Sunday, August 1, 2010

Toddler Morality: Bred in the Bone

Science is at it again trying to prove something many of us already know: we are born with an inherent sense of morality. Of course this doesn't jive with many people who believe we are evil from birth (Gen 8:21) but the article on baby morality I came across (via good ole' RNS) is still quite intriguing (albeit a bit dated). Evidence is now showing that we are born with a rudimentary sense of right and wrong although Paul Bloom, one of the researchers of the study, states that socialization is still important because "the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be." The difficulty of researching the morality of babies is due to their inability to communicate clearly and their limited behavior. Researchers have found that if they were to measure their 'looking time', how long they stare at an object of interest, they can discover a window into the mind of a baby. I found it mind blowing that infants have a naïve understanding of physics, mathematics, and even psychology. So what about a naïve understanding of morality?
"Scientists know that certain compassionate feelings and impulses emerge early and apparently universally in human development. These are not moral concepts, exactly, but they seem closely related. One example is feeling pain at the pain of others."
Many parents may have noticed babies crying at the sound of other babies crying or attempt to comfort the distressed baby by gently touching or handing over a toy. As a referee for my own two rascals I admit I might have, as well as most other parents, taken credit in the past for teaching my kids how to "play nice" with other toddlers but now that I think about it they have displayed moral actions, regarding social interactions, which seemed almost instinctual. But morality is more complex than a basic form of compassion.
"Babies and toddlers might not know or exhibit any of these moral subtleties. Their sympathetic reactions and motivations — including their desire to alleviate the pain of others — may not be much different in kind from purely nonmoral reactions and motivations like growing hungry or wanting to void a full bladder. Even if that is true, though, it is hard to conceive of a moral system that didn’t have, as a starting point, these empathetic capacities. As David Hume argued, mere rationality can’t be the foundation of morality, since our most basic desires are neither rational nor irrational."
Take a look at some of the experiments (using puppets!) which led to Bloom's findings.

Do infants come into the world with an innate sense of right and wrong, and if they do what is the Source? Is it just a product of biological evolution and if so how does that affect how we identify ourselves within a religious context? A baby's morality is primitive but it is the foundation in which we build our society, our culture. We just have to ask ourselves if we're helping or hindering the morality bred into all of us. Is it too far fetched to imagine that our neighbor whom we share the same bones, the same breath, the same dust is not also attempting to instill a refined sense of morality into their children based on their culture? Do we not share the same goals, the same hopes, and the same aspirations for the next generation?

The article concludes with the arguments as to whether this simple morality was designed by God or just a product of evolution. Regardless where we might stand on the issue the evidence still states that babies don't begin life as amoral creatures. Is it not going against nature, or God for the believers, to teach or children to be unjust to our neighbors? Is it not "unnatural" for us to teach our children tribal loyalty and divisive views which creates out-groups and inequality? Have we forgotten our origin, our simple notions of right and wrong or are we just ignoring them?


captron52 said...

Very intereating post! One thing I do know is that babies are born with an innate gift to love and to be loved. All the other "evil" stuff is a learne3d response I do believe.

Sabio Lantz said...

I think you are confusing something here:

Infants are born with circuits for moral behavior -- indeed, we are not born Blank Slates.

However, we are born with the ability to cheat, to steal and to kill depending on what niche we fall into. We are born with flexibility.

Some Religious folks say we are born bad, some idealist humanists say we are born good. Both are wrong. We are born flexible, ready to use what works.

The positive way to look at it is: religious folks are right when they say "We are not born good." And liberals are right to say "We are not born bad."

Sabio Lantz said...

Sorry, I did not point out what I think you are confusing.

Infants are born with circuits to help calculate a variety of moral behavior, we are not born with "Morality" (an abstract word which often implies "being moral" or "being good")

Eruesso said...

@ Sabio.

I hear you loud and clear. It's true we are not born with Morality (which the article points out that the naive "morality" which infants have is different than the refined concepts we have as adults). But what I find interesting is the evidence of flexibility at such a young age. Being raised in a conservative church I would have never considered the concept of flexibility and would have leaned towards the extreme concept of "everyone is born bad" PERIOD. Thanks for the comment and sorry for the mix up, I completely agree although I may not have made my views very clear.

Eruesso said...


Rereading it now I see what you're saying. I could have worded that differently, flexibility is a much better word. Thanks again.

Sabio Lantz said...

Cool !

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