Born bad? Exploring the morality of babies

by Mark Reynolds

Years ago, Paul Bloom, BA’85, came home at the end of a long day at work and collapsed into a comfy chair in his sitting room. His son, then two-years-old, noticed his father was out of sorts. He climbed up onto his father’s lap. Extending a toy, he asked “Daddy sad?” Yes, conceded Bloom, maybe a little. Big mistake.

“He hit me in the face with the toy – with tremendous force – and then ran away. He nearly knocked me unconscious. I never figured that one out,” recalls Bloom ruefully.

His son is well into his teen years and long past toy-based assaults on his dad, but Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, is still trying to figure out the moral universe of children. His recent bestselling book, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, tries to tease out what we know about morality – how much is innate, how much is instilled, and why people have a moral sense at all.

To do so, he gracefully dances across millennia of writings on the topic – from Herotodus to Adam Smith to Darwin, and tests their observations – and common assumptions – about morality against the latest research on the moral development of babies. Many of these come from his own experiments, done in collaboration with his colleague and wife Karen Wynne at the Yale Infant Cognition Center.

Parents disappointed in their efforts to enliven diaper-changing time with a discourse on Kierkegaard, might crook an eyebrow at the notion that infants are sophisticated moral thinkers. Bloom – who has studied infant development for years – barely believed it himself at first.

“I was constantly surprised by how early these abilities come in. More than once, my colleagues talked me into doing studies with younger and younger babies, and I’d say it wasn’t worth doing – either because I didn’t think these abilities would show up that early, or even if they did, that we couldn’t detect them in young babies. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some brilliant experimenters, and we’ve been able to find – even in three-year-olds – some moral sensibilities,” he says.

Those experiments ­­– including those that measured children’s reactions to interactions between shapes and puppets that exhibited “helpful” or “harmful” behavior to one another – indicate that certain foundational qualities of morality are innate. These include empathy, fairness, reciprocity, and justice (i.e. punishment and reward for good or bad deeds). Together, they form a “moral sense” – the ability to identify good and bad, to discern kindness and cruelty, and the accompanying desire to act on those judgments.

Of course, some of those innate qualities lead us astray. The “evil” in Bloom’s title is not figurative – people are often horrifically cruel to one another, and those actions stem from deep-seated biological traits. Selfishness, disgust and xenophobia are apparently innate even in infants; these can mutate into humanity’s worst impulses. Not that this is a shock to most parents.

“I did an interview where the interviewer leaned over and said, ‘My son is such a monster. What am I going to do about him?’ I had no idea of course,” recalls Bloom, though he can offer a measure of reassurance on that front. Bloom likens our moral sense to our other senses, like sight or touch. To be truly amoral is almost inconceivable.

“It’s possible to be born colour blind, for instance, but it is extremely rare for a baby to be born without a visual cortex. And the same thing is true for a moral sense,” he says.

“The idea of a truly rotten person, without a soul, is more a thing of fiction than of the real world.”