As a parent and grandparent I can attest that infants are selfish little sinners. Their entire focus is upon their own needs and if those needs are not met, heaven help the ears of those around them. At 6 months, they are starting to learn to react to their names and words like ‘no’. But would I consider them to have a sense of morality at 6 months of age? What do you think?
Psychologists at Yale University have been studying infant behavior for years. Professor Paul Bloom, claims that the results of those studies suggests that: A growing body of evidence suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life….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 bones.
In one of their studies, they showed infants ranging in age from 6 months to 1 year a puppet show. The puppets were colorful wooden shapes with eyes. One puppet was trying to climb a hill. A second puppet tried to help the first puppet by pushing it up the hill. A third puppet served as the evil puppet and would push the first puppet back down the hill. After watching the puppet show several times, the infants were shown the three puppets. In most instances, the infants readily reached for the good puppet and paid it more attention to them than they did the evil puppet.
Other similar studies with different figures and scenarios were conducted and in most of them, infants as young as 5 months of age seemed to prefer the good or well behaved toys over those that were portrayed as being bad or evil. Their conclusion from all of these studies is that babies are not born as blank slates but are hard wired with a basic sense of morality from birth.
Other psychologists like Dr Nadja Reissland of Durham University are not as convinced at the results as are Professor Bloom and his colleagues. She says that infants start to learn the differences between right and wrong from birth by the way they are nurtured, but she is not convinced that we are born that way. She also suggested that perhaps infants just liked figures that move up rather than down.
After reading the report, I had a number of questions concerning their studies. What colors did they use for the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ toys? Did they try switching the colors to see if colors had any bearing on the infants’ selections? Did they use sound in their puppet shows and if? If a pleasant sound was used with the ‘good’ and a harsher or unpleasant sound or tone used with the ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ toy then wouldn’t that tend to influence the infants’ decisions?
However, the underlying question is whether or not we humans are born with any sense of morality or not?
To begin with, Scripture tells us that we were made in the image of God: Furthermore God said, Let us make man in our image according to our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the heaven, and over the beasts, and over all the earth, and over everything that creepeth and moveth on the earth. Thus God created the man in his image: in the image of God created he him: he created them male and female. (Gen. 1:26-27)
Being made in the image of God is more of a mental and spiritual image of God than a physical one. Man was made as a physical, mental and spiritual being. Part of that mental and spiritual nature involves a basic inherited knowledge of God. John Calvin expressed this nature well when he wrote:
There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty.
Since God is a moral God and we were made in His image with a certain understanding and knowledge of God, then it would preclude us to say that man has an instinctive sense of morality. That sense of morality would be present from birth. What happens to the development of that basic sense of morality after birth directly depends upon the environment and culture that child is raised in.
Based upon this, then it is safe to say that perhaps the Yale psychologists may have been correct in their conclusion that humans are born or hard wired with a basic sense of morality. However, much to the chagrin of many non-Christian and non-Jewish people, the original source of our morality comes from being made in the image of the God of the Bible and not from some inane sense of self.
- David Derbyshire, We’re born to be moral: Babies ‘can tell good from evil at six months’, www.dailymail.co.uk, May 10, 2010.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1960, p. 43.