Babies know the difference between good and evil at six months, study reveals”. I guess many of us read a heading like this in our daily paper or online this week. Startling news. Here we were, thinking that the newborn babe is a tiny barbarian who needs to learn his first notions of right and wrong from his parents, when he actually arrives with an innate sense of morality. Or so it seems.

So let’s take a closer look. The news reports are based on a long article in the New York Times by Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom. In “The Moral Life of Babies”  Bloom walks us through two-to-three decades of studies which challenge the view that we begin life as amoral beings. By the end, he is drawing conclusions about morality in general, which intellectuals like Peter Singer and Richard Dawkins would feel at home with.

The new revelations about babies began with experiments that showed you could do studies with these inarticulate and helpless little humans by tracking their eye movements and noticing what captures their attention. The studies showed that babies understand something of the laws of physics and maths. Then came evidence that they could understand what was going on in the minds of other people; they expected people to act according to their beliefs and desires.

So much for “smart babies”, babies with more “cognitive skills” than we used to think. But “moral babies”? Humans who arrive in the world with the beginnings of a sense of right and wrong? This is a much more controversial claim, Bloom points out, because it points to a universal moral code — something that scientists on the whole dismiss. They argue that what we generally think of as morality is the result of cultural conditioning.

However, Bloom says there are two indications that this is not the whole story. One is the fact that every society has moral notions like fairness, loyalty and kindness. Secondly, even babies show a sort of empathy by, for example, crying in response to others babies’ cries, and toddlers a kind of altruism which makes them want to help an adult struggling with a difficult task. Although these “evolutionarily ancient” responses fall short of mature, rational morality, they represent the beginning of morality, says Bloom.

So he and his colleagues devised a number of ingenious experiments to test the existence of a sense of concepts like “good” and “bad” and “justice” in these very young children. They conclude that babies’ gut reactions to “nice” people and “nasty” people are not too different from our own. They have moral “feelings” that make them prefer helpful people to hindering people, and make them punish the bad guy.

At this point we arrive at the question all this baby talk has been leading to: “What do these findings about babies’ moral notions tell us about adult morality?” asks Bloom.

To cut a long story short: Although babies have the basic emotional equipment for morality, theirs is a clannish sentiment and they lack the higher morality evident in adult society, such as charity to strangers in far-away places. Where does this come from? Not from biology, since it outstrips the demands of evolution. And no, not from God — although if we came into the world trailing clouds of higher altruism we would have to consider that possibility more carefully. It just happens to come from culture.

The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go.

In my book, that makes morality as much of a mystery as ever and divine intervention still a strong contender.

As for babies, of course they have the capacity for morality — they are human from the start. But do they begin life with innate sentiments of empathy and altruism? Don’t they rather learn these dispositions gradually from the unselfish love of their mother (in the first place) and father, whom they trust and imitate?

But then this research was never just about babies and their first steps towards becoming moral agents. It always had to be, in the end, about adults and societies and whether they need divine assistance to transcend their self interest, or whether they can do it on their own with a combination of innate sentiments and reason — which just happen to exist and evolve.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet