Babies Don’t Know Jack About Morality

The Atlantic on studies that purport to show that babies are born with an understanding of morality:

Human babies, before they learn how to speak and even hold up their own bodies, are capable of not only telling the difference between right and wrong, but of making morally fraught decisions, a finding that shocked scientists when it was uncovered about ten years ago.

“It knocked our socks off,” says Yale’s Paul Bloom, one of the psychologists behind a series of groundbreaking studies of infant morality and the author of a fascinating new book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. It turns out that babies, who are too young to have learned about morality, have an innate moral sense. On top of that, they show a basic disposition to goodness.

“The child is a natural moralist, who gets a huge helping hand from its biological makeup,” writes de Waal in The Bonobo and the Atheist. But that helping hand from nature is rounded out by nurture. From his research on babies, conducted in the Infant Cognition Center at Yale, Bloom has come to see that we are born with this innate moral sense but that it gets fine-tuned over time through learning.

“Babies,” Bloom writes, “have a general appreciation of good and bad behavior.” Beyond distinguishing between good and bad, young children also have an understanding of fairness and justice.

Clearly these experts have studied a lot of babies, but have they ever met one?  Do any of them, like, have their own children? Because, that’s the way people have been studying the behavior of babies up til now, and I don’t remember anyone noticing an innate moral sense before.

I think there is something about goodness (or”Godness,” as you might say if you’ve read this previous post, which I look for any reason to re-link) that draws us toward it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone is inherently moral at any time.

A pretty significant facet of personal morality is selfishness, or lack thereof. I’d like to see what studies say about that. We’re born as selfish as we will ever be; howling and demanding attention when we’re hungry or tired or dirty or confused or whatever. I don’t know how you can say someone who behaves like that is inherently moral.

I think the definitive take on the morality of children still belongs to Hannah Arendt:

Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians – we call them ‘children.’

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