Babies and the Science of Morality

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

In his new book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom examines the concept of morality: its scope, its challenges, and what research into the moral lives of babies can reveal. In the excerpt below, Bloom explores the question “What is morality?” Which, as you’ll see, is anything but child’s play.

The one-year-old decided to take justice into his own hands.
He had just watched a puppet show with three characters. The puppet in the middle rolled a ball to the puppet on the right, who passed it right back to him. It then rolled the ball to the puppet on the left, who ran away with it. At the end of the show, the “nice” puppet and the “naughty” puppet were brought down from the stage and set before the boy. A treat was placed in front of each of them, and the boy was invited to take one of the treats away. As predicted, and like most toddlers in this experiment, he took it from the “naughty” one—the one who ran away with the ball. But this wasn’t enough. The boy then leaned over and smacked the naughty puppet on the head.

Throughout this book, I will suggest that experiments like these show that some aspects of morality come naturally to us—and others do not. We have a moral sense that enables us to judge others and that guides our compassion and condemnation. We are naturally kind to others, at least some of the time. But we possess ugly instincts as well, and these can metastasize into evil. The Reverend Thomas Martin wasn’t entirely wrong when he wrote in the nineteenth century about the “native depravity” of children and said “we bring with us into the world a nature replete with evil propensities.”

I am aware that the idea that babies are moral creatures sounds ridiculous to some, and so I will begin by being clear about precisely what it is that I am saying.

By “babies”, I really do mean babies—“mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms,” as Shakespeare put it. Now there are babies and there are babies. I won’t be talking much about babies before the age of about three months, mostly because of lack of experimental data—it’s difficult to study their minds using the methods we have available. Without such data, I would be cautious in claiming that such tiny creatures really do have a moral life. After all, even if some of morality comes naturally to us, many natural traits don’t emerge right away—think of freckles and wisdom teeth and underarm hair. The brain, like the rest of the body, takes time to grow, and so I am not arguing that morality is present at birth. What I am proposing, though, is that certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. They do not come from the mother’s knee, or from school or church; they are instead the product of biological evolution.

What about “morality”? Even moral philosophers don’t agree what morality really is, and many non-philosophers don’t like to use the word at all. When I’ve told people what this book is about, more than one has responded with: “I don’t believe in morality.” Someone once told me—and I’m not sure that she was joking—that morality is nothing more than rules about who you can and can’t have sex with.

Arguments about terminology are boring; people can use words however they please. But what I mean by morality—what I am interested in exploring, whatever one calls it—includes a lot more than restrictions on sexual behavior. Here is a simple example:

A car full of teenagers drives slowly past an elderly woman waiting at a bus stop. One of the teenagers leans out the window and slaps the woman, knocking her down. They drive away laughing.

Unless you are a psychopath, you will feel that the teenagers did something wrong. And it is a certain type of wrong. It isn’t a social gaffe like going around with your shirt inside out or a factual mistake like thinking that the sun revolves around the earth. It isn’t a violation of an arbitrary rule, such as moving a pawn three spaces forward in a chess game. And it isn’t a mistake in taste, like believing that the Matrix sequels were as good as the original.

As a moral violation, it connects to certain emotions and desires. You might feel sympathy for the woman and anger at the teenagers; you might want to see them punished. They should feel bad about what they did; at the very least, they owe the woman an apology. If you were to suddenly remember that one of the teenagers was you, many years ago, you might feel guilt or shame.

Someone once told me—and I’m not sure that she was joking—that morality is nothing more than rules about who you can and can’t have sex with.

Hitting someone is a very basic moral violation. Indeed, the philosopher and legal scholar John Mikhail has suggested that the act of intentionally striking someone without their permission—battery is the legal term—has a specialimmediate badness that all humans respond to. Here is a good candidate for a moral rule that transcends space and time: If you punch someone in the face, you’d better have a damn good reason for it.

There are other, less direct, moral violations. The teenagers might have thrown a brick at the woman. Or they might have purposefully sideswiped her car, damaging it; this would harm her indirectly even if she weren’t there to witness it. They might have killed her dog. They might have got roaring drunk and hit her with their car by mistake—this is wrong even if they had no malicious intent, because they should have known better.

