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Do Babies Have a Moral Code?

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What exactly is the moral life of a baby? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology & Cognitive Science, author of Against Empathy, on Quora.

What exactly is the moral life of a baby? This question was the topic of my last book, Just Babies, and it's something that I'm fascinated by.

On the bright side, we are born with compassion--some caring for others. As soon as they are able to, babies and toddlers will try to help those who are in pain, by soothing them or trying to get help.

And there's more: Research done at Yale with my colleague Karen Wynn suggests that babies also have a "moral sense", some capacity to judge the actions of others. In some of our studies, we use puppet shows. We show babies characters who interact in certain ways--such as one individual helping another or one individual hitting another--and then see who the babies want to interact with, who they want to reward, and who they want to punish. Using these methods, we have discovered that even young babies have the capacity for moral judgment; they prefer the good guy and want to punish the bad guy. Other labs find evidence for a rudimentary understanding of fairness and justice.

So this is the good news. Some morality is bred in the bone.

But there is a nastier side to our natures as well. There's a lot of evidence that even the youngest babies carve the world into Us versus Them--and they are strongly biased to favor the Us. We are very tribal beings. Our natures are not just kind; they are also cruel and selfish. We favor those who look like us and are naturally cold-blooded towards strangers. We need to use our intelligence and rationality to override and counteract our dark sides.

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