As Babies, We Knew Morality

New research supports the understanding that all people are born with a sense of good and bad. What does that say about altruism, community, and the capacity to kill one another?
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Several years ago, an energetic young mother, Tia, was out and about with her infant Aimee when disaster struck: a group of men, accompanied by vicious dogs, surrounded the pair, snatched up Aimee, and brutalized Tia. They left her helpless and without her daughter.

Aimee was eventually rescued. But Tia was too battered to look after her. While Tia tended to her wounds, her acquaintance Mike offered to take care of baby Aimee. Mike's generous behavior, observers agreed, was the very definition of compassion. In a bygone era, it might even have been called gentlemanly.

Mike, a squat and especially hairy fellow, didn't exactly look the part of a knight in shining armor. Like his fellow chimpanzees, Tia and Aimee, he wasn't even human. The trio are research subjects of primatologist Jill Pruetz, whose fellow researchers rescued Aimee from a group of poachers in Senegal several years ago. Mike's altruism was especially remarkable given the violent behavior that male chimps are generally known for. Just last year, an adult male chimp killed a baby chimp at the Los Angeles Zoo in front of a large group of visitors.

Is it correct to say that Mike's actions were "moral"? Where does morality come from? Are human beings born with an innate moral sense, something like a conscience that helps us tell right from wrong? Or are we born as blank slates and learn morality as we make our way through life from infancy to childhood and beyond? If morality is innate, are we born good and corrupted by society, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought? Or are we born as brutes and civilized by culture, as “Darwin’s bulldog” T.H. Huxley thought?

Though we share more than 95 percent of our DNA with these apes, many people think that morality is a uniquely human creation. The prevailing and enormously influential view for hundreds of years—championed by intellectual giants from John Locke, Sigmund Freud, and Jean Piaget—was that human beings are born as blank slates and acquire knowledge about right and wrong through their parents, teachers, and other civilizing engines of culture.

Another idea, equally influential, is what the primatologist Frans de Waal calls veneer theory. Veneer theory, which arises from a botched up understanding of Darwinian natural selection, holds that morality is "a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature,” as de Waal explains. Nature is red in tooth and claw so the point of civilization is to tame the inner beast that lurks inside each of us.

But over the last decade, a growing body of evidence has challenged both the blank slate view of morality and veneer theory. Morality, it seems, is hard-wired. Chimps, who lack the tools of civilization, have the building blocks of morality and moral goodness. Primatologists like Frans de Waal, Jill Pruetz, and Christophe Boehm have shown that our closest kin in the animal kingdom, from chimps to bonobos, treat each other with empathy, compassion, and self-sacrifice. Macaque monkeys, more distant from us on the evolutionary chain than the great apes, won’t take food if doing so causes another monkey harm. Even rats show empathy. “Faced with a choice between two containers, one with chocolate chips and another with a trapped companion,” writes de Waal in his recent book about the origins of morality, The Bonobo and the Atheist, rats often choose to rescue their companions first.

Through studying the emotions and behaviors of animals, Darwin himself concluded that they are quite capable of sympathy, affection, and altruism. He wrote about one dog who wouldn’t pass by a sick cat without licking it a couple of times. Dogs, like chimps and humans, also follow social rules that keep the peace in the community. Darwin thought that it is from their social instincts that morality arises. “It would be absurd to speak of these instincts as having been developed from selfishness,” he wrote.

Studying animals is one way to learn about the origins of morality, but another is of course to look at baby humans. Human babies, before they learn how to speak and even hold up their own bodies, are capable of not only telling the difference between right and wrong, but of making morally fraught decisions, a finding that shocked scientists when it was uncovered about ten years ago.

“It knocked our socks off,” says Yale’s Paul Bloom, one of the psychologists behind a series of groundbreaking studies of infant morality and the author of a fascinating new book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. It turns out that babies, who are too young to have learned about morality, have an innate moral sense. On top of that, they show a basic disposition to goodness. They are not the little monsters that veneer theorists thought they were. Without prodding, for instance, infants start sharing after they’re six months old. When they’re a little bit older than that, toddlers will help a stranger in need.

In one study by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, a toddler was in a room with his mother when a stranger walked in with his hands full. The stranger walked over to a closet to open the door but couldn’t manage it. As this drama was unfolding, no one looked at the toddler or encouraged him to do anything. Yet about half of all of the infants tested spontaneously got up and walked over to the closet to open the door for the person in need—an all the more remarkable feat when you realize that toddlers are very reluctant to approach adult strangers at all.  

“The child is a natural moralist, who gets a huge helping hand from its biological makeup,” writes de Waal in The Bonobo and the Atheist. But that helping hand from nature is rounded out by nurture. From his research on babies, conducted in the Infant Cognition Center at Yale, Bloom has come to see that we are born with this innate moral sense but that it gets fine-tuned over time through learning.  

