Young morals: can infants tell right from wrong?

There is mounting evidence that babies might have more of a moral compass than we once thought. Baby image from www.shutterstock.com

Psychologists from Yale and the University of British Columbia think they have found a way to show that infants in their first year of life possess the psychological building blocks of a moral sense.

These studies have shown that infants show a strong preference for individuals who have helped another achieve their goal, and a strong dislike toward individuals who have prevented another from fulfilling their goal.

Of course, this falls short of moral judgement, but the findings do not end here. Infants’ preference for “helpers” is actually sensitive to whether or not the “helper” was actually aware of the fact that they were helping; if an individual happens to help another fulfil their goal, yet is ignorant of this fact, then the infant will not show a preference for that individual.

This indicates that the infant doesn’t just prefer helpers as such. Rather, infants care about whether or not the helping behaviour was intentional, a sign that they are sensitive to some of the same factors that adults hold to be morally relevant.

Even more suggestive of moral judgement is the fact that there are actually cases in which infants will prefer individuals who prevent another from achieving their goal – that is, if the individual whose goal is being hindered has previously behaved antisocially. On a rich interpretation of this result, we might say that infants positively evaluate individuals who punish wrongdoers.

Part of the reason these findings are so exciting is because these infants do not yet possess language. This means that they would not have been explicitly taught about morality by adults, nor would have they have understood had anyone attempted to do so.

The early emergence of these behaviours strongly suggests that they are the product of evolved features of the human mind, and not the product of acculturation. In other words, we might have good reason to believe that moral judgement just might be innate.

The possibility that infants might be born with the capacity to make moral judgements challenges the established paradigm in moral development research. The “social domain theory” approach to moral development focuses on whether or not children can distinguish between conventional violations, like using the wrong fork at a nice restaurant, and moral violations, like stealing or intentional physical harm.

This research relies on tasks that require linguistic ability, so it was commonly thought that the earliest signs of moral judgement emerge after a child’s third birthday. The infant morality studies, which rely on experimental methods that involve non-verbal looking-time and reaching measures, blow that developmental time-line out of the water.

The question remains, however, whether or not we should call what these infants are doing “moral judgement.” If we think that we should set a very high standard for what should count as moral judgement, and include only fairly sophisticated forms of reasoning from explicit moral principles, then what these infants are doing will probably fall short of genuine morality. On the other hand, if we think that we should look at morality as a way for us to carve up the social world, to cooperate effectively, and distinguish friends from foes, then maybe these babies are really onto something.

In his recent book, The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that contrary to the advocates of the social domain theory, this is exactly how we ought to think about human moral practises. On such an account, however, the line between morality and convention becomes pretty blurry.

One finding that would seem to support Haidt’s view is the fact that infants’ social preferences for who helps whom seem to be influenced by whether or not an individual is viewed as more similar to them. Who infants like and who they don’t like seems to have a pretty direct bearing on who they think ought to be helped.

So while infants do seem to be responding to morally relevant factors in a number of cases, those judgements are very much prone to in-group biases. This is substantiated by findings that infants show a bias towards members of their own race by as early as 3 months of age.

But whether infants are born with a rich set of broad moral principles or a set of parochial social preferences, these findings do show us that from an early age, infants do make complex judgements about the social worlds that they inhabit. How these judgements relate to the moral judgements that adults make remains to be seen.