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Can Babies Distinguish Right From Wrong?

Yale Baby Lab Experiment Implies Babies Understand Fairness and Justice

A colleague of mine suggested I look at a You Tube video about experiments conducted by the Baby Lab at Yale University. Why, I asked? He said an experiment shows babies have a moral conscience at ages under 24 months. What? How can that be? Watch the you tube video for yourself. It is an eye-opener.

The Baby Lab

CNN reports that in tests conducted inside the Baby Lab, babies watch a puppet show. The baby is shown a gray cat trying to open a big plastic box. The cat tries repeatedly, but he cannot open the lid all the way. Enter a green bunny that comes along and helps open the box. The experiment is then repeated, but this time a bunny in an orange T-shirt comes along and slams the box shut before running away. The green bunny is nice and helpful. The orange bunny is mean and unhelpful.

As the CNN story points out, the baby is then presented with the two bunnies from the show. More than 80% of the babies in the study showed their preference for the green/good bunny, either by reaching for it or staring at it. And, with 3-month-olds, that number goes higher, to 87%. Some critics have suggested that it is the color of the bunny that attracts babies to it, not a moral choice. Baby lab


Justice in Babies

According to Paul Bloom, author of “Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil,” these studies show that even before babies can speak or walk, they judge good and bad actions of others because they are born with a rudimentary sense of justice. In one version of the puppet show, one of the babies actually reached over to the mean puppet and smacked it on the head.

Bloom says babies are born with a moral core but that does not mean they are born good. He hastens to explain that the moral sense of right and wrong is limited: the line between good and bad is limited.

Moral Awareness

Are babies born to hate or are they taught to hate? This is a question every parent of a newborn ought to ask. Babies tend to repeat behaviors they see in their parents, although it may not be the same behavior. These tendencies can create a moral awareness whereby babies learn to favor one group, or characteristic traits of members of one group, over other groups.

The worst biases in adults are reflected in the minds of babies. Bigotry by parents can very well be emulated in babies when choices are made between favoring one group over another. Impartial justice in a baby can be developed.

Some experiments were developed with the premise that babies have a simple understanding of good and bad. Other experiments explore reward and punishment, compromise and the roots of bias.

Distinguishing Good From Evil

Are babies attracted by goodness, or are they simply repelled by meanness? To find out, the researchers introduced a third character into the mix—a neutral one who neither helped nor hindered the main puppet. Then, they let the babies choose which puppet they wanted. The babies preferred the neutral puppet to the mean puppet, and the good puppet to the neutral puppet.

All of this is interesting to say the least. If babies can distinguish good from evil at the early age of six months, just imagine what happens as they get older. Will babies raised by men prefer looking at a male face while those raised by woman favor a female face? What about being raised by a Caucasian versus a black baby, Hispanic or Asian?

The Moral of the Study

The moral of the study is we need to foster the development of a moral choice literally right after babies are born. We need to instill a sense of fairness in developing their moral character. Finally, we need to be good people—altruistic, selfless, just and so on—and then hope that what goes on in society and in our peer groups do not tear down the lessons babies learn at the earliest ages.

Posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 19, 2020. Dr. Mintz is an award-winning blogger. His Ethics Sage  Blog was recognized as one of the best in philosophy. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website: Follow him on Facebook at: