Do babies know right from wrong?

Epistemology Ethics Philosophy science

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Do babies come into this world with a natural tendency to tell right from wrong, or is their stance entirely informed by social conditioning? Or is it both?

I’ve blogged in the past on ethical intuitionism, and I had some favourable things to say about it. Properly functioning people under the right sorts of conditions, I maintain, have a (fallible) tendency to form true moral beliefs. I also blogged recently about the fact that children, in the course of healthy, normal development without extraordinary intervention, naturally form belief in God.

What about healthy babies and moral beliefs? Do they naturally form true moral beliefs, or is it all a matter of social conditioning and etiquette? Well, I’ve already answered that question by supporting ethical intuitionism. If that’s a plausible view on true moral belief formation in general, then it will be true of everyone as they develop into a competent knower. But is there any scientific evidence that very young children and babies actually do naturally form (what many of us would take to be) true moral beliefs?

Researchers at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center think so. Have a look at the video and see what you think.

What do I think? I’m not sure how much this actually shows. It may not really tell us anything about knowing right from wrong. Maybe it just tells us about the way babies naturally respond to figures seen as helpful and caring or threatening and mean, none of which are moral categories. That anyone might see this as telling us about whether or not babies know right from wrong may, in fact, simply reflect the way some in the scientific community think of morality as being nothing more than facts about what is advantageous or disadvantageous to people. This is the sort of error that sends much of Sam’s Harris’s talk about science and morality off track (as I explain elsewhere).

Those are my initial thoughts. What do you make of this?

Glenn Peoples

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Rob D April 18, 2012, 1:13 am

    Can you say more about how ‘caring/helpful’ and ‘threatening/mean’ are not moral categories? I understand how a child might view a doctor about to give her a vaccination as ‘threatening,’ though that would be a morally inappropriate judgment. But think about the scenarios in the video: one puppet was actively working to stop someone from accomplishing a goal. Isn’t that kind of meanness a real moral flaw? Maybe this only shows that babies think ‘mean people suck,’ not that babies understand ‘being mean is wrong.’ Anyhow, can you say more about the distinction?

  • colin April 18, 2012, 5:24 am

    It is indistinguishable whether the baby thinks that the character should behave a certain way, or merely whether the baby personally prefers characters that behave a certain way.

    I prefer musicians who play techno than those who play country, but I don’t claim a moral imperative (maybe I should :))

    Great post Glenn. Very interesting video.

  • Lenny Esposito April 18, 2012, 12:30 pm

    Glenn,

    You may be interested in the article, which offers a bit more depth than the video piece. You can find it here: http://nyti.ms/IkfZPX

    Lenny

  • bethyada April 19, 2012, 9:49 pm

    The original article is gone, but this is a comment on babies being deceptive which I wrote about a few years back. From the telegraph:

    Dr Vasudevi Reddy, of the University of Portsmouth’s psychology department, says she has identified seven categories of deception used between six months and three-years-old.

    Infants quickly learnt that using tactics such as fake crying and pretend laughing could win them attention. By eight months, more difficult deceptions became apparent, such as concealing forbidden activities or trying to distract parents’ attention.

    By the age of two, toddlers could use far more devious techniques, such as bluffing when threatened with a punishment.

    Dr Reddy said: “Fake crying is one of the earliest forms of deception to emerge, and infants use it to get attention even though nothing is wrong. You can tell, as they will then pause while they wait to hear if their mother is responding, before crying again.

  • Glenn April 19, 2012, 10:30 pm

    Similar Deception has been observed in Orang-utans as well.

    And goodness, parents have known about fake crying for many years!

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