Morality (the sense of whether an action or person is “right” or “wrong”) is considered a defining feature of humanity. The typical conception of morality in children is that they are born amoral (without moral sense) or immoral (a moral sense different from adults). Developmental psychology theorizes that children acquire a moral sense through various developmental processes and experiences. This would be considered an empiricist view of morality. However, evidence suggests that preverbal infants can demonstrate core aspects of morality, therefore favoring an innate theory of morality. This sense of morality is rooted in (a) moral goodness, or empathy, (b) moral understanding and evaluation through an understanding of helping behaviors, and (c) moral retribution (rewarding good actions and punishing bad), even in infants.
One of the main arguments for morality as being innate to humans comes from the philosophical theory of Poverty of the Stimulus. Poverty of the Stimulus asserts that the linguistic inputs children receive are not sufficient enough for them to develop a fully fledged grammar, and they must have an innate linguistic capability (www.thoughtco.com). An example of this line of reasoning would be forming questions from declarative sentences. A simple declarative statement example would be “The child is ordering ice cream,” and its question counterpart would be “Is the child ordering ice cream?” The question is formed by moving the auxiliary verb to the front of the structure. While children may hear these types of sentence structures and sentences often, they do not often hear complex declaratives and questions. For example, a complex declarative would be “The child who is hungry is ordering ice cream,” and its question counterpart would be “Is the child who is hungry ordering ice cream?” Again, one has to move the auxiliary verb to the front of the structure to form the question. This structure might be considered confusing since there are two forms of “is” in the sentence, one of which is part of a complex noun phrase. However, children do not make errors when forming questions from complex declarative sentences. They do not say “Is the child who _ hungry is ordering ice cream?” This implies that despite a lack of linguistic input, children are able to formulate the syntactic structure of their language relatively easily.
While this theory of the Poverty of the Stimulus mainly applies to language, it can be used to explain acquisition of concepts, such as “helping” and “harming”, “good” and “bad”, and ultimately “morality”. Concepts are complex mental representations. While we can have concepts of abstract things such as “freedom” or “justice,” we can also have more objective concepts, such as “chair.” While there are a lot of theories about concepts, one popular theory by Jerry Fodor is that primitive concepts are innate. Primitive concepts are those that cannot be broken down into smaller categories. For example, “brown” and “cow” are both primitive concepts, but we can learn the concept of “brown cow” by combining our knowledge of earlier concepts.
We can prove that concepts are innate rather than learned by experience by doing a quick Google search for “brown house.” When I pull up images of “brown house,” all of the top images show me the exterior of several brown houses. The meaning of a “house” includes not only its external features, but also its internal structure. However, we all agree that the concept “brown house” only applies to the exterior, and Google agrees with us. Google does not show us pictures where the interior of the house is brown. Our representation of “brown house” is immune to experience, and we all agree on what this concept is.
It may be hard to believe that we have innate ideas of concepts, but this is the logical conclusion we come to. One of the results of this conclusion is that word learning is pairing of these innate concepts with sounds, and this is how we build a language. Children cannot learn a word for something if they do not already have a concept for it. One of the early behaviors that children demonstrate an understanding of when they are preverbal is helping behavior. It is thought that preferences for helping behavior were a benefit to the evolution of humanity, in that it allowed the socialization and mutual cooperation of our society to grow. If helping behavior is part of an innate core in children, it would help prove that morality is an essential part of our functioning.
In the next blog, I will lay out several studies that examine moral goodness, moral evaluation, and moral retribution in preverbal children to demonstrate how young children demonstrate concepts of morality, indicating an innate moral core.