Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Do Babies Know Right from Wrong?

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At the age of six, I returned home from a playdate with a stolen Barbie frisbee hidden in my pocket.  That night, I tossed and turned.  To ameliorate my guilt, I wadded up the stolen toy in a piece of drawing paper and threw it away.  But even from the waste basket, the frisbee still haunted me.  It took a sprint of contrition down the hall to my parent’s bedroom, where I confessed to stealing, to find relief.

As an adult, my stomach still tightens a bit when I recall this memory, but not because my error was so terrible.  Stealing small items in early childhood is actually quite natural and expected.  Rather, it is the memory of feeling deep guilt and shame, without understanding these feelings, that is still unsettling.

For years over, philosophers, theologians and researchers have failed to agree on why and when children begin to feel true guilt and shame.  Experts aim to determine what gives rise to morality in humans, when moral reasoning appears and, specifically, whether or not babies understand right from wrong.

Current v. Previous COnceptions of Moral Development

*John Locke (1632-1704) was a philosopher and physician whose ideas sculpted the Age of Enlightenment and beyond.

*Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who developed psychoanalysis.

*Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) was an American psychologist who developed the stages of moral development, which was an expansion of Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development.

Modern experts mostly agree that babies possess a form of morality, which has been demonstrated in clinical settings in infants who are just a few weeks old.  But, inherent morality is a contemporary idea which is antithetical to theories of centuries past.  For example, in the 17th Century John Locke believed that the mind of a child was a tabula rasa, or a blank slate, ready to be filled with information.  

More recently in the 20th Century, the fathers of modern psychology, like Sigmund Freud and Lawrence Kohlberg, also 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.  This means that an adult, who was never taught moral lessons, could demonstrate similar moral reasoning to a child who was trained in morality.

All in all, theories of moral development vary greatly and have evolved through the centuries to grant more credence to the power of nature and allow for a more generous interpretation of the very young to reason morally.

*CBS 60 Minutes clip covering The Yale Infant Cognition Center’s research on infant morality: CLICK HERE

Two modern day researchers studying 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 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.

Bloom and Wynn have also found that six and twelve-month-old infants prefer neutral characters to the bad characters, but not necessarily good characters over neutral characters.  These findings have lead the researchers to conclude that babies are born with some form of an innate sense of morality.

Origin of Innate Moral Sense

Though seemingly simplistic, the presence of infant distaste for “bad guys” is actually quite complex.  The fact that babies 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 solely 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.

Bloom cautions readers, in his book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, that just because a baby seems to be able to make moral judgments about others, this does not mean that the baby is ready to make moral judgments about herself.  Bloom goes on to argue that infants possess an innate moral sense by reason of the evolutionary theory of natural selection.  In summary, a moral sense is observed in babies because it is an evolutionary byproduct of their survivalist instinct, but complete morality requires the guiding 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 considered this action.  Really think it through and you’ll notice your body responding with disgust, as if you’ve eaten something horrible.

Now, 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 and your mother, in the same way?  If Bloom’s theory is correct, than you will have doled out harsher punishments to those outside your group and will have been more lenient to those with whom you identify with, love or depend upon.

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 “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, a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley, is a leading expert on infant’s consciousness and theory of mind.  She is also the author of The Philosohpical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life, among other books, articles and publications.

Dr. Alison Gopnik concurs and proposes that much of being able to properly apply moral reasoning is caught up in our concept of ourselves, family, society and ultimately our own 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 a foreign city, like 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 the concrete experiences to make sense of the data.  Therefore, they cannot reason at a high moral level 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 as being disconnected from reality when they engaged in imaginative play, but Gopnik believes this idea 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 apple.  The child, in her safe and imaginary world, can now work through with the real moral options at hand: shall the doll hit, find a new piece of fruit 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 that more imaginative play can lead to higher moral thought.  And so, play presents the daily potential for goodness, justice and love to grow.


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