The Moral Sense

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Research in the latest issue of Nature provides evidence that babies can distinguish ‘helpful’ from ‘unhelpful’ people at a very early age, before they acquire language and (presumably) before they can have learned the distinction from their own experience. The evidence comes from staged scenarios using ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’ dolls. Babies prefer the nice ones. The researchers argue that this must be an evolved adaptation for social living, which seems plausible enough. Someone should try the same experiment with chimps and other primates. To understand the evolution of morality (in my opinion) we need more good experiments and less mathematical theorising, or at least a better balance between the two.

Here is a report from today’s London Times. No doubt there are others.

Added: I assume, though it is not clear from the Times report, that the researchers have excluded the possibility that babies just prefer triangles to squares.


  1. A personal anecdote, embarassing but true:  
    My ealiest memory was waking up one morning sitting on a pile of shit. I was too young to know what it was, only that it was warm and brown and I was sitting on it, (I knew it was brown because my diaper was loose and when I looked down I could see.) I think I was less than two years old, possibly only one; I was still in a crib and I neither spoke nor understood any words. 
    Anyway, the thing is, I can distinctly remember being conscious of a moral dilemma. Should I get off it, or stay put? There was a definite feeling of “ought” in this question which I asked myself: a belief (I can call it nothing else) that there was a morally right answer and a morally wrong answer to it, and that I had to decide which was which. (I staid put btw.) 
    Eventually my mother entered the room and, when she saw my situation, uttered in a very loving way sound “Ashah” which is not a word exactly but an old English or Scotts-Irish exclamation. Anyway, it’s the first phoneme (or whatever you call it) I remember. 
    I think my point is that there may be a certain inborn, almost superstitious moral sense in very young enfans. At least there was for me. Right and wrong were, to all intents and purposes, innate ideas. 
    Anybody else ever experience something similar?

  2. Two of my earliest memories: 
    1. Sitting in my crib alone in a room with the summer sun streaming in the window on me, so that I was really hot and uncomfortable for what seemed like an extremely long time, waiting for someone to come and either get me out or pull the curtain so I wouldn’t be exposed to this relentless sunlight. I remember thinking “How can those useless bastards just leave me in here roasting like this? Where’s that mother-person?” but I also recall thinking that it would be bad behaviour to yell out, so I just suffered in silence. 
    2. Sitting on the kitchen floor in my diaper while my mother prepared the dinner. There was a big blow-fly buzzing around the inside of the screen door in a very irritating manner, fairly slowly, so I guess it might already have been sprayed with insecticide, so to stop it buzzing around I grabbed it in my hand and shoved it into my mouth. It buzzed around very unpleasantly in my mouth, so to get rid of it, I swallowed it. As I swallowed it and it buzzed down my throat, I remember thinking “No, that was a bad move.” But I definitely recall that it was my decision, I didn’t blame anyone else for it.

  3. And of course babies prefer triangles – triangles are structurally stable, a square is a mechanism. Even babies know that. 
    My daughter’s first word “No!” So you know which word she heard the most. Second word “Dad!” Mum wasn’t too pleased about that, she only came third.

  4. I assume, though it is not clear from the Times report, that the researchers have excluded the possibility that babies just prefer triangles to squares. 
    i can’t find the reference right now, but they did account for the preference in shapes and in the direction of travel.

  5. I think an infant would have time for insights only if she/he’s left alone most of the time. I was chubby cute when I was a child ( like Tom Cruise’s daughter) and have thick mane of hair so what I remember mostly is pain. People was pinching most of the time. I think thats the reason why my Mom says I was a difficult baby, always in a bad mood. Could it be that I learned early that if i smile, pain would follow. 
    My first insight was – “Why am I here” Why do I have life.