In my previous blog, I described how primitive concepts are innate. In this blog, I will go into certain abstract concepts, like “goodness,” and “helping,” that young children are able to understand without having a proper linguistic terminology. While morality may develop with age, infants do have a core sense of morality shown through (a) moral goodness, or empathy, (b) moral evaluation through an understanding of helping behaviors, and (c) moral retribution, or rewarding good actions and punishing bad, even in preverbal infants.
Moral goodness is present in young children. It seems to be related to feelings of empathy, and children display it through prosocial behaviors. For example, picking up an object that an adult dropped when they express a need would be an example of prosocial behavior. Young infants tend to do these actions spontaneously and without reward. Often, they have very little prompting, which can lead to the conclusion that these types of moral actions are innate (researchgate.net).
Infants also make moral evaluations about the world around them. They prefer those who help an individual achieve their goals as opposed to those who hinder those goals. Children tend to represent the world in terms of goals and preferences. In one experiment, there are two different objects (one on the right and one on the left), and a hand repeatedly reaches for an object on the same side until the infant is habituated to this action. The objects then switch sides. In one group, the hand reaches for the same object as it originally did (which is now on the opposite side), and in the other group, the hand reaches for the different object from what it originally did. The infants had greater dishabituation when the goal of the reach changed rather than the direction, meaning the infants look longer when the agent picks up the previously unchosen object (NIH). Going off of this finding, Hamlin et al., (2011) set up an experiment where infants would watch morality plays. The protagonist puppet (P) would try but fail to achieve a goal. One of the example scenarios was trying to get to the top of a hill. In each scenario, there was a “helper” or “hinderer” puppet. The “helper” puppet would aid P in achieving its goal by boosting it to the top of the hill, and the “hinderer” puppet would stop P in achieving its goal by pushing it down the hill. After seeing both versions, infants were presented with both the “helper” and “hinderer” puppet. By 4.5 months, or as early as infants are able to reach for a puppet, infants chose the helper puppet between 75% to 100% of the time in each study. Studies with 3 month old infants who cannot reach were conducted with preferential attention, or looking behavior. These studies suggested that the preference for “helper” puppets were due to an aversion to “hinderers” (researchgate.net).
The ability to make these types of moral evaluations probably served evolutionary purposes. It was important for human ancestors to cooperate in order to survive. Those who helped in achieving common goals were seen as good for the overall survival as the species, and those who hindered progress were ostracized from the group and would not have survived. Especially in early humanity, this social aspect of collaboration and cooperation was necessary for survival, so it serves evolutionary purposes. The core concepts of “empathy” and “helping” have been identified early in infancy in order to increase survival.
In addition, while infants are able to identify helping behaviors, they show a preference for moral retribution, or just actions based on their moral evaluations. Hamlin et al., (2011) found that even before the age of 2, infants prefer to take resources from someone who has previously hindered another from their goal and give resources to someone who helped. We already established that infants prefer a “helper” to a “hinderer.” However, in this experiment, infants watched a scene where a “hinderer” puppet stopped another puppet from achieving its goals. In the next scene, a protagonist puppet would either help or hinder the “hinderer” puppet. Infants preferred the puppet that hindered the “hinderer” puppet to the puppet that helped the “hinderer” (researchgate.net). This had to do with their evaluation of the goal at hand. They had an aversion to the “hinderer” puppet, and preferred puppets who had the same aversion to that puppet. It is interesting that the ability to make these types of evaluations about morals come so early and naturally to infants. Ultimately, they help our ability to survive and collaborate with others.
Clearly, infants are able to display a core sense of morality before they even have the words to describe it. The core concepts of morality, such as “goodness” and “helping,” are innate and seem to define how we relate to those around us. While morals do get more complex as we age and have life experiences, the basic structure seems to be present from infancy.