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Jaroslaw Wojcik/istock

Bred in the bone?

Study suggests children have a sense of morality at a very young age

Issue: "How Mark Souder fell," June 19, 2010

Years ago, when our daughter attended a church-­sponsored preschool, we were invited to an informal meeting about parenting techniques. After orientation by the school director, we broke into discussion groups. The topic was discipline, a burning issue for preschool parents, swerving naturally to "How do we teach them right from wrong?" One father in our group apparently wanted to stir the pot. Early in the conversation he asked, "But how do we know what's right and wrong? Do those words have any meaning?"

If he was hoping for a Socratic discussion he didn't get it, neither the first time nor the second time he asked. No one even challenged the premise. I didn't know the man: He might have been an amateur student of philosophy, or a Hindu, or just a provocateur. But to parents of preschoolers, the question itself was meaningless. We all had some notion of right and wrong that we sought to inculcate in our young barbarians; the only issue was how.

New research indicates parents may have a little underlying cooperation in that quest. I mean "little" literally. "The Moral Life of Babies," appearing in The New York Times Magazine last month, outlines extensive study by Yale University researchers into the degree that right and wrong is recognized by children as young as a few months. Surprisingly or not, overwhelming evidence points to a sense of morality either inborn or developing very early.

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The study involved babies being exposed to mini-dramas, both live and on film. Two puppets or two shapes were shown either helping or hindering a third character, with the babies encouraged afterward to respond. The youngest subjects were capable of nothing but watching, so their response was measured by how long they looked. But 9- to 12-month-olds could register approval or disapproval in a variety of ways, including punishing the bad actors when they had an opportunity. "In the end," writes professor Paul Bloom, "we found that 6- and 10-month-old infants [in a given study] overwhelmingly preferred the helpful individual to the hindering individual. This wasn't a subtle statistical trend; just about all the babies reached for the good guy."

The overwhelming response among the public: interesting. Writes Albert Mohler on his blog, "Does the fact that infants have an innate moral sense underline the importance of the fact that human beings are made in God's own image? It would certainly seem so." Meanwhile, a fan of atheist Richard Dawkins, commenting on Dawkins' website, draws quite another conclusion: "This will be a rather bitter blow to the religious who are convinced that humans are born sinful [and] incapable of telling right from wrong without moral guidance from the bible. . . . What a delicious laugh."

Not so fast. Paul says that even those without the Mosaic Law nonetheless have God's law written on their hearts, "while their conscience also bears witness" (Romans 2:14-15). While babies can't acknowledge the first table of the Law (loving God), the second table, about loving their neighbor, seems firmly fixed. Why?

The evolutionary bias assumed by the researchers can only shrug. Conceivably, a strong sense of group sympathy can help an individual survive in a harsh environment, but what explains the babies' apparent sympathy for animal puppets? Dr. Bloom admits that "the morality of contemporary humans really does outstrip what evolution could possibly have endowed us with." And there's another, rather obvious problem: "If children enter the world already equipped with moral notions, why is it that we have to work so hard to humanize them?"

That's the conundrum C.S. Lewis addresses in the first section of Mere Christianity: (a) everyone seems to have a sense of moral law, and (b) everyone breaks it. The little one who shows sorrow for a thwarted puppet will likely knock down a smaller child someday, or snatch a toy, or lie on a resumé, or cheat on his income tax, and natural selection will not justify him. Someone else will have to.
Email Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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