Babies and the Birth of Morality

15 September 2014


This week we're asking about babies and the birth of morality.  One of the many questions on the subject is whether morality is innate or learned.  If you want to answer that question, what better place to begin than with babies?

Well, you might be skeptical that newborns, of all people, have something to teach us about the nature of morality.  It’s not like newborns face a lot of deep moral dilemmas -- “Should I laugh at the big guy making the silly faces at me or should I cry?”   

Then again, maybe we underestimate them.  Babies may not be fully developed moral agents, but studying them -- even when they're just a few months old -- can actually teach us a lot about the nature of morality. 

Of course, babies can seem totally self-centered – all id, no superego.  Sure, other people matter to them -- as sources of food, clean diapers, and comfort.   But it seems they don’t know anything about right and wrong -- not until we start to teach them, anyway.

Becoming a fully developed moral agent takes time, education, socialization, etc. But adult morality actually builds on and reflects basic moral instincts there are there right from the start in babies and young children everywhere. Those basics moral instincts include a tendency to help others in need, sympathy for the pain and suffering of others, even a tendency to punish those who do wrong and reward those who do right. Moreover, this happens without a lot of adult intervention, from very early ages, and in every culture too. 

If you think this sounds like a fantasy-land of one-year-old babies enforcing universal standards of infant morality, consider this little experiment.  Suppose we put on a puppet show, where three puppets are playing a game called "roll the ball."  One puppet rolls the ball to another puppet, who then rolls it back. Imagine the puppet in the middle rolls the ball to the puppet on the right who then rolls it back. But suppose that when the first puppet rolls the ball to the third puppet, instead of rolling it back, the puppet gets up and walks away with the ball.

If you're thinking, "bad, bad puppet!" then you’re thinking just like a one year old.  The child will punish the puppet for its naughtiness.  If you put a treat in front of each of the puppets and invite the kid to take one of the treats away, they'll take it from the naughty one.  Some kids have even been known to slap the naughty puppet. 

Now is this just projection of adult categories onto babies?  Maybe kids just don't like the naughty puppet, or they’re upset because the mean little puppet ended the fun game.  Why should we think of those infantile instincts as “moral?”  It’s one thing to be blindly driven by hard-wired instincts; it’s an entirely different thing to make conscious choices based on your understanding of moral principles and concepts. 

At least, that's what a Kantian would say.  We could think more like a Humean: moral instincts, not moral principles come first.  The inborn moral instincts of children are the building blocks on which all the high-falutin’ moral theories of adulthood rest.  But that just makes kids out to be unrealistic moral paragons.  After all, why is the adult world such a moral mess if the foundations of morality are built into our very genes? 

Kids obviously aren’t moral saints.  Babies may be naturally altruistic and caring -- but only to a point.  Just like us grown ups, they easily form "in" groups and "out" groups.  And they can be quite nasty to the "out" group.  So the moral messiness is there from the very beginning.  There's clearly plenty to think about when it comes to babies and morality. 

Photo by Picsea on Unsplash

Comments (10)

mirugai's picture


Thursday, September 18, 2014 -- 5:00 PM


Philosophers do not ?define? morality, defining is sophistic and absolute and basically a process that is contrary to philosophical inquiry. Philosophers should, rather, seek to explore ?meaning,? in this case what philosophers should do is discuss what actions are moral, and what are not, and why. The biggest impediment to such discussions is that the joy of moral outrage overcomes one?s rationality (rational thinking about thought is ?doing philosophy?).  
Humans are objective about one thing for sure: their own pleasure; and there is (almost?) no greater pleasure than moral outrage. Look at the joy and the joyful feeding frenzy over: racial cracks by NBA owners, biting soccer opponents, beating up wives and children by football players, etc. Everyone in the social compact wants to outdo everyone else in their show of moral outrage (and the piety display accompanying it). It is connected to the need for confirmation of what one believes is good and right, and approval by the groups one aspires to for approval and membership.  And of course the media knows the marketability of it all, and advertisers love issues that have no ?other side.? The hosts said on today?s show ?Everyone agrees that slavery is immoral.? ?Everyone?s? myopia about slavery is affected by the joy that comes from professing their  moral indignation about the institution.  No matter that slavery, if properly practiced, was considered a moral and good institution by the Greeks (the champions of philosophy), and (probably by imitation) by the Hebrews, another group priding themselves on their morals. A minimum wage worker in a city makes just enough money to pay for room and board, and gets some minimal health care; a slave gets free room and board and enough health care to keep being useful. And don?t talk about ?freedom,? some 17th century term, pretty much meaningless now in that it, too, means nothing definitive, but only what moral outrage joy has strung it out to. 
One of the best moments in the show was when the roving philosophy correspondent reported that it was impossible to distinguish whether the babies were acting on some sense of ?good and bad? or on some notion of socialization or imitation of group behavior.  The first challenge for the baby is to survive outside the womb, next comes comprehending that I have some control over the finger I keep sticking in my eye, then, much later, I need to do what these other guys around me do in order to survive.  If you want to connect ?morality? to these needs, go ahead, but I think you are for the most part just making up some ?definition? of morality that suits your own ideas of right and wrong, colored by your own beliefs and moralizings.  The discussion of moral principles by philosophers is worthy; but codifying or declaring what is and is not moral, is not doing philosophy; it is doing politics.
submitted by mirugai

mwsimon's picture


Monday, October 6, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

This is a really interesting

This is a really interesting way to go about studying our moral senses.  We have a lot of intuitions about where our morals come from, but this seems like a really good way to systematically study their origin.  When I listened to the show, I was struck by what Paul Bloom said about empathy.  He doesn't think it the driving force behind our moral actions, as many of us tend to believe.  I wonder if empathy is a thing that is natural to us.  I still have an inclination to hold onto the belief that empathy does a lot for us.

granty987's picture


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adminpool's picture


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JamiePate's picture


Tuesday, May 31, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

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