Are Babies Born Moral?

Last week, I blogged about people asking whether a newborn is a "good baby." A new book explores a similar issue, but for a different reason and from a different vantage point: Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom attempts to answer the question of whether morality is innate or learned. He does so by examining whether babies have an understanding of right and wrong; if they do, that would argue that moral sensibility is in-bred, since babies could not have learned these concepts yet.

Bloom's conclusion? We humans are born with a sense of right and wrong. As evidence, he describes experiments in which babies younger than 1 year old recognized wrongdoing when they saw it.

The babies were shown puppet shows (or, instead of puppets for some, objects of different shapes standing in for puppets) in which one puppet behaves kindly and morally and another does something mean (and, in some cases, a third who acts neutrally). For example, the puppets might be playing ball: one passes the ball to the other, who takes the ball and runs away with it.

The babies are then shown the puppets or objects again: In almost all cases, they reached for the "good" one, or their eyes followed the "good" one and not the "bad" one—actions which the researches took to indicate a preference. When a "neutral" one was introduced, babies showed the same preference for it as the "good" one, and continued to spurn the "bad" one. This was true for babies as young as three months (whose preferences were judged by where they looked, since they were too young to reach out reliably for an object.)

"These experiments suggest that babies have a general appreciation of good and bad behavior, one that spans a range of interactions, including those that the babies most likely have never seen before," Bloom writes.

His research comes with several caveats, though. For one thing, he makes clear that when he talks about "morality," he is talking about a basic idea of good and bad, right and wrong. A lot of what we consider moral behavior is specific to our culture (or religion, etc.) and not universal, and therefore learned and not innate.

More importantly, the question of babies' moral sense has nothing to do with behavior and whether they are, or will grow into, well-behaved, moral children or adults. He is trying to discern whether they can understand and recognize morality, which is a different thing entirely. He warns that our innate sense of morality is only one side of the story. We're also born with the opposite instinct: "We possess ugly instincts as well, and these can metastasize into evil," Bloom writes.

Bloom continues by tracing the thread of innate moral understanding to toddlerhood. To cite one example, he discusses tattling, which comes (annoyingly) easy and instinctually to kids. This, Bloom says, stems from their natural sense of right and wrong and their belief--and often, experience--that an authority figure should be righting a perceived injustice (along with, of course, a desire to show their own moral and behavioral superiority).

Young children are highly aggressive; indeed, if you measure the rate of physical violence through  the life span, it peaks at about age 2. Families survive the Terrible Twos because toddlers aren't strong enough to kill with their hands and aren't capable of using lethal weapons. A 2-year-old with the physical capacities of an adult would be terrifying.

It starts with what we are born with, and this is surprisingly rich: babies are moral animals, equipped by evolution with empathy and compassion, the capacity to judge the actions of others, and even some rudimentary understanding of justice and fairness. But we are more than just babies. A critical part of our morality—so much of what makes us human—emerges over the course of human history and individual development.

Nature, in other words, gets us started, and then nurture takes over. We are the products of our cultures and our families and our upbringings. So that is where we as parents come in, modeling for our children a moral and just life filled with compassion and empathy. Whatever moral understanding we're born with is just the beginning of the story.

Track your child's development with our milestone tracker. Or find out what to expect in baby's first year of life, in this video:

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