I’ve always felt that the only people who say “Babies are born good, and we ruin them” are people who have never tried to raise one. I’ve felt the same about people who say “Babies are born as a blank slate.” Anybody who has seen little Jimmy reaching for an object while looking over his shoulder to see if Mom is watching knows better. But there are an awful lot of people who believe the “blank slate” line, even people who should know better.
A researcher at Yale is finding evidence that very young babies already have a rudimentary moral sense at the age of 6 months, and that this finding is consistent. Listen:
Professor Paul Bloom, a psychologist at Yale University in Connecticut, whose department has studied morality in babies for years, said: ‘A growing body of evidence 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 bones.’
For one study, the Yale researchers got babies aged between six months and a year to watch a puppet show in which a simple, colourful wooden shape with eyes tries to climb a hill.
Sometimes the shape is helped up the hill by a second toy, while other times a third character pushes it down.
After watching the show several times, the babies were shown the helpful and unhelpful toys. They showed a clear preference for the helpful toys – spending far longer looking at the ‘good’ shapes than the ‘bad’ ones.
‘In the end, we found that six- and ten-month-old infants overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual,’ Prof Bloom told the New York Times.
‘This wasn’t a subtle statistical trend; just about all the babies reached for the good guy.’
Two more tests found the same moral sense.
The experiments focused on puppets that cooperated with or hindered some activity — rolling a ball up a hill, opening a box, playing a game. The “good guy” was the one that cooperated; the “bad guy” was the one that hindered the activity, sitting on the opening of the box or running off with the game ball. What the babies preferred might be described as cooperation: “I like the one that helps, not the one that ruins.” Is this really moral thinking? The fact that the plays do not involve the babies themselves suggests that it is; they feel frustration for the characters, not directly for themselves.
Since the experiments all involved the children watching morality plays with puppets, it’s clear that they also have a sense of empathy — they feel for the characters — and that they process abstractions — they know the puppets represent them in some sense. These are also apparently hard-wired in humans, which I find equally remarkable.
Christianity teaches both that human beings are made in the image of God and know good, and that sin is innate to our species, so we do wrong things. Consequently, Christians should expect infants to know what’s right, but on occasion to choose to do wrong. This matches my experience of children — I’ve raised four, and it took conscientious effort to make them good people — and now it matches the experimental results of at least one American scientist.