Babies and Morality

Is morality something that is a part of our very being, or is it something that is learned from our culture? From a scientific point of view, that is a hard thing to answer. Data exist that could support either argument, so often the conclusion that is drawn from the scientific evidence tells us more about the interpreter than the data. A very interesting article in the New York Times illustrates this in very stark terms.

Before I start discussing this article, there are two things I want to make clear. First, I got this article from PZ Myers’s blog. As anyone who reads this blog probably knows, he is my favorite atheist. More than anyone else, he demonstrates how the atheistic worldview is based on irratonaility. As I have written before, there are serious scholars who are atheists, and their arguments need to be heeded. There are also hacks that are atheists, and their arguments make it very easy to be a theist. PZ Meyers is, indeed, one of the hacks. Nevertheless, I read his blog because it is fun to see the mental gymnastics through which a scientist must go in order to be an atheist.

The second thing I want to make clear is that I do not think that the argument from morality is a reasonable argument for the existence of God. While there is ovewhelming scientific evidence for the existence of God, the argument from morality simply isn’t one of them. Indeed, in my experience, some of the most immoral people I know call themselves Christians, and their “morality” is put to shame by many atheists.

So…while I don’t think the argument from morality holds much weight, I do think that the interpretation of any data related to morality (like the interpretation of many other kinds of data) is heavily influenced by whether or not you think God exists. This New York Times story demonstrates that in no uncertain terms.

The article is fascinating, and I strongly recommend that you read it in its entirety. Essentially, the author makes a very good case that you can judge a baby’s interpretation of events by measuring things such as how long a baby looks at the event as well as certain things the baby does related to the event. If you believe that this is the case (and I think it is), some amazing things are revealed by the ingenious studies that the author describes.

Essentially, the author says that if you accept the described methods as measures of a baby’s evaluation of certain situations, you find that even very young babies (10-month olds, for example) have a sense of morality. For example, babies indicated that they preferred to reward those who were portrayed as “helpers” in a given situation, and they preferred to punish those who were portrayed as “hinderers” in the same situation. Indeed, the babies would even reward a third party who was nice to the “helper” and punish a third party who was mean to the “helper.” In the same way, they would punish a third party who was nice to the “hinderer” and reward a third party who was mean to the “hinderer.” As the author says:

This wasn’t a subtle statistical trend

In other words, it wasn’t the case that 55% favored the helper and 45% favored the hinderer. It seems that the overwhelming majority of babies understood that the helper should be rewarded and the hinderer should be punished.

Now…I think these results are fascinating, but I think the reaction to the results by others is even more interesting. The author of the article says that even though these experiments indicate that very young babies have a sense of morality, it is “primitive” at best. Indeed, the author says that there are some behaviors that babies exhibit, such as the tendency to favor their own race over another, that are clearly not moral. He says:

The aspect of morality that we truly marvel at — its generality and universality — is the product of culture, not of biology. There is no need to posit divine intervention. A fully developed morality is the product of cultural development, of the accumulation of rational insight and hard-earned innovations. The morality we start off with is primitive, not merely in the obvious sense that it’s incomplete, but in the deeper sense that when individuals and societies aspire toward an enlightened morality — one in which all beings capable of reason and suffering are on an equal footing, where all people are equal — they are fighting with what children have from the get-go. (emphasis mine)

PZ Myers agrees, stating:

Evolution has granted us a general “Be nice!” brain, and also that we acquire capacities that put up boundaries and foster a kind of primitive tribalism…Again, no gods or spirits or souls are required to understand how any of this works.

However, looking at it from my point of view, I find that the data say quite the opposite. It seems to me that it is very hard to justify the moral sense we see in babies from an evolutionary point of view. Certainly there is no survival advantage in trying to reward the helpers and punish the hinderers. Indeed, it would seem that the most reasonable course of action from a survival standpoint would be to avoid the hinderers altogether. While you could make a reasonable argument that rewarding the helpers might make the helpers more disposed to help you, that same argument would lead you to conclude that punishing the hinders would make the hinderers predisposed to be against you, which would lead to them hindering you even more.

