They are watching you. And they are judging you.

Babies, that is.  They seem to have a grasp VERY early on of good and bad actions towards others.  At least, they much prefer to be with creatures that are helpful to others.

The research is done in Paul Bloom’s lab at Yale.  Below is a clip of nine month olds, but the NY Times has one that shows 3 month olds. 

In his  Times article,  Bloom says:

A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. … Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.

Smart Babies … For many years the conventional view was that young humans take a surprisingly long time to learn basic facts about the physical world (like that objects continue to exist once they are out of sight) and basic facts about people (like that they have beliefs and desires and goals) — let alone how long it takes them to learn about morality.

I am admittedly biased, but I think one of the great discoveries in modern psychology is that this view of babies is mistaken.


I really can’t remember from my son’s childhood how obvious it was that he had such a sense.  It may be that the behavior which would show this doesn’t get much manifestation in anything like clear ways.  I saw Hamlin present this work and, if I am remembering correctly, they will say that they cannot really be sure it is a moral sense, but it does  seem at least to be triggered by what happens to others.  It seems possible, then, that it might be the foundations of a moral sense.  (As Hume so clearly saw, though he might be surprised at the children having some feeling for the  toys.)

7 thoughts on “They are watching you. And they are judging you.

  1. This should have a lot of philosophical implications — since the Freudian system and patriarchy in general tends to treat women as if they were morally speaking “children” (in other words barely capable of morality at all). The justification for patriarchal oppression has traditionally tended to be that those with patriarchal (“masculine”) values are intent on pulling women into line “for their own good”, because, independently of patriarchal control, they would not be able to discern right from wrong, good from evil. But actually there is an organic/natural basis for this moral quality of discernment. That needs to be made more well known.

  2. babies participating in this study presumably have VERY dedicated parents. it is not easy to tell from the clips how much the babies might also be responding to subtle cues from parents or examiners, also.

    this looks like interesting research, but i worry about the flip side — using the idea of “inborn” senses of right and wrong to penalize children who do not have the early nurturing these babies obviously do.

    it is not so surprising that badly neglected and/or abused children end up in the criminal justice system. when someone commits a really bad crime, a standard set of prosecution arguments is that they made all the choices, that all their actions and reactions were willfully bad, and sometimes even that they were born evil.

    i think this research supports other research about how important nurturing is in the early formative years. but i don’t know that it can go so far as to proclaim an inborn sense of right and wrong. at the least, the sample does not include children who are getting sub-standard care.

  3. With regard to Kathy’s comment above, to have a faculty for discernment is a separate thing from having the contents of that faculty already furnished. There is room for nurturing in the paradigm being suggested above — at least I presume so, since I haven’t seen the clip or the article. So just because one can discern right from wrong doesn’t mean that everybody will come to the same moral conclusions. That kind of objectivity has never been possible for human beings. The quality and nature of experiences makes a difference, can and does colour the quality of the judgements about right and wrong, and can place different emphasises on what is important.

    That being said, I think the key point is that morality is not imposed on the child, from the outside, by means of an imprint. Rather, the child is already processing material (one might say “dialectically”) long before it is taught society’s formal rules.

  4. kathy a – nice questions about the research design. In the article, he goes some way toward answering them. He does also make the point that what they are looking at is really what enables babies to learn. So the environment can make a huge difference – which is your point, I think. Of course, the environment can also contain elements that could finally kill off the capacity for empathy. I’ve heard arguments that very poor nutrition can mean that the brain basis for empathy fails to develop properly, and it seems a cliche that lack of nuturing is very damaging.

    Jennifer – you know Carol Gilligan’s work? It’s problematic, but still a classic rebuttal of the idea that women can’t develop morally. Unfortunately, that dismissal of women often involved the idea that women’s morality wasn’t about rational moral rules (all this much challenged, of course, by now), and what Bloom seems to attribute to infants looks more like an emotional basis for morality rather than a rational apprehension,

  5. I know Gilligan’s work. Also the work of Chodorow, which is along similar lines. I just think that the rational-emotional dichotomy is the wrong starting point (although it is indeed a necessary, since history of philosophy starting point).

    A different angle of attack may be what is called for — one which shows the contradictions of adopting a hyper-rational stance towards morality. Consider, for instance the phenomenon of “shell shock” and how it appeared arguably as a de facto limitation on what could be done on the basis of the application of pure moral principles to human experience. The material stress point –the point where a transcendental rationality fails — is the entrance point for a different kind of moral questioning. I have found it to be quite useful.

  6. That’s really interesting stuff.

    When my son must have been somewhere between 18 months and 3 years old, I was walking with him past a homeless man. He pulled on my shirt and said “Momma, we need to help him, he’s hungry.” Granted, he wasn’t nearly as young as the children in this study, but it was interesting to see such a youngster with an already developed sense of empathy. (And yes, we bought the man a sandwich…)

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