above also picked a food—either the food the baby liked or the food the baby didn’t like. Then the babies watched the show.
This time the findings are less sunny, but not really surprising given what we see in the adult world.
When the babies were watching a main character who shared their food preference (e.g., who was “self-similar”), they preferred the nice puppy who helped him. When babies were watching a main character who did not share their food preference, they preferred the mean puppy who hindered him. Nearly all of the 120 or so 14-month old babies studied responded this way, Roeser said. It is well known in psychology that adults have a bias towards those who are like themselves, he said. (He said there is even statistical evidence that when looked at in very large numbers, people show a slight tendency to marry other people with names that are similar to theirs—we prefer self-similarity!)
The puppet studies suggest the possibility that this bias for ‘self-similar others’ starts quite young. Interestingly, the Dalai Lama turned to Roeser and asked, when does self develop? The question was very precise, the infant must have a sense of self from which to judge who or what is self-similar, and this sense of self also develops early. By extension, the question suggested, rightly Roeser believed, that the biasing of our care and compassion for those who are self-similar (and not for those who are not similar to oneself) arises with the sense of self. This may explain why compassion training is needed in schools in an early and on-going way: to help children expand their notions of who is self-similar and why, and to support the development of an inclusive identity.
The conversation followed this line of thinking and went on to explore if early biases could be shifted and how.
Roeser briefly summarized several key findings from developmental and educational psychology that show this tendency of perceiving others as similar to oneself is malleable. Researchers can actively change who individuals perceive to be self-similar or different, as they did in the infant experiments where they introduced food preferences. Creative examples of SEL approaches that cultivate a broader sense of “self-similarity” and shared humanity in children and youth are discussed in earlier chapters.
“Changing this tendency to prefer and extend care primarily to those perceived as self-similar really is a long-term developmental and educational process,” Roeser explained, “where we are trying to help young children start to see other people as in some fundamental sense ‘just like me.’” As the Dalai Lama has pointed out, the themes of interdependence and common humanity (all wish to be happy, none wish to suffer, just like me) are foundational when it comes to understanding the practice of compassion, and well as for the recognition of compassion as a universal value.
"We need a sense of compassion—a sense of concern for others' well-being—on the basis of a sense of oneness of seven billion human beings." The Dalai Lama
In his closing remarks, Roeser noted that unlike the discussion so far of a secular ethical view of compassion as a universal value, “the history of research on moral development suggests that many of us never develop a coherent moral philosophy and corresponding way of being in the world. We use rules of thumb and different ideas and beliefs, but we don’t necessarily develop a coherent vision and guiding set of values.” This is why, he suggested, the Dalai Lama’s work on secular ethics and educating the heart is so important. “It gives people a view—a conceptual framework for thinking about the ethical life, as well as a corresponding set of practices to develop skills and understanding, so that we can embody that view and insight in our everyday interactions with people.”
In Chapter 9 “Why Compassion Matters,” conference presenters examine more closely the role of compassion in secular ethics and whether and how it can be taught.