Baby morality

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has written an informative article, “Moral Life of Babies”, summarizing key findings of baby researchers — researchers who study babies, not babies who write grant applications, run laboratories, and supervise Ph.D. dissertations — regarding the cognitive and moral lives of babies.

These studies' major conclusions:

  1. Young babies understand the world around them far better than most people, even child psychologists, have long believed. Babies express surprise when objects appear to violate the principles of physics.
  2. Babies enter the world with an innate sense of right and wrong and a natural tendency to favor and want to be with nice people and to punish and shun mean people. Very young children even like those who punish bad people.
  3. Baby morality is hard-wired to apply more strongly to people and groups the baby knows, likes, spends time with, shares language, likes and other characteristics with, etc.

In short, humans are born into the world with (or very quickly acquire) a sense of how objects behave and a gut-sense morality that attracts us to nice people and leads us to dislike mean people. But human morality is inherently biased in favor of those who are like us. “‘Us’ vs. ‘them’” is part of our genetically endowed sense of morality. Culture can and has enabled many humans to extend their vision of “us” to include all humans, and even sentient non-humans. But universalistic morality is not inborn; it seems to require education and enculturation.

Posted by James on Wednesday, May 05, 2010