Are infants moral?

Psychology Today selected this piece of mine as essential reading today on its website.

Research by Yale professor Karen Wyn concludes that morality begins in infancy. This upsets the idea that children learn their morality through parents; it also runs contrary to the often-observed fact that morality varies widely from culture to culture.

Both Wyn and her critics are right. How can they both be right? In part, it turns on the definition of morality and the level of behavior we are looking at. What Wyn is referring to is the innate propensity on the part of infants to prefer that which is pro-social, while critics are referring to social conventions, which obviously differ from place to place.

It is possible for a trait to be both inborn and universal and yet to find that the implementation and expression of that trait differs from person to person or from culture to culture. Just think of language. All human beings are born with the capacity to communicate linguistically. Our brains are structured to use language, not chirp or grunt or sing primarily. Yet there are countless languages spoken throughout the world.

In a series of experiments with infants, Wyn found, in one study, that infants looked longer at helping puppets than those that hindered another from opening a box. Variations of this research observed the same thing: infants preferred those who helped to those who made things more difficult for others.

Wyn’s research by itself is suggestive but doesn’t prove much. It is, though, part of a growing body of research that makes the same point. Infants offer help, comfort those in distress and prefer those who do the same.

These tendencies, however, can be overridden by parenting that doesn’t build on these propensities; the same can be said of peers who can override these instincts and larger culturally messages that convey very different values.

Interestingly, Wyn’s study also points to another trait that isn’t so positive. She found that young children preferred puppets that liked the same food as they did. The significance of this is that we may well prefer those who are like us and dislike those who aren’t.

“Babies and infants were far more likely to approve of the similar puppets being helped, while having the same positive reaction when the puppets that chose different foods were hindered,” Wynn said. “This reaction seems to suggest the roots of the adult impulses toward xenophobia, prejudice and war.”

While infants have an innate sense of morality, they also possess a sense of “us and them.” Philosopher John Teehan, of Hofstra University, in his book In the Name of God: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence argues that the trait that accounts for in-group cohesion also accounts for the violence that is found in religions that profess peace and understanding.)

Within each of us are the competing instincts of compassion and prejudice. The great advances in ethics haven’t been new insights as to what is right and wrong. Rather it has been to extend the net of who is included in the circle of compassion.



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