Can Babies Unlock the Origins of Morality? Not So Fast.

Posted on November 19, 2012 by

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Recent Psychological studies suggest that babies have an innate moral sense.  On October 18th, CBS aired “The Baby Lab” ( it’s worth the 13 minutes for anyone interested in the Origins of Morality)where they interviewed Psychologists Paul Bloom and Karen Wynn. Both claim that their studies are telling of the “the origins of morality“. This suggests that someone’s environment might not be playing the role that many have thought that it has. So much for the tabula rasa that Rousseau and Locke suggested if Bloom and Wynn are correct. Bloom says, “there is a universal moral core that all humans share. The seeds of our understanding of justice, our understanding of right and wrong, are part of our biological nature.” The purpose of this post will be to call their conclusion into question.

I do not think that the studies by Bloom and Wynn are suggesting that nature plays a larger role in our behavior.

Why think that particular moral judgments  are “built-in” as Bloom has suggested? Isn’t it possible that the babies partaking the studies have been disposed to dislike things that seem to end play time? If you watch the video you’ll see some of the studies that Bloom and Wynn are drawing from to base their conclusion. I think their conclusion is far too quick and fast. In what follows I will suggest another interpretation of what we are seeing in the studies that Bloom and Wynn take to b e telling of some sort of built-in morality. As if the babies genes are programmed to like or dislike certain moral/immoral behavior. The video discusses babies and older children, for the sake of making this post brief I’d like to focus on the conclusions drawn by the studies involving babies.

One study puts 3 puppets in front of a baby. One of the puppets (middle puppet) struggles to open up the box which has toys in it. The puppy puppet on the right (wearing yellow) comes over to help open up the box while the puppet on the left (wearing blue) sits back and watches. The study then goes on to give a variation of the scene just witnessed by the 5 month old baby. This time the puppet (puppy wearing blue) on the left comes over while the middle puppet (tiger) struggles to open the box filled with toys. The puppet on the left (wearing blue) slams the box shut, quite abruptly, instead of helping as in the case when the puppet helped (puppy wearing yellow). This is done to prime the baby into thinking that the puppet in blue is mean.

The first case is trying to show nice behavior or “moral behavior” (helping out) while the latter is supposed to show mean  behavior (slamming the box shut and not helping). After watching both scenes the baby is asked to make a choice between the two puppets. The “good” or the “bad” puppet? Nearly 3/4 of the babies chose the “good” puppet in the first case. This suggests, according to Wynn and Bloom, that they have a preference for the puppet that exhibits morally good behavior.

In a second study a baby is again shown two different scenes each aiming to depict moral and immoral actions. The first scenario shows the baby 3 puppets playing with a ball. One of the puppets (a bunny) takes the ball and runs away with it. This is supposed to suggest that the bunny is stealing the ball. The second scene, as in the first study, shows a puppet struggling to open a box. The difference in this study is that the bunny puppet who stole in the previous scene is the puppet struggling to open up the box.  When asked to choose which puppet they want they decide much differently than they originally did. In the second study 81% of the babies selected the puppet who slammed the box shut in the first study (the puppy wearing blue). From this change in attitude toward which puppy they selected, Bloom and Wynn suggest that the baby is selecting the blue puppy because they think the ball thief (the bunny) is deserving of punishment. Since they were previously primed to see the puppet wearing blue as mean. Bloom and Wynn claim that this is telling that babies are born with an innate sense of justice. What else could account for the difference in selection? I would like  offer some alternative interpretations of the data drawn from these studies. These alternatives do not posit the existence of any innate sense of morality that Bloom and Wynn would have us believe.

My Take: In the first study they conclude that babies have a preference for moral behavior. This is so because they select the puppet that offers help to the struggling puppet trying to get the toy. I agree, it seems that over 75% of babies selecting the “good” puppet might indicate a trend toward a preference to morally good behavior. However, it does not follow that such a selection is innate, or “built-in”. This last move is doubtful. These babies have already had 5 months of experiences. They like it when mom or dad help them get things they like so it is plausible to think that they are seeing similar behavior in the puppets which is leading to their preference of the morally “good” puppy. The description I just gave does not insist on a built-in moral code and instead bases the preference of the baby to select the  morally good puppet on their previous pleasant or similar experiences. This interpretation seems to directly conflict with the conclusion drawn by Bloom and Wynn.

In the second study they claim that the baby is selecting the puppet with the blue shirt because it deems that the bunny is in need of punishment. This is a stretch. Why couldn’t it suggest that they chose the puppet on the basis of that puppet ending the struggle of the puppet that could not open the box? Since the puppet that was selected in both cases was the puppet that ended the struggle of the Further, even if we grant that the baby chose the puppet in blue for reasons of justice it doesn’t follow that such a sense of justice is innate. As I responded in the first case this could have been learned, and, we have reason to believe that my interpretation is plausible. Since babies do not have the capacity to think outside the box it is likely that they emulate the preferences suggested by what they have already witnessed during their short existence.

The seeds of our understanding of right and wrong are part of our biological nature. Sure, but only insofar as our biological nature provides us with the capacity to reason. Any claims beyond that seem to be a stretch. We are not computers, our behavior does not come programmed into our genes. Our behavior seems to be the result of genetic factors that affect our capacity to reason and the experiences that we go through in our lifetimes. The studies do not seem to provide ample evidence for or even suggest that we are innately one way or the other.

Admittedly, reading  the details of the study as presented here gets a bit hard to follow. I suggest watching the short (13-minute video) before weighing in. As far as I can tell, the nature vs. nurture debate is here to stay.

Thoughts?