As to the idea that babies seem to be “tribal” (preferring their race or group over another one), I would say that this is a reflection of the same moral sense that the experiments discussed above indicate that babies have. After all, most likely, babies generally experience love and nurturing first from those of their own race or group. As a result, they are predisposed to prefer their own race or group because they are predisposed to prefer the helpers.

In the end, then, I see these data as indicating that we have been designed to be moral agents, even at a very young age. While I reject the notion that morality cannot exist without God, I do think these data indicate that morality exists so early in human life that it cannot be adequately explained by evolution. The best lesson to draw from these data, then, is not related to whether or not God exists. It is related to how your preconceptions affect how you examine the data. Given the same data set, I see evidence against evolution and for divine creation. Others see evidence for evolution and against divine creation.

Is it any wonder, then, that scientists disagree so strongly about evolution?


  1. “So often the conclusion that is drawn from the scientific evidence tells us more about the interpreter than the data.” So true:

    “However, looking at it from my point of view, I find that the data say quite the opposite.”

    Imagine that!

    “there are serious scholars who are atheists” means atheists who agree with you slightly or say something nice about intelligent design.

    “There are also hacks that are atheists” means atheists who disagree with you on everything and might even poke fun of your ridiculous “scientific” pronouncements.

    1. jlwile says:

      Once again, Shooter, you claim that I am the one who mischaracterizes people, but you mischaracterize me (SURPRISE!). As I clearly say in my post on Philosophers without Gods (which you called a “Good post, thank goodness!”),

      Obviously, I fundamentally disagree with the main premise of each of the authors, but that is no reason to avoid reading them. Indeed, early on in my scientific training I learned that some of my most enlightening discussions were the ones I had with scientists whose views were quite different from my own. Not surprisingly, then, of the books I read over vacation, this was my favorite. Mostly that’s because the editor has done a great job of bringing together a very diverse group of atheists, most of whom have coherent things to say.

      As the post goes on, I discuss several specific atheists with whom I fundamentally disagree, but who are all scholarly and have good arguments.

      Unlike you, then, I evaluate people based on their arguments, not whether or not I agree with them. You should try that method sometime. It will actually make you THINK for a change.

      There are hacks who are atheists (like PZ Myers), and there are hacks who are creationists (like Kent Hovind). Once again, unlike you, I evaluate people based on their arguments, not whether they agree with me. Hacks are hacks because their arguments are inane. PZ is inane, as is Hovind. In fact, I put them in exactly the same league. All you have to do is read them to see that.

  2. Okay, who are the other crackpot creationists?

    1. jlwile says:

      First, I didn’t call Hovind or Myers “crackpots.” I called them “hacks.” There is a big difference. Second, there is no need for me to list other creationist hacks (or atheist hacks for that matter). You intentionally mischaracterized my position (something you accuse me of doing even though I don’t do it), and I thoroughly demonstrated that your mischaracterization was false.

      Since I have mentioned one other atheist hack (Richard Dawkins), I will also mention one more creationist hack, even though there is no need. Charles W. Lucas is a creationist hack.

  3. How can you say this answer comes from a hack? There are many more good examples in this Australian television show (can you even imagine something like this in America?), including a sputtering creationist.

    1. jlwile says:

      I can say the answer comes from a hack because it does. He is making the same kind of basic errors that he makes in his book The God Delusion. For example, he claims that the moral laws we have today do not come from religion. Of course they do. Despite his glaringly false statement, the abolition of slavery in the U.S. was due to Christianity. Dawkins doesn’t even know basic history yet tries to discuss it as evidence for his nonsensical views.

      If you want to talk about sputtering, how about Dawkins himself sputtering in response to a simple question. Of course, there is also the scene from Expelled where a political speechwriter makes mincemeat out of Dawkins.

  4. No, the abolition of slavery in the U.S. was due to Northern Christians, some of who were abolitionists, defeating the Southern Christians who wanted to continue slavery.

