Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

05/10/2010 (5:54 am)

Babies Know Morals

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.

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12 Comments »

May 10, 2010 @ 12:09 pm #

Even some of the lowest forms of life display a remarkable capacity for empathy, which is probably the source of this sense of morality. Rats will go hungry rather than cause pain to Rats in a neighboring cage. This happenned when food levers were rigged to deliver electric shocks to the inhabitants of an adjacent cage. Certain ants will sacrifice their bodies during times of drought, allowing their abdomens to balloon with fluids so others can pierce them to get a drink. And now this remarkable trait has been discovered in life forms as primitive as slime mold amoeba. Dictyostelium discoideum start out as individual amoeba feeding on bacteria. When food becomes scarce, they collect themselves into a slug like form, which transports the amoeba in the interior safely to a new location while the amoeba on the exterior surfaces usually dry up and die. When they get to a new location they form a plant like structure, with a long stalk and a bud of amoeba at the top. Individuals in the stalk die, as amoeba at the top create “spores”, which scatter their offspring to the wind.

It seems that empathy is a necessary suvival trait for most species, where certain individuals are actually wired to sacrifice themselves for the community.

It’s really amazing that unthinking, unfeeling blobs of cells and dna can perform such a complex ritual, it fills me with wonder. The more I learn and study about biology and physics, the further I get from atheism and move towards theism. But ironically, it also moves me away from Christianity, which I used to be deeply involved with.

May 10, 2010 @ 12:24 pm #

Jackson wrote:

The more I learn and study about biology and physics, the further I get from atheism and move towards theism. But ironically, it also moves me away from Christianity, which I used to be deeply involved with.

This seems like a contradictory statement, though there are ways to reconcile it. Are you saying you started out Christian, moved to atheism, and are now swinging back toward some non-Christian theism?

I’m curious: what is it about the cooperative actions of lower forms that moves you away from Christianity? I don’t see anything in it that contradicts any necessary notion from within Christianity, though I suppose it might make some of the more rigid fundamentalists uncomfortable. Seems to me that the literate Christian, faced with information like this, would rejoice inwardly, and outwardly say something like “Everything in creation reflects the nature of God, even the slime in the mud!”

May 10, 2010 @ 12:32 pm #

Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see how this necessarily proves sense of morals. It seems likely to me that the babies are simply displaying an ego-centric preference for which puppet they would like to interact with. i.e. the “nice” puppet will be nice to *me*; the “mean” puppet will me mean to *me*.

Not that I disagree that babies know morals… I’m just not sure this proves it.

May 10, 2010 @ 12:54 pm #

Actually, Shel, ego-centricity would require an abstract inference here: “That puppet interfered with the other puppet’s game, and now it’s going to interfere with MINE.” There’s no data here showing that that level of reasoning is taking place.

The only reasoning we can be sure is taking place in the test is sorting behaviors into preferred and less preferred, and that reasoning — “This behavior is preferable to that behavior” — is the essence of moral reasoning.

May 10, 2010 @ 1:44 pm #

I was a devout Christian until 9/11, which made me re-evaluate all that I have been taught, and I eventually became an atheist. I realized that men of myriad faiths have given their lives for their notion of God throughout history, and the only difference between me and them was that I was born here and indoctrinated differently. We were all told stories in our youth about how God wanted us to behave, by men reading from books written by other men. Which version you adopt depends largely on where you were born and what your family tought you.

I still see Jesus as a historical figure of great importance, and if not divine, his teachings are cetainly enlightened to a degree. So maybe I’m still a Christian. But I don’t see much correlation between the teachings of Christ and the behaviour of devout Christians today, especially the political ones. Jesus would be branded a lefty socialist and run out on a rail by megachurch christians today, with all his talk about selling all your goods and giving it to the poor.

I see divinity in nature, and I pray/meditate alone as I believe I should, because ultimately its an incredibly intimate, personal thing, not to be shouted out and put on display in churches or temples built to corral the herds. I don’t want to be told what you think pleases or displeases God, because you can throw a dart at the globe and get a different answer wherever it hits. But the laws of the universe are constant, and do not change at the whims of men. Observation DOES change results in particle physics though, which is endlessly fascinating. I want to know more. It’s almost an invitation to use to keep looking, keep searching, reality is stranger than we have the capacity to imagine. And you won’t find the answer in dusty old book.

May 10, 2010 @ 5:23 pm #

Jackson -

Thanks for your honesty here, and I certainly understand the shaking of faith that something like 9/11 brings. While 9/11 was rather minor compared to some of the horrific atrocities of th 20th Century, this one happened on US soil, so it felt more real (though we both know that’s a little egocentric : )

You said, importantly: “It’s almost an invitation to use to keep looking, keep searching, reality is stranger than we have the capacity to imagine. And you won’t find the answer in dusty old book.”

Fortunately, you will find very little in the story of the New Testament that invites you to relate to God and find him in a dusty old book. You will find repeated invitations to seek him out personally…to be open to communication, etc. For me, when He chooses to speak through that book, or anywhere else, the vibrancy comes through who’s speaking, not what he’s speaking through.

