The moral sense in young infants

Good morning, everyone. My apologies for not posting anything yesterday: I have a new Thursday class to prepare for each week and I spend the rest of the day in other activities. I’ve decided to switch to a Friday/Monday sequence for these posts.

So far in the series, I’ve posted on the ways our moral views seem to be shaped by environmental factors. Haidt’s experiments show that we tend to retain our moral views despite losing our reasons for holding them, and suggest that we often tend to rationalize the moral views we have (and believe the rationalizations) rather than arrive at our moral views on the basis of reasons. So we are open to many morally irrelevant influences in our moral views. I’ve also shown evidence that seems to imply that our views on the moral acceptability of violent responses to insults can be conditioned by whether our culture is descended from herders or farmers; that our views on slavery can be conditioned by whether we’re living in a climate that’s good for agriculture; and that our views on cannibalism and slavery may have their roots in details about the caloric intake of various food sources. It’s been shown that many of these factors exert influence over us whether or not we are educated, intelligent, non-religious, and so on. I’ve also explored the possibility that those who disagree with us over fundamental moral issues really have the same moral views as we do, but are just understandably ignorant of some non-moral facts. I argued there that it’s unclear what non-moral facts others could be mistaken about in the cases of Hopi animal torture, Roman gladiatorial practices, and Chinese foot-binding (it can’t be the non-moral fact that not binding one’s daughters’ feet will worsen her marriage prospects, since that is a non-moral fact that people would be correct in believing).

As Frank pointed out last time, this may give the impression that morality is just a matter of training: our culture, party in response to environmental factors, develops a moral view and then inculcates it on the ‘blank slates’ its young are born with. In fact, though, there is a growing body of research that shows the opposite: while some of our moral dispositions are supplied by society, some is innate.

I’d like to turn to that research now. Here’s a good way into the material:

If that link doesn’t work where you’re reading this, you can read a transcript of the broadcast here:

8 thoughts on “The moral sense in young infants

  1. Thanks. I saw this on 60 minutes and was somewhat sympathetic. I like the comment, “My oh my, it’s interesting to see how people read what they want into studies like this. All the secularists see this as proof that original sin is a lie, and all the fundamentalists insist that it proves the doctrine of original sin… most amusing.” I’m not sure what it tells us.


  2. My fraternal twin sons weren’t old enough to sit up yet, and it was already obvious that one of them was assertive, and the other was passive. The assertive baby always grabbed for the ball first, and the passive baby seemed to accept it. They were not trained to be this way, and my husband and I never tried to “correct” the assertive baby to “take turns” with his brother.

    This dynamic between them carried into their teen years. The boys and several others used to gather at my house to play “Dungeons and Dragons.” My more assertive teenager would be in charge of the game, and my more passive teen was satisfied not to be in charge.

    As adults (my sons are almost 48 years old), they are now gracious toward each other. If I ask, “Who wants this?” (knowing that both of them would want it), one will say to his brother, “You can have it if you want it.” The other replies, “No, you can have it, that’s okay.” Finally, one will say, “Okay, I’ll take it . . . if you’re sure you don’t care.”


  3. Pingback: Looking Back | Episyllogism

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