Do Babies Know Right from Wrong?

Three babies holding hands

At the age of five, I returned home from a playdate with a stolen Barbie Frisbee hidden in my pocket.  That night, I tossed and turned.  In my mind, the Frisbee felt searing hot to the touch and I detested its presence.  I thought I could dispose of my guilt by wadding up the stolen Frisbee in paper and throwing it away, but it still haunted me.  I finally found relief after a sprint of terror to my parent’s bedroom, where I hysterically confessed to my crime.

As an adult, my stomach still churns when I think about this story and not because my crime was unforgivable and damning.  Rather, the memory of experiencing intense guilt and shame for the first time, while not understanding it, is still very unsettling and, at a base level, terrifying.

For years over, theorists, theologians and researchers have failed to agree on why and when children begin to feel guilt and shame.  Experts want to determine if babies understand right from wrong, if so, when moral reasoning appears in human development and the origins of morality.

Current v. Past Understanding of Moral Development

Two of the world’s foremost experts on the development of morality, Dr. Paul Bloom and Dr. Karen Wynn, happen to be married and work together as professors of developmental psychology at Yale University.  Their research at the Yale Infant Cognition Lab has led them to conclude that babies are born with an innate sense of morality.

Inherent morality is a contemporary idea which is antithetical to theories of centuries past, such as John Locke’s (17th Century) tabula rasa. Even the 20th Century fathers of modern psychology, like Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic superego and Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, which expand upon Jean Piaget’s stages of development, assumed that morality is a result of nurture, not nature.  Kohlberg went so far as to say that individuals uniquely reach or skip moral milestones at different ages according to their experiences.  All in all, moral developmental theories are greatly varied, but have progressed through the centuries to allow for a more generous interpretation of a young child’s ability to reason morally.

Current theorists, like Bloom, Wynn and Dr. Alison Gopnik of UC Berkeley, tout the existence of moral thought in the infant mind.   At the Yale Infant Cognition Center, researchers have shown that infants, even as young as three-months-old, prefer to direct their gaze and reach for “the good guy” in scenarios using three-dimensional, puppet-like objects where a “good guy” helps another character, a “bad-guy” hinders and a neutral character is present.  The researchers also found that six and twelve-month-old infants prefer neutral characters to the bad characters, but not necessarily good characters over neutral characters.   (To view a 60 Minutes segment on Bloom and Wynn’s research, see the “For Further Study” section below.)

Origin of Innate Moral Sense

Though seemingly simplistic, the presence of infant distaste for “bad guys” is actually quite complex.  The fact that they prefer good and neutral characters demonstrates that infants are able to recognize certain traits and behaviors that are bad and then reject people based upon these observations.  While this reasoning appears to be moral thought, it is difficult to conclusively label it as such when you cannot explain its derivation.  Recall that past experts rejected the idea of innate morality because they assumed that morality is a product of nurture, but being able to theorize as to the inherent nature of morality makes Bloom and Wynn’s theory all the more viable.

Dr. Paul Bloom, in his book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, cautions readers that just because a baby seems to be able to make moral judgments about others, does not mean that she is ready to make moral judgments about herself.  Bloom goes on to argue the theory that infants possess an innate moral sense by reason of the evolutionary theory of natural selection.  In summary, a moral sense is present by evolutionary nature, but complete morality requires the developing hand of nurture.

Bloom defends a naturalistic and neuroscientific derivation of morality.  He sees the evolutionary development of morality in the way that humans exhibit disgust, especially in our blind favoritism towards our own group and the dehumanizing of outsiders.   Therefore, regardless of how an individual defines their personal moral code, whether through religious or secular philosophies, disgust and group preference are the roots of their beliefs.

For instance, think of a morally reprehensible action that you find disgusting (ex. rape, genocide, killing of babies, stealing from the destitute).  Now think about how you responded physiologically when you thought about this action.  Really think it through and you’ll notice your body responding with disgust, as if you’ve eaten something horrible.  Consider if your brother or sister committed this action?  What if you engaged in this activity?  Your mother? Now think about someone from a faraway country or perhaps a different religious group that committed this act.  Would you want to punish everyone, including yourself, in the same way?  If Bloom’s theory is correct, than you will have doled out harsher punishments on those outside your group and been more lenient with those whom you identify with and love.

Do Babies Know Right from Wrong?

If the possibility of an innate moral sense is observable through infant distaste for “bad” people and the origins for this distaste stem from the human sense of disgust and preference for one’s group, then do babies actually know right from wrong?  The current consensus is that, “yes”, babies possess an immature, innate moral sense derived from their survivalist nature, but “no”, they cannot consistently apply their moral philosophies to themselves and others.

Dr. Alison Gopnik, mentioned earlier, is one of the world’s foremost thinkers on infant’s consciousness and theory of mind.  She proposes that much of being able to properly apply moral reasoning is caught up in our concept of ourselves, family, society and ultimately our consciousness.   Therefore, the infant moral sense is rudimentary until life experience can develop it wholly.

According to Gopnik, the infant’s immature neurology leaves them with an extra aware consciousness that lacks inhibitory control over their sensory perceptions (meaning they can’t shut out irrelevant input).  The day in the life of a baby is compared to an adult wandering the streets of new city, Paris, while under the influence of three triple espressos.  Talk about sensory overload!  Babies are taking in more than they can possibly process and lack concrete experience and therefore cannot possibly reason well and act upon reason consistently.

Fine-tuning our consciousness, however, can enhance and mature our ability to reason morally.   The foundation of a moral sense may be hard-wired, but there is still much work and construction required after birth to complete and perfect the project.   Every time we reason and act, we learn.  Therefore, as we grow and develop, our moral sense matures as well.

Play is Essential to the Development of Morality

Gopnik is adamant that play is essential to the development of morality.  It is through play that children practice and come to understand life.  In past generations, children were perceived to be disconnected from reality when they engaged in imaginative play, but Gopnik believes this theory is false.  She asserts that children are aware that imaginative play is separate from reality and children utilize this imaginative world to practice and understand the real world.

Picture a child playing with dolls and one doll takes the other’s bottle.  The child, in her safe and imaginary world, can now grapple with the real moral options at hand: shall the doll hit, find a new a bottle or shun the offending doll in response?  In imaginative play, a child can grapple with the bigger moral questions in life and come to resolve and accept certain truths about the natural world.  It is possible, then, that more imaginative play can lead to higher moral thought.

To enhance free play, and consequently moral development, choose a developmentally appropriate school that encourages free play, start a toy rotation system at home, take your children outside for fresh air and unstructured play and declutter your schedule.  In this way, there is potential, daily, for goodness, justice and love to grow.

Implications for Parenting

How can we proceed as parents?  We’ll discuss age-by-age and stage-by-stage in the coming weeks how your children perceive and understand themselves, the world and morality and I will offer concrete ways to approach moral training, discipline, religious and philosophical teaching (without bias towards any particular creed) and parenting in general.  Young children have fascinating minds and I am excited to jump into this topic with you and unravel the mysteries guarded inside their developing minds.

For Further Study

1) Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil by Paul Bloom

2) The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life by Alison Gopnik

3) CBS  60 Minutes clip covering The Yale Infant Cognition Center’s research on infant morality:

Categories: Discipline, General Parenting Topics, Parenting, The Nerdy Beat

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