Are Kids Altruists?
By Tibor Machan - May 28, 2010

In The New York Times Magazine an article recently discusses whether babies have an inherent moral sense. It beings as follows: "A video featuring adorable cherubs – what's not to like? But 'The Moral Life of Babies' addresses a heady topic: are babies inherently amoral, or can they actually distinguish right from wrong? In a laboratory at Yale University, researchers stage puppet shows in which one character does a good deed, while another does a bad deed. The babies are then asked, wordlessly, to express their preference for one character over another. It's a video that is both thought- and smile-provoking."

I will not address whether babies have a sense of right versus wrong, only the way this matter was reportedly tested by the researchers who investigated it. Paul Bloom and his wife, Karen Wynn, of the Infant Cognitive Center at Yale University, conducted studies with babies and reached the conclusion that, indeed, babies have a moral sense. One piece of evidence supporting their conclusion was that babies tended to show a preference for people who were nice to other people and didn't much like those who weren't.

For my money this is where a big problem arises with their findings. From the fact that babies liked people who helped others, Bloom and Wynn conclude that the babies preferred altruist as opposed to selfish behavior. This is because they liked people who were helpful to others.

However, based on what they report, their conclusions do not follow – or, more precisely, another conclusion, quite different from the one they drew, could be more reasonable. If the babies liked people who were being helpful to others, this may very well be explained by reference to their preference for people who would help them in case they needed help. And that would not point to a preference for altruism, quite the contrary. The babies, maybe quite naturally, saw who among those whom they were observing would be better for them, who would prove to be to their own interest.

When people help other people and this is welcome by us, it could very well be because we realize that the help could come in handy to us. Whereas the behavior of those who show no care for others would not suggest that they would be helpful in case their assistance may become useful. So then what at first appears to be a preference for altruism is, quite possibly, a preference for egoism.

Of course throughout history it has often been assumed that human babies are indeed quite self-interested. And there seems to be ample grounds for thinking that people in general are quite self-interested. When they get up in the morning they usually first take care of themselves – wash up, brush their teeth, have breakfast, select suitable clothing to wear, etc., and so forth. They are not likely to turn to helping their neighbors with their chores instead of caring for themselves. Later, once they are done with this self-interested behavior they often do, of course, reach out to help other people.

In any case, there is much to be explored here but it is worthwhile to just take a step back and notice that what the researchers concluded is by no means the only result that could be reached from the evidence that was given in the article about the morality of babies. Moreover, it is noteworthy, also, that the research team equivocated between morality and altruism.

There are numerous moral systems, ethical positions, that have been advanced throughout human history and it is simply misleading to assume that being moral must necessarily mean being altruistic. Indeed, there is something quite misanthropic about such an assumption–why would it be commendable for people to work to benefit others while neglecting themselves? Who will then take care of them? They are more likely to understand what they need and want and so attending to these matters would probably be more efficient than imposing one's idea of what others need and want on these others.

But let that go for now. What Bloom and Wynn present us in their findings calls to mind, once again, the quip that is associated with the poet W. H. Auden, namely, "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know."

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