The Moral Life of Babies (and the Ideological Life of Adults)

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of The Christian Post or its editors.

The New York Times Magazine is often the most interesting section of each Sunday's edition, and often the most controversial as well. The May 9, 2010 edition of the magazine certainly proves the point with its cover article, "The Moral Life of Babies."

The article takes readers into the baby lab, officially known as the "Infant Cognition Center" at Yale University, where researchers are attempting to answer this question: Are babies born with a basic moral sense, or are they, in effect, blank slates?

The article is written by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, who leads the research there, along with his wife, Karen Wynn, and lead author Kiley Hamlin. "We are one of a handful of research teams around the world exploring the moral life of babies," Bloom explains.

Bloom and his associates believe they have documented the fact that babies do have a very clear sense of right and wrong from very early stages. This runs counter to much of what has been assumed about infants and toddlers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau did indeed call the baby "a perfect idiot," implying that the human infant knows virtually nothing. William James, among whose achievements was the founding of the study of psychology at Harvard, summarized the infant's mental state as "one great blooming, buzzing confusion."

Bloom argues otherwise, claiming that new research indicates that babies have powers of moral reasoning that can be traced and measured. How? The problem, of course, is that babies cannot use language to communicate. Instead, Bloom and his team measure "looking time" as the means of determining an infant's thought and state of mind. As he explains, "The eyes are a window to the baby's soul. As adults do, when babies see something that they find interesting or surprising, they tend to look at it longer than they would at something they find uninteresting or expected. And when given a choice between two things to look at, babies usually opt to look at the more pleasing thing."

Put simply, using this research methodology Bloom believes that babies can be shown to prefer a character (or puppet) who acts rightly rather than one who acts wrongly. In sum:

All of this research, taken together, supports a general picture of baby morality. It's even possible, as a thought experiment, to ask what it would be like to see the world in the moral terms that a baby does. Babies probably have no conscious access to moral notions, no idea why certain acts are good or bad. They respond on a gut level. Indeed, if you watch the older babies during the experiments, they don't act like impassive judges - they tend to smile and clap during good events and frown, shake their heads and look sad during the naughty events (remember the toddler who smacked the bad puppet). The babies' experiences might be cognitively empty but emotionally intense, replete with strong feelings and strong desires.

These findings are truly interesting. Taken at face value, they indicate that babies have a very rudimentary innate moral sense - a sense of right and wrong - that they have not learned. They do not know why an act is right or wrong, but they have a sense that right is right and wrong is wrong. In other words, their moral reasoning is at a "gut level." Further, their moral judgments "might be cognitively empty but emotionally intense."

Before dismissing that last statement as relating only to infants, consider the extent to which many adults rarely move above this "gut level" moral reasoning. For many adults, the moral sense is relatively empty, cognitively speaking, but intensely emotional.

Throughout the essay, Bloom inserts evolutionary theory into the question. He asserts at the beginning of the essay that the research raises fundamental questions about "how biological evolution and cultural experience conspire to shape human nature." Then, at virtually every turn in his argument, he inserts evolutionary theory again and again.

Why? Well, he is playing intellectual defense for evolution, for one thing. At first glance, a finding of a developed moral sense among human infants does not appear to be explainable by evolutionary theory alone. Indeed, Bloom admits that, if babies were found to be altruistic toward people outside their own group, evolution would not be a sufficient explanation. He writes:

The morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with; moral actions are often of a sort that have no plausible relation to our reproductive success and don't appear to be accidental byproducts of evolved adaptations. . . . We possess abstract moral notions of equality and freedom for all; we see racism and sexism as evil; we reject slavery and genocide; we try to love our enemies. Of course, our actions typically fall short, often far short, of our moral principles, but these principles do shape, in a substantial way, the world that we live in. It makes sense then to marvel at the extent of our moral insight and to reject the notion that it can be explained in the language of natural selection. If this higher morality or higher altruism were found in babies, the case for divine creation would get just a bit stronger.

But, he insists, higher altruism "is not present in babies." According to Bloom's theorizing, cultural learning must provide that higher level of moral knowledge and reasoning.

Bloom's article in The New York Times Magazine is truly interesting. At the same time, there are two huge questions of methodology that cannot be avoided. The first is the legitimacy of using "looking time" as an adequate measure of infant thinking. This is a massive assumption. The second methodological problem is the definition of morality. As Nadja Reissland, a behavioral psychologist at Durham University, told The Sunday Times [London], "Everything hinges on who decides what is moral. By saying pushing the ball up the hill is helpful, the researchers are making a moral judgment. The babies might just prefer to see things go up rather than down."

Most interestingly, Bloom and his research team are highly committed to evolutionary explanations. They recognize that the discovery of a moral sense within infants is dangerous to evolutionary theory. In the end, they leave themselves open to the charge that they have simply and arbitrarily defined the moral sense of infants in a manner that preserves evolutionary theory and minimizes negative impact. But, give them credit for seeing and acknowledging the problem.

In the end, Christians should look to this research with a very different set of questions. The most important of these questions is this: Does the fact that infants have an innate moral sense underline the importance of the fact that human beings are made in God's own image? It would certainly seem so. Indeed, Christians should expect to find something very much like this, based on the teachings of Scripture. It is God who made us to be moral creatures, and it is the Creator who gives his human creatures the power and accountability of moral knowledge.

Consider this testimony:

But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" they were indignant, and they said to him, "Do you hear what these are saying?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes; have you never read, "'Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise'?" [Matthew 21:15-16, ESV]

Out of the mouths of infants . . . and perhaps out of their "looking time" as well.