Babies and the Birth of Morality
Monday, September 15, 2014 -- 5:00 PM
Ken Taylor

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.