In one experiment, Bloom and his fellow researchers presented 6-and-10-month-olds with a little morality play. The babies watched as a puppet would try to push a ball up a hill. Then, the babies saw one of two things happen. Either another puppet would come along and help the first puppet push the ball up the hill, or another puppet would show up and hinder the first puppet by pushing the ball down the hill.

After the babies watched these scenarios, the researchers presented each puppet to the babies. They wanted to see which puppet the babies would reach for. It turns out that nearly all of the babies, no matter how old they were, reached for the nice helping puppet. But are babies attracted to goodness or are they simply repelled by meanness? To find out, the researchers introduced a third character into the mix—a neutral one who neither helped nor hindered the main puppet. Then, they let the babies choose which puppet they wanted. The babies preferred the neutral character to the mean character, and the good character to the neutral character.

That babies can make moral judgments about scenarios they have never before seen with strangers they’ve never before encountered doing things that they’ve never before seen was surprising. As Bloom said, “They can say this is the good guy and this is the bad guy and I want to help the good guy and I want to hurt the bad guy. This blows me away.”

Bloom was even more surprised when babies as young as three months old showed moral awareness. When Bloom’s research colleagues suggested that they look at babies just twelve weeks out of the mother’s womb, Bloom objected. At that age, babies "really are sluglike," he writes in his book—they’re "mewling and puking in the nurse’s arm," as Shakespeare put it. They can’t reach for puppets the way 6-and-10-month-olds can and it’s unclear what their awareness of the world is.

But even in their slug-like state,  these young babies can control their eyes, which “really are windows into the baby’s soul,” as Bloom writes. You can tell what a baby likes by what it looks at. So the researchers showed the three-month olds the same morality play with the helping and hindering puppets and then placed the puppets in front of them afterward. Most of the babies looked toward the nice puppet.

“Babies,” Bloom writes, “have a general appreciation of good and bad behavior.” Beyond distinguishing between good and bad, young children also have an understanding of fairness and justice. In one version of the helping/hindering study, one of the babies actually reached over to the mean puppet and smacked it on the head.

But just because human beings are born with a moral sense doesn’t mean they are born good. “There is a moral core,” says Bloom, “but it is limited.” Like chimps, we are capable of extraordinary acts of moral goodness. Like chimps, we are capable of moral evil. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. “And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

From an early age, babies show bias to their in-group. Babies are quick to separate the social world into “us” versus “them.” For example, if a baby is raised by a woman, it prefers to look at female faces; if it raised by a man, it prefers looking at a male face; if it is raised by a caucasian, it prefers looking at white faces rather than black or asian ones, while an Ethiopian baby prefers looking at Ethiopian faces rather than those of other nationalities.

The in-group bias shows up in language too. Minutes after they are born, babies who are American prefer listening to English speakers, babies who are French prefer listening to French, and babies who are Russian prefer listening to Russian. Babies also prefer interacting with people who don’t have strange accents.

Preferring one language over another or one type of face over another may seem like two minor and innocent details. After all, babies, like the rest of us, prefer what’s familiar. What’s unfamiliar is a threat, especially to a young and vulnerable infant.

But these biases have important implications, good and bad, for morality. Your language and race are markers of your group identity. Preferring members of your in-group can come at the expense of the out-group. In a study conducted at the University of Zurich, men watched as fans of their soccer club and fans of the rival club got electrically shocked. When the fans of their own club got shocked, the men felt empathy. But when the rival club’s fans got shocked, they felt something quite different. They felt happiness. Their brain’s pleasure centers lit up.

Humans have evolved to be groupish. But our groupishness raises a puzzle for morality. De Waal says the group is the reason for morality. “Morality,” he explains, “is a system of rules concerning the two H’s: Helping or at least not Hurting fellow human beings. It addresses the well-being of others and puts the community before the individual. It does not deny self-interest, yet curbs its pursuit so as to promote a cooperative society.”

Members of other groups, i.e. strangers, inspire “fear and disgust and hatred,” as Bloom writes. When one group of male chimpanzees comes across a smaller gang, for instance, mayhem ensues. “If there is a baby in the group,” Bloom writes, “they may kill and eat it. If there is a female, they will try to mate with her. If there is a male, they will often mob him, rip flesh from his body, bite off his toes and testicles, and leave him for dead.” Human beings can be equally brutal to members of the out-group, as the history of slavery, genocide, and oppression show.  

“The special bonds we have with family, friends, and community are part of what gives life meaning,” Bloom says. “But our parochial biases are also the source of great suffering—the ugly truth is that even babies and young children are not just disposed to favor those close to them, they are also prone to hate and fear those outside of their group. This is a tragic limitation in our psychologies and anyone hoping to create a better world has to work to suppress and override these nastier aspects of our natures.”

Fortunately, for most people most of the time, there is a wide chasm between impulse and action. Feeling good when a member of your out-group gets hurt, as in the study of soccer fans, is not the same as hurting that person. “In each of us,” wrote poet Robert Louis Stevenson, “two natures are at war—the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose—what we want most to be we are.”

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Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut. She is the Manners and Morals columnist at The New Criterion, managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and editor of Acculturated.

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