Just 2 cents for you…toss it away if unhelpful.

May 10, 2010 @ 5:23 pm #

Jackson,

While it is certainly true that what parents teach their children affects what the children believe, and that different parts of the world teach different things, I don’t see that those facts hold any relevance to the question of whether any of them are true.

It is relatively easy to see the impact of teaching on a culture. The 9/11 attack only brought home the violence that has been perpetrated around the globe by people taught the Muslim faith; observing that Muslim children can be taught to do violence in the name of God does not prove that all teaching about God is false, it suggests that Muslim teaching about God is false.

By the same token, one can complain a great deal about commercialism and consumerism here in the West, but it is undeniable that Christianity has produced an intellectually vibrant culture that has raised billions of people out of poverty and ignorance. One need not believe that everything done in the name of affluence here in the West is perfect in order to see the advantage of public sanitation, modern medical care, universal literacy, or political liberty, all the result of Western innovation. Compare that to the condition of the culture in countries that Islam has held fast for 1300 years; they’re the poorest nations on the planet. That’s no accident. If Islam had anything in it that could lead people to prosperity, health, and joy, it would have done so long ago.

Furthermore, there is no particular reason to think that parental religious teaching is indelible. Not everyone raised in Christianity remains Christian, and not everybody who’s a Christian was raised Christian. I was raised Jewish; I became Christian at the age of 19, and there has never been a single minute that I swallowed Christianity blindly, it’s always been a conscious and deliberate choice. Moreover, just because you were raised Christian does not mean you cannot be a conscious Christian as an adult.

You seem to have some antipathy toward churches; I imagine that has something to do with negative experiences you had in churches. Everybody has those, and I think some of the negative reactions are the result of unrealistic expectations. I think people expect church to be a perfect place, because Christianity is supposed to raise people out of sin. What we forget is that escaping sin is a lifelong effort, and never more than partially finished. The mystery of church has never been that so many people in them act like sinners, because everyone in church is one of those — a sinner. The mystery is that so many manage not to.

CS Lewis had an interesting response to those who claim that Jesus was enlightened but not divine. From his standpoint, Jesus deliberately robbed you of that possibility by claiming that he was divine, and claiming it in unmistakable terms. If he wasn’t divine, then he was either a serious deceiver or a lunatic on the level of a man who claims he’s a poached egg. You’re entitled to either of those conclusions, but “enlightened but not divine” is not a plausible position.

All that said, I can’t fault your appreciation for physics, ’cause I share it. The universe is a remarkable place, and the more I learn about it, the more remarkable it seems. But I see the divinity in nature as a reflection of the character and intelligence of God, and I haven’t become completely disillusioned with others who teach and practice Christianity, mostly because I’m no better than they are.

May 10, 2010 @ 5:38 pm #

I think some definitions are in order here. I believe that ‘morality’ is sum of (or the study of) the choices that a human being makes in order to survive. It’s a tautology to say that the concept of morality only applies to beings that actually have a choice. If there is no possibility of choice, then the concept of morality doesn’t even apply.

Since an infant is totally dependent upon others for it’s very survival and has no choice about anything, I call BS on the idea that infants can be moral or immoral.

May 10, 2010 @ 7:16 pm #

If there is no possibility of choice, then the concept of morality doesn’t even apply.

John, you must not have read the quoted article carefully. The tests all involve the infants making choices.

May 10, 2010 @ 7:25 pm #

Since an infant is totally dependent upon others for it’s very survival and has no choice about anything, I call BS on the idea that infants can be moral or immoral.

John, are you saying that the babies who played with the “cooperative” puppets had no ability to choose the “uncooperative” puppets if they had wanted to, because they are dependent on their parents? I don’t follow the logic.

May 10, 2010 @ 8:24 pm #

The only reasoning we can be sure is taking place in the test is sorting behaviors into preferred and less preferred, and that reasoning — “This behavior is preferable to that behavior” — is the essence of moral reasoning.

I think there may be more to the essence of moral reasoning than just sorting or preferring. I think that the motive behind the choice may be involved.

‘morality’ is sum of (or the study of) the choices that a human being makes in order to survive.

I’m not sure survival is the defining motive. I’d like to see how others here define it.

May 11, 2010 @ 8:53 am #

Thanks for the comments, you made some good points. But I disagree with the either/or characterization of Jesus’ divinity. His emphasis was on the divinity of his father, which most christians claim daily in prayer. His teachings, especially when he tells us to look within, for there lies the kingdom, is pretty advanced thinking for the day. We all have that spark of divinity within, and when we turn away from that to follow false prophets/teachers/priests, that’s where the message gets corrupted by men. I know it sound a little new agey, but that’s what resonates with me(lol). The fact that babies display morality, and the fact that all life forms display empathy for their fellow creatures, tells me we should look no further that within ourselves for a connection to the divine.

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