Babies and Morality

The New York Times has a fascinating report on infant morality (not mortality, mind you). The author is a child psychologist/researcher at Yale. Here’s a few of the highpoints.

The piece begins with an interesting anecdote:

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left . . . who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the “naughty” one. But this punishment wasn’t enough — he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.

To establish that babies could be moral, the author had to first show that babies were intelligent enough to possess morality. You need knowledge of good and evil for moral questions (and incidentally, accountability: Genesis 2:17; Luke 12:48) to arise. There was a pretty fascinating explaination showing how babies are smarter than we think. By testing how long babies stared at a certain thing, they found out that when objects changed unexpected (magic tricks, and adding or removing objects behind curtains), babies were more fixated on the unusual — this is something they share with the rest of us, but it puts to rest notions that babies actually think everything disappears when they close their eyes. They expect a certain stability. After that, it moved towards empathy:

Human babies, notably, cry more to the cries of other babies than to tape recordings of their own crying, suggesting that they are responding to their awareness of someone else’s pain, not merely to a certain pitch of sound. Babies also seem to want to assuage the pain of others: once they have enough physical competence (starting at about 1 year old), they soothe others in distress by stroking and touching or by handing over a bottle or toy. There are individual differences, to be sure, in the intensity of response: some babies are great soothers; others don’t care as much. But the basic impulse seems common to all.

Fascinating! But the author suggests that this doesn’t rise to the level of moral conduct, because:

Moral ideas seem to involve much more than mere compassion. Morality, for instance, is closely related to notions of praise and blame: we want to reward what we see as good and punish what we see as bad. Morality is also closely connected to the ideal of impartiality — if it’s immoral for you to do something to me, then, all else being equal, it is immoral for me to do the same thing to you. In addition, moral principles are different from other types of rules or laws: they cannot, for instance, be overruled solely by virtue of authority. (Even a 4-year-old knows not only that unprovoked hitting is wrong but also that it would continue to be wrong even if a teacher said that it was O.K.) And we tend to associate morality with the possibility of free and rational choice; people choose to do good or evil. To hold someone responsible for an act means that we believe that he could have chosen to act otherwise.

The author is unintentionally describing the basics of natural law, of intrinsic evil, and of the necessity of free will for judgment. I was especially pleased with the reference that “even a 4-year-old” knows that an earthly authority can’t contravene natural law.

After this, the author quotes Hume for the proposition that you can’t derive an ought from an is. This is an important argument which refutes every atheistic attempt to create universal morality from reason or empirical data alone, since:

As David Hume argued, mere rationality can’t be the foundation of morality, since our most basic desires are neither rational nor irrational. “ ’Tis not contrary to reason,” he wrote, “to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” To have a genuinely moral system, in other words, some things first have to matter, and what we see in babies is the development of mattering.

All of this is from just the first portion of the article (I haven’t had time to finish it yet). The part I’m getting to now is a more in-depth discussion of how they tested the babies for moral impulses. It’s actually pretty fascinating, and more than a little clever!

1 Comment

  1. OTOH, it claims that because children prefer their own racial group, that universal views of morality are therefore cultural.

    They can’t be abstract and therefore beyond babies’ knowledge. That’s good enough for algebra and calculus, but not, apparently, morality.

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