By Dave Andrusko
Editor’s note. This ran several years back, but the birth of our third grandchild reminded me of what I consider a genuinely fascinating study.
Those eight words were put in the form of a declarative statement, rather than a question, in a headline on Fox News. On the same topic, the Daily Mail of England wrote, “We’re born to be moral: Babies ‘can tell good from evil at six months.” The New York Times, in a magazine article, described the phenomenon as “The Moral Life of Babies.”
What are they talking about? Well, all are reflections of some ingenious work done for many years at the psychology department at Yale University. David Derbyshire summarizes “an astonishing series of experiments” as showing that “Babies aged six months old have already developed a strong moral code, according to psychologists.”
Writing in the Daily MailDerbyshire adds, “They may be barely able to sit up, let alone take their first steps, crawl or talk, but researchers say they can still tell the difference between good and evil.”
The growing body of evidence suggests that babies possess a “rudimentary” moral sense every early in life. Without going into a lengthy explanation, the little ones were “tested,” so to speak, by being presented with a series of events.
Overwhelmingly they responded favorably to “good” or helpful puppets and rejected the naughty or “bad” puppets. (Most of the response is measured by the way they track objects with their eyes, but there are physical exertions as well.)
“A growing body of evidence suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life,” professor Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, told Fox News. “Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bones.”
Bloom is at the center of this research and wrote a lengthy essay for the New York Times Magazine.
He stresses that that the morality the child has early in life is unrefined, so to speak, noting that nobody is saying socialization is not crucial. But it’s also true, according to Bloom, that
“Babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn’t start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest.”
Beyond the obvious—who wouldn’t be fascinated by the idea that a sense of right and wrong is “hardwired” into us?—what struck me in Bloom’s essay was an extension of a refrain we hear over and over and over. Children—six-month old babies—are much more complex, much more complicated than we thought even a few years ago. Bloom talks about their “naïve physics” and an ability to “do rudimentary math with objects.“
Who knows what fascinating new discoveries we will make as we increasingly understand that birth is merely a way station on a journey that had already begun 9 months before and will end 70 or 80 or more years later.
And perhaps working backwards, we might learn that it is precisely because we have lost what Bloom calls “certain moral foundations” that explains how we adults can act so inhumanely toward defenseless unborn babies.