    1. jlwile says:

      As the Wiki page you linked says, the neutrality of that page is disputed. Why don’t you actually learn about issues instead of just posting nonsense? As history tells us, it was the great evangelist Charles Finney who is responsible for the abolitionist movement becoming effective. A man named Theodore Weld (who was initially against Finney but was saved at a Finney crusade) and Finney searched the Scriptures and decided that the Bible indicates slavery was a sin, because it dehumanized people. So Finney started preaching vehemently against slavery, and Weld started working the political side of the problem. Shortly thereafter, a group of Christians rescued a slave from slave catchers near Oberlin college, where Finney was president. It was called the “Oberlin-Wellington Rescue” and galvanized the North against slavery.

      Who were the other great abolitionists in the US? Lyman Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and William Lloyd Garrison – all dedicated Christians who said their Christianity made them abolitionists.

      In England, it was William Wilberforce who lead the abolitionist movement. He and Josiah Wedgwood developed a stunning logo for the abolitionist campaign: It was a slave in manacles on his knees saying, “Am I not a man and a brother?” This summed up the English abolitionists’ main idea – that God is the father of all men, and therefore all men are brothers.

      Thus, without Christianity, there would not have been abolitionists, and there would probably still be slavery in both the US and England.

  5. Do you deny that there were Christians on both sides of the slavery issue both before and after the Civil War?

    Do you claim that Northern Christian Abolitionists were responsible for ending slavery in the US?

    How’s this: Without Christianity, there would not have been the Ku Klux Klan, and there probably would have been many black men who would have avoided being lynched.

    1. jlwile says:

      Of course there were Christians on both sides of the slavery issue both before and after the Civil War, just as there were atheists on both sides. The difference is that atheism did nothing to stop slavery. However, Christianity did. It stopped slavery.

      Yes I certainly do claim that Northern Christian Abolitionists were responsible for ending slavery in the US, just as the Christian Abolitionists were responsible for ending slavery in the UK. Not only do I claim that, but that’s what history clearly teaches.

      So once again, despite the fact that hacks like Dawkins don’t understand this, history clearly shows that without Christianity, slavery would probably still be popular today.

      I agree that there are some Christians who use their Christianity for evil means. However, there are a LOT more people who use their atheism for evil means.

  6. Josiah says:

    “How’s this: Without Christianity, there would not have been the Ku Klux Klan, and there probably would have been many black men who would have avoided being lynched.”

    Really? When their economic prosperity is on the line, men will often look for any excuse to perform heinous deeds to bring it back. In this case they had further motives such as xenophobia. They had to search out as obscure a point in the Bible as the Curse of Ham, while disregarding the grace and sacrifice that the Book is actually about. Had their ideology been based purely on the superiority of their race, as was the Nazi holocaust, it is reasonable to assume exactly the same attrocities and worse should have been commited.

    The Holocaust is actually a very good example because every reasonable scholar maintains that it could have been carried out over the previous two millenia of “christianity” through perversions of christian teaching, but another excuse was closer to hand and was taken.

    1. jlwile says:

      Sadly, Josiah, you are exactly right.

  7. I’d say stick to science, but you’re not very good at that either. So I’ll say stick to theology. At least in that discipline, it’s common practice to support your made-up point with cherry-picked 2,000 year old verses.

    1. jlwile says:

      Shooter, you are the one who has been demonstrated to be very bad at science. Time and time again I have shown your statements related to science are inane, and you eventually have given up trying to defend them. Nevertheless, you continue to make more inane statements on science, theology, and history. You aren’t good at much, but at least you are persistent!

      On the other hand, I am the one who has constantly been demonstrated to be quite good at science. That’s why the National Science Foundation has awarded me with more than $200,000 in research grants. That’s why I have so many peer reviewed publications in prestigious science journals. That’s why I have won awards for the science I do, such as being named Bene Facta Scholar at Ball State University. That’s why my textbooks are so good at preparing students for careers in the sciences.

      You see, Shooter, when you are as good at science as I am, it can be easily demonstrated. In the same way, when you are as bad at science as you are, it can also be easily demonstrated, which is something that happens regularly on this blog, thanks to your inane comments!