Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Babies may have moral instinct

A friend, Emily, alerted me to this CNN site, and specifically to the three videos that deal with the way infants think. They show work going on at "the baby lab" at Yale University.

In one series of experiments, an infant is offered small pieces of graham crackers in one dish and cheerios in another dish. Puppets are then offered the same choices, and one makes the same choice as the baby while a second puppet with a different colored shirt makes the other choice. Babies as young as three months of age show a preference for the puppet that makes the same choice: graham cracker babies like graham cracker puppets better, cheerio babies like cheerio puppets better.

In a second series of experiments, a puppet theater shows three puppets: a puppet with a shirt of one color helps a tiger puppet in one scene; in a second scene a puppet with the other color shirt interferes with the tiger puppet. Babies show preference for the helpful puppet over the harmful puppet.

The researchers claim in this latter experiment that the babies like others who help rather than others who hinder because they -- the babies -- make moral judgments as early as three months of age.

I wonder? Perhaps the baby is simply doing the same thing in the two experiments. The baby likes one kind of food, so prefers the puppet that likes the same kind of food. Perhaps the baby would him/herself help the tiger puppet and so prefers the puppet that helps the little tiger.

What is the difference. It may be that the baby is very early able to make moral judgment about how he/she should act, but not infer that others should make similar moral judgments -- but simply prefer others that act as he/she would act him/herself.

Still I think the research does suggest that humans are born with an instinct to help others. That makes sense for a social species, and it makes sense for humans who help each other to learn.

Here is a short video suggesting that other primates have similar instincts.

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