Babies and the Not-So-Blank Slate

Morality Isn’t Invented

New findings out of my alma mater, Yale University, would seem to suggest that humans are born with an innate sense of morality. Where have I heard that before?

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Eric Metaxas

In his 1689 “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” the philosopher John Locke wrote that if “we will attentively consider new born children, we shall have little reason to think that they bring many ideas into the world with them.”

He proposed that we think of the newborn’s mind as a white piece of paper, “void of all characters, without any ideas.” Ideas, he posited, including the sense of right and wrong, are the product of the child’s experience.

This view, which came to be known as the “blank slate,” dominated the social sciences for the better part of three hundred years, despite accumulating evidence that it didn’t conform to, well, human experience.

Now a recent finding from Yale might just put the final nail in the blank slate’s coffin.daily_commentary_02_21_14

After a series of experiments over eight years, researchers at Yale’s Infant Cognition Center have concluded that “babies are in fact born with an innate sense of morality, and while parents and society can help develop a belief system in babies, they don't create one.” Now that is amazing!

The most basic of these experiments involves showing a baby examples of good and bad behavior and observing which behavior the baby prefers. In the experiment, “a gray cat is seen trying to open a big plastic box. The cat tries repeatedly, but he just can't open the lid all the way.”

Then, a “bunny in a green T-shirt comes along and helps open the box.” That is followed by a bunny in an orange shirt slamming the box before running away.

The baby is then presented with the two bunnies. Eighty percent of the time, the baby chooses the helpful bunny over the mean and unhelpful one. Among three-month-olds, the percentage rises to 87 percent.

Paul Bloom of Yale and the author of “Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil,” says the studies demonstrate that babies are born with a “rudimentary sense of justice” that allows them to judge the actions of others.

And even though he adds that this sense is “tragically limited,” the very fact that babies can grasp justice long before they can even speak says a lot about human nature. It also confirms a major claim of the Christian worldview. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans, the requirements of the law are “written on our hearts,” and when we violate them, our consciences accuse us, even if we have not been tutored in the law.

This aspect of human nature poses serious problems for other worldviews, especially secular materialism. If we’re nothing more than highly-evolved animals whose instincts were selected for survival value, how do we explain this impulse toward justice, especially when it places our survival in danger?

It turns out that this problem leads us back to one of the most vexing questions all worldviews seek to answer: Who is the human person? The secular, materialistic worldview might be able to explain us at our worst: We’re animals, and no one should be surprised when we act like it.  But that view cannot explain why we innately disapprove of such behavior—even from our infancy.

Newsletter_Gen_180x180_BChristianity alone offers a complete picture of humanity—both our depravity and our unshakable sense of morality. Understanding this is the foundation of right thinking and living, and it’s why my BreakPoint co-host, John Stonestreet and theologian T. M. Moore have produced something called “In His Image,” a fantastic new DVD study series that answers the question, “who are we?”

Please come to BreakPoint.org, and we’ll tell you how to get a copy.

Further Reading and Information

BP-Takeaction_022114Babies and the Not-So-Blank Slate: Morality Isn’t Invented

As Eric notes, this secular study backs up the biblical worldview—that God’s law is written on every human heart.

For a deeper understanding of the question all worldviews must answer—“Who are we?"—get a copy of the DVD series "In His Image" including study guide. It's a thought-provoking resource you can use individually and in small group settings, and it's available at our online bookstore.

And check out the research video done at Yale's Infant Cognition Center here. It's very interesting and revealing.


In His Image, DVD series
John Stonestreet, T. M. Moore | ColsonCenter.org

Are we born with a moral core? The Baby Lab says 'yes'
Susan Chun | CNN | February 14, 2014


Not so fast!
Mr. Metaxas,

I saw a news report on the very study you discuss (or one extremely similar) within the last few weeks ago on TV (I think it was on ABC News), and it does not provide as positive a view of infantile "justice" as you describe. In addition to the experiments you mentioned, there were others that showed a preference in babies for punishing individuals unlike themselves (in superficial ways like skin color) even if they were helpful, and rewarding those more like themselves, even if they were mean. Even the CNN article you link to admits that there is evidence of this "root of bias" in the study.