Babies Are Natural-Born Vigilantes, Possibly Bigots


There seemed to be nugget of truth in the Onion headline, “New Study Reveals Most Children Unrepentant Sociopaths.” But some scientists studying “the morality of babies” (bands looking for debut album titles, take note) are saying the exact opposite.

Anyone who’s seen the weirdly compelling preview for the documentary Babies (and OMFG it’s only two days away!!!) has laughed at the fracas between two Namibian infants as they play with a rock; one reaches over and smacks the other. Babies are violent and instinctive and, because there’s no malice or morality behind it, we can laugh. Writes Paul Bloom, a behavioral researcher writing in the Times Sunday magazine (who, reassuringly, references the Onion study), this is pretty much accepted doctrine: “From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologists have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals.” He continues,

A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.

New methods of studying infant psychology have led researchers to include that there’s a rudimentary, cross-cultural empathy at work with even the youngest children – which, evolutionarily-speaking, would seem to make a lot of sense. Of course, even assuming you can give full credence to the findings (the article outlines, at some length, the inherent challenges of performing such abstract tests on such young children), there’s what my 10th-grade English teacher called the “so-what” for behavioral psychology generally. Says Bloom, “Some scholars think that the very existence of an innate moral sense has profound implications.” A lot of these quickly become highly abstract – and, apparently, theological, to those who’d see this as indication of a spark of the divine. But clearly this can get dicey:

But it is not present in babies. In fact, our initial moral sense appears to be biased toward our own kind. There’s plenty of research showing that babies have within-group preferences: 3-month-olds prefer the faces of the race that is most familiar to them to those of other races; 11-month-olds prefer individuals who share their own taste in food and expect these individuals to be nicer than those with different tastes; 12-month-olds prefer to learn from someone who speaks their own language over someone who speaks a foreign language. And studies with young children have found that once they are segregated into different groups – even under the most arbitrary of schemes, like wearing different colored T-shirts – they eagerly favor their own groups in their attitudes and their actions.

Let’s not defer to the stroller set as our moral arbiters just yet; in case you were about to, Bloom reminds us that “it is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to.” Babies, in other words, is apparently not a morally instructive film. Merely extremely cute.

Moral Life of Babies [New York Times]
New Study Reveals Most Children Unrepentant Sociopaths [The Onion]

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