Do Babies Have A Moral Sense?

Some research suggests that we may have in-born moral preferences

Three young sisters picking flowers in a meadow. Culture RM/Exclusive Erin Lester/Getty Images

Where do our moral values come from?

Virtually all human beings have moral values.  Everyday we judge people and their actions, applauding some and criticizing others.  And we are likely to have strong views on the right and wrongs of all sorts of issues, from nuclear weapons to the proper methods of parenting.  But where do our moral values come from?

The most obvious source is the society we are born and raised in.

  People are clearly heavily influenced by the opinions, actions, and conventions of everyone around them.  Another source is reason.  It is often through rational reflection that people come to criticize the moral character of their own culture, as when gay rights activists argue that discrimination against gays is unjust.  Another possibility is that some moral inclinations and intuitions are innate–that is we are born with them.

This will strike many people as preposterous.  According to a popular theory, the mind of the newborn child is a “blank slate.”  Everything is learned from experience.  This is the central tenet of empiricism, and it has been applied to moral beliefs just as much as to other areas of knowledge or opinion.

But psychologists like Paul Bloom, author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, argue that we may not be moral blank slates after all.  He doesn’t claim that we are born with any well-defined moral beliefs or values; that would be implausible given that a normal infant seems to be most of the time a little wailing bundle of self-interested concern for its own comfort.

  Rather, he argues that “certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning.”

What does he have in mind?  And how does he know what babies are thinking?  After all, they can’t talk?

Babies prefer “good guys”

Psychologists trying to understand what is going on in the mind of babies have to be ingenious.

  One of their most important strategies is known as the “looking time method.” Researches measure how long a baby looks at various things or people or situations.  The assumption is that the baby will look longer at what it finds surprising, and will look away sooner from things it finds less interesting.  Another method is to have the baby watch something and then see if it expresses a preference or an aversion by the way it behaves.

Here’s an example of a simple experiment.   Babies are shown a round shape apparently struggling  to get up a hill.  A triangle comes and blocks its path, causing it to roll back down.  The disc tries again, and this time a square appears and seems to help push it to the top of the hill.  After seeing this, a child of just a few months will show a marked preference for the helper as opposed to the hinderer.  Offered a choice of the triangle or the square on a tray, the child will choose the square. 

This preference for the helper is not a case of the baby making a moral choice; but according to Bloom it has some similarities to the moral judgment of an adult.  It mirrors the adult preference for helping over hindering.  And it is disinterested: that is, the baby doesn’t prefer the square because of some benefit the square offers.

No.  The baby seems to just prefer the “good guy” to the “bad guy.”  To see how the experiment looks, check out this webinar run by Paul Bloom on the subject matter of Just Babies.

Do babies feel empathy and compassion?

Empathy involves feeling within yourself what someone else is feeling.   So if you see someone hit their thumb with a hammer and you immediately wince yourself, that is an empathetic reaction.  Sympathy, or compassion, is different; it involves caring about someone, and feeling sorry for them if they are suffering. 

When very young children witness someone else in pain, they are most likely to try to comfort themselves, perhaps by sucking harder on their pacifier.  This suggests that they are responding empathetically but not sympathetically.  By the time they are toddlers (roughly one year old), however, they may well try to comfort the one who is suffering, at least if it is a person they are close to such as a parent or sibling.

 

Helpfulness

Another things that  toddlers do which indicates that they are capable of sympathy or compassion is to help someone in need.  For instance, if an adult is carrying a box and make it clear that because of this he can’t open a cupboard, a one year old will spontaneously open the cupboard doors for him.  This kind of helpfulness is limited, though; toddlers will do it for someone they know, but are unlikely to help a complete stranger.

Sharing

Sharing is another trait that can be viewed as revealing a capacity for sympathy, especially if it is done without any apparent self-interest.  Before they are one year old most children don’t share.  They typically begin sharing between one and two, although only with family and friends.  With strangers they are almost entirely unsympathetic until they are at least two.  They will not, for instance, give candy to a stranger even when there is no cost to themselves.  During their third year, however, they typically will start to do so.

Fairness

Surely one of the most familiar utterances coming out of the mouths of children is, “It’s not fair!”  And invariably, what it means is that the one making the complaint has not been treated equally.  According to Bloom, children have a strong bias in favor of equality, and it manifests itself before they can talk.  By sixteen months children will show a preference for a puppet that distributes goodies equally over one that distributes thing unequally.  And their notion of what people deserve is already quite sophisticated.  They will look longer at a scene in which characters who have done equal work are given unequal rewards.  This suggests that they find what they see surprising.

The moral sense

Paul Bloom’s conclusion from experiments and observations such as those described here is that babies and toddlers exhibit a sort of “moral sense”  He takes this term form Adam Smith, the great Scottish economist and philosopher.  Smith was right, he claims to think that just as our five sense organs are naturally affected by colors, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures, so our moral sense is naturally affected by certain things; and this primes us to classify these things as good or bad, right or wrong.

  Even as very young children we have within us some of the building blocks of morality: empathy and compassion for someone who is suffering; a preference for kindness over cruelty; and a basic notion of fairness based on a preference for equal treatment.