Some wrongs can be done without any physical contact at all—they could have shouted a racist insult at her, emailed her a death threat, spread vicious gossip about her, blackmailed her, posted obscene pictures of her on the Internet, and so on. Sitting alone on my computer writing this late at night, I’m impressed at the number of terrible and illegal things I could do without leaving my desk —each of us now lives just a few keystrokes away from a felony.

One can even be immoral by doing nothing at all. Surely parents who choose not to feed their children have done something wrong; most of us would feel the same about someone who let a dog or cat starve to death.

The law sometimes diverges from common sense in this regard. Consider the case of two young men—Jeremy Strohmeyer and David Cash Jr.—who walked into a Nevada casino in 1988. Strohmeyer followed a seven-year-old girl into the women’s restroom and molested and murdered her. The wrongness of Strohmeyer’s act is obvious, from both a moral and legal perspective. But what about Cash, who was with Strohmeyer in the restroom, half-heartedly tried to get him to stop, and then gave up and went for a walk? As he later said, he wasn’t going “to lose sleep over somebody else’s problems.”

Strohmeyer went to prison, but Cash didn’t, since it was not illegal in Nevada to fail to stop a crime from happening. Still, there was a sense on the part of many that he did do something wrong. There were demonstrations against him at his university, and demands that he be expelled. (Indeed, legislators changed the law in Nevada in response to this very case, bringing it more in line with public sentiment.) Cash is now being stalked on the Internet; people report on his whereabouts, hoping to ruin his prospects for getting a job and finding friends, wishing to destroy his life, even though they were personally unaffected by his failure to act. This illustrates how much moral transgressions matter to us. We don’t merely observe that Cash is a bad guy; some of us are motivated to make him suffer.

For other types of moral wrongs, the issue of harm is not as clear-cut. Think about:

  • bestiality (without causing the animal any pain)
  • breaking a promise to a dead person
  • defacing the national flag
  • sexual contact with a sleeping child (but the child is unharmed and never learns about it)
  • incest between consenting adult siblings
  • consensual cannibalism (Person A wishes to be eaten by Person B after he dies, and Person B obliges.)

Now, some of these activities may actually be harmful—for example, incest, even between consenting adults, could lead to psychological damage. But in many of these cases, it’s clear that nobody, in a concrete sense, is actually worse off. Still, for many people, these activities give rise to the same reactions that would be elicited by an act such as physical assault—anger at the perpetrators, a desire for them to be punished, and so on.

The scope of morality, then, is broad, encompassing both the harsh, judgmental elements and the softer, altruistic elements.

The examples on this list might seem exotic or contrived, but we can easily come up with victimless acts that provoke this type of moral outrage in the real world. In some places consensual homosexual relations are viewed as evil, and in some countries they are punishable by death. (So, yes, morality is sometimes about whom you are allowed to sleep with.) In some societies, premarital sex is thought to stain the honor of the woman’s family, so much so that a father may feel obliged to rectify the situation by murdering his own daughter. In the United States and Europe, we have laws against prostitution, drug usage, euthanasia, the marriage of adult siblings, and the selling of body organs. Such restrictions are sometimes justified in terms of harm, but often they have their roots in a gut feeling that such actions are just plain wrong; they violate human dignity, perhaps. Any theory of moral psychology has to explain how these intuitions work and where they come from.

Not all morality has to do with wrongness. Morality also encompasses questions of rightness, as nicely illustrated by a study of spontaneous helping in toddlers, designed by the psychologists Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello. In one condition of the study, the toddler is in a room with his or her mother present. An adult walks in, his arms full, and he tries to open a closet door. Nobody looks at the child, or prompts him or her or asks for help. Still, about half do help—they will spontaneously stand up, wobble over, and open the door for the adult.

This is a small example for a small individual, but we see this kindness writ large when people donate time, money, or even blood to help others, sometimes strangers. This behavior too is seen as moral; it inspires emotions like pride and gratitude, we describe it as good and ethical. The scope of morality, then, is broad, encompassing both the harsh, judgmental elements and the softer, altruistic elements.

Excerpted from “Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil,” published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York. Copyright © 2013 by Paul Bloom.  Reprinted with permission.

Disclosure: Paul Bloom is a member of The Psych Report’s Board of Advisors.