Babies and the Birth of Morality

Sunday, May 21, 2017
First Aired: 
Sunday, September 14, 2014

What Is It

Doing the right thing is often an extremely difficult task. Yet psychological research indicates that infants as young as 21 months old have a crude sense of what is right and wrong. This capacity is reflected by infants' decisions to reward or punish characters in social scenarios. But surely a genuine, robust, mature moral compass is much more complicated than that. So what can babies tell us about adult morality? How much of morality is innate, and how much must we develop as moral thinkers? John and Ken talk infant morality with Paul Bloom from Yale University, author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.

Listening Notes

Ken initially expresses some skepticism about the idea that babies could teach us about morality, but John argues that adult morality reflects basic moral instincts that are present in us from infancy. He gives that babies are not full-fledged moral agents, but provides evidence that they do in fact have some moral sense. John brings up an experiment done with puppets, where one puppet is cast as naughty in a game. From a very young age, children will prefer to punish the “naughty” puppet, indicating to some that they have a moral preference.John and Ken welcome their guest Paul Bloom to the show. Along with his wife, Paul runs experiments on babies and young children to probe into their moral nature. He expresses his view that there is human morality present in babies from the start. For example, we have moral emotions such as empathy. He says his nativism is strong, but not complete – there are moral senses which need to be learned. We don’t know slavery is wrong from the very start of our lives. But, he points out, very young babies do have altruistic motivations to help others and to prevent their suffering.

Ken asks Paul for a key study revealing evidence of an innate moral sense. Paul explains these studies where babies are shown one act plays with a good guy and a bad guy. Children, from three months of age, favor the good guys, and even those who support the good guys, over the bad guys. Ken questions whether these studies really indicate a moral preference. Paul admits it might just show the babies prefer, in a non-moral way, the good guys. However, he thinks morality is tied up with our intuitions about just desserts – that good guys should be rewarded and bad guys should be punished. His studies indicate that babies have these same intuitions. Paul brings up a feature of our moral senses that babies lack. While mature people can recognize that it is unfair that they receive far more than others who have done the same to deserve reward,  young children do not. They do recognize when they are being shorted, or when others are given more, but they do not see the unfairness in themselves being rewarded better. This can be taken to reveal that our egalitarian instincts are not innate, but rather learned.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 6:24): Natalie Jones interviews several researchers, including Professor Audun Dahl, who perform experiments with babies, delving into what kind of things these experiments might reveal.
  • 60-Second Philosopher segment (seek to 46:35): Ian Shoales quickly considers ways babies have been cast, as saints and as evil, in society and the media.