Babies and innate morality - CT article


(Christy Hemphill) #1

I thought this CT article might be interesting to some people in light of some of the recent discussions on the development of human morality. It is a brief summary of some psychology studies that may shed light on the question of “the age of accountability” and whether some sense of morality is innate in humans or if it is all a result of enculturation.

@Jay313 It cites the study I mentioned but couldn’t find the other day about the one year olds preferring the nice toys over the mean ones.

[quote] First, in contradiction with early philosophers, psychologists are finding that humans aren’t a blank slate at birth. As Paul Bloom, the author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil concludes, “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.”

This aspect Christians already acknowledge, though in some ways, it may seem contrary to tabula rasa theory and those who prefer a nurture perspective when it comes to personality and character formation. However, a balanced reading of the evidence shows the early glimmer of a moral foundation in babies, not a complex understanding of morality.

In one of Bloom’s first studies, researchers acted out a scene for babies using manipulated physical shapes like puppets: A yellow square helped a circle up a hill; a red triangle pushed it down. After the show, the experimenter placed both the helper square and the hinderer triangle on a tray and brought it to the babies, ages 6 and 10 months, and found that infants overwhelmingly preferred the helper. Karen Wynn and Kiley Hamlin also found that infants prefer individuals who are nice to individuals who are mean.[/quote]

The article doesn’t get into the idea of the evolution of human moral accountability, but the researcher highlighted in the article observes:


(Jay Johnson) #2

Fascinating question, isn’t it? I definitely agree that humans aren’t a blank slate at birth. Actually having children will disabuse you of that notion! My daughter was compliant and easy as an infant and toddler, while my son was stubborn and irritable. Without warning, at about the age of 3 they swapped personalities! (I can get away with saying that here … haha)

Regarding evolution and morality, here’s another “monkey wrench” to throw into the mix: According to Steven Mithen, primate social behavior “is about building friendships and alliances, about manipulation and deception, about acquiring and exploiting social knowledge …” Hmmmm. I’m not going to touch that one for now, but others are welcome to speculate.

My own speculation about the “glimmers of moral thought” in infants is that it may be something similar to our desire to communicate ourselves with others. Both may begin as innate drives implanted by God, but both capacities must be developed into mature capabilities.

When does that happen? Was there a particular day when you woke up and realized that you were now a mature person, morally responsible for your choices? Wasn’t it a bit of a gradual realization? Legal codes and traditional coming-of-age ceremonies draw a distinct line, but in actual experience, the line is more than a little fuzzy. Some children of 8 have greater maturity and moral awareness than others of 14.


(Daryl Anderson) #3

Perhaps one aspect of being in the image of God is moral accountability. It seems that humans, like animals, have an innate will to benefit themselves by selfish behavior (sin nature?), but that humans alone, as they mature, gradually understand that certain behaviors are “evil.” I think that’s in agreement with biblical teaching…
Genesis 8:21 says “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” Psalm 58:3 says “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.” David says of himself, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5).
Deut 1:39 says, “your little ones who you said would become a prey, and your sons, who this day have no knowledge of good or evil, shall enter there,” and Isaiah 7:15-16 says "He will eat curds and honey at the time He knows enough to refuse evil and choose good. For before the boy will know enough to refuse evil and choose good, the land whose two kings you dread will be forsaken.


(Albert Leo) #4

Here goes that Al Leo again (!!)--trying to use the twin tools of SG and GLF (selfish genes & great leap forward) to reconcile Scripture and Science. Sorry, but I just can’t help it. The argument makes so much sense to me. There is evidence of a small amount of altruism in the evolved nature of the animal kingdom, which includes us, but it is to a greater degree selfish. The GLF marks the point in history when SGs could be overridden by conscience. In Teilhard’s nomenclature, it marked the point where the Noosphere was born out of the Biosphere.
Al Leo


(Christy Hemphill) #5

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