Baby Morals?

Over the years, philosophers and psychologists alike have speculated over whether we are taught to know the difference between right and wrong, or whether we are predisposed understanding to it. The question of morality has lingered for hundreds of years, and previously it was widely believed that a human is born a blank slate, with their ideas on right and wrong formed by their environment.




This concept concerning morality was proposed by famous 18th century philosopher: Jean Jacques Rousseau, who stated that babies were born unknowing of any sense of ethics, and that they had to be educated to learn them. This theory has been accepted by the general public for many years, but recently, a new theory has risen to answer this longstanding question.
Dr. Karen Wynn runs Yale University’s Infant Cognition Centre, also known as the Baby Lab. The team of researchers at the Infant Cognition Centre have been studying baby behavior for decades, and beginning about eight years ago, they started to conduct a series of tests to examine a baby’s understanding of good and bad behavior. These tests were conducted by showing babies aged 5 months old a puppet show.




The puppet show featured a black and white cat trying to open a box, but finding difficulties in it’s attempts. The show also features two rabbits in different colored shirts, and during it’s course the babies are presented with two scenarios. In the first, the rabbit puppet in the green shirt aids the cat in it’s attempt to open the box, while during the second, the rabbit dressing in the orange shirt deliberately inhibits the cat’s ability to open the box by slamming it shut. After the show, a staff member (unaware which is the good or bad rabbit) will hold both puppets and ask the baby which puppet he or she likes more. The mother, who is usually there with the child, will close her eyes so that she will not influence her baby’s decision. Obviously, the babies are unable to answer through dialogue, but they will reach for the toy they like best.



The results? More than 80% of the 5 month old babies showed a liking towards the bunny that helped the cat, and this number increased to 87% when tested on the 3 month old babies.
 The study was also conducted on babies aged three months, though children at that age are unable to grab objects so alternative techniques were used. Numerous studies have shown that a baby will look at something longer if they like it, and for a short time if they don’t. So the researchers calculated their chosen rabbit by which one they looked at longer.


This information seems to suggest that we are born with an innate sense of morality, rather than the blank-slate mentality suggested by Rousseau. However, though the results appear solid, this conclusion of an inbuilt sense of morality cannot be drawn too quickly, as a few questions still remain. Rousseau’s theory could still be plausible if we consider the possibility that the babies had learnt the difference between right and wrong in their three months prior to the experiment. Furthermore, more of the 5 month old babies chose the ‘bad’ puppet than the 3 month old ones, does this suggest that the older you get, the more your sense of right and wrong fades, or is it simply too early to tell at that age?



Edited by Alice Wilson

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