Are we born with a moral compass?

June 19, 2022

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Are we born with a moral compass?

For millennia, philosophers have pondered the question of whether humans are inherently good. But now, researchers have found that young infants can make and act on moral judgments, shedding light on the origin of morality.

In a study published in Nature Human Behaviour, researchers revealed that 8-month-old infants can punish antisocial behavior exhibited by a third party. Thus, the motivation driving punishment might be intrinsic as opposed to learned.

Punishment of antisocial behavior is found in only humans and is universal across cultures. However, the development of moral behavior is not well understood. Further, it can be very difficult to examine decision-making and agency in infants.

What the researchers say: “Morality is an important but mysterious part of what makes us human,” says the lead author of the study. “We wanted to know whether third-party punishment of antisocial others is present at a very young age because this would help to signal whether morality is learned.”

To tackle this problem, the researchers developed a new research paradigm. First, they familiarized infants with a computer system in which animations were displayed on a screen. The infants could control the actions on the screen using a gaze-tracking system such that looking at an object for a sufficient period led to the destruction of the object. The researchers then showed a video in which one geometric agent appeared to “hurt” another geometric agent, and watched whether the infants “punished” the antisocial geometric agent by gazing at it.

“The results were surprising,” he said. “We found that preverbal infants chose to punish the antisocial aggressor by increasing their gaze towards the aggressor.”

To verify their findings, the researchers conducted three control experiments to exclude alternative interpretations of the infants’ gazing behaviors.

“The observation of this behavior in very young children indicates that humans may have acquired behavioral tendencies toward moral behavior during the course of evolution,” the researchers explained. “Specifically, the punishment of antisocial behavior may have evolved as an important element of human cooperation.”

So, what? This research is interesting for what it tells us about the origin of ethical behavior judgments.

The research has a few non-fatal flaws, the main one being the team’s assumption that morality is unique to humans. Other research has shown that the punishment of antisocial behavior is quite widespread among non-human species. Also, the cause and effect assumption that they make between collaboration and morality is open to question. It may be associative rather than causal.

Also, they can’t have it both ways—if collaboration and morality are aligned then other highly collaborative species such as bees, ants, and hunting dogs must have an inbuilt sense of morality and so it can’t be unique to humans.

Finally, a child of eight months has already been subject to a lot of learning. If every culture has a moral code, then by eight months this is probably well on the way to being installed through behavioral reward and punishment.

Nevertheless, the research could be a good starting point for looking at the relationship between learning, morality, and neurogenetics in a new way. If reward for prosocial behavior and punishment for antisocial behavior is encoded, what genes are involved and what part of the brain contains that specialty?

A preference for prosocial behaviors is either a learned response that develops early from observation of parents and other early influences (including TV etc.) or it is something common to many species. If it’s the latter it’s probably genetic, and if the former it’s a learned adaption.

If the preference for prosocial behavior is inbuilt—instinctual rather than learned—then ethical and moral “decision-making” is a nonsequitur. I’m looking forward to further research on this subject.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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