Moral or Amoral – Are We Born One Or The Other?

Moral or amoral – are we born one or the other? This seems a strange question at first sight, but maybe people have been assuming one or the other for years. Ask a psychologist and they will rush off and design an experiment and check out a handy group of infants who are just a few months old.

Scarf et al from U Otago have carried out some experiments to check if the results of Hamlin et al were correct (1, 2). The earlier work with very young infants concluded that a moral compass was built in as a biological adaption. The infants watched toys climbing a hill and in some cases they bumped into another toy that helped them get to the top. In other events, the colliding toy hindered the climb. The observation was that the infants wanted the helper toy as a playmate.

Scarf et al re-did the experiments with rather more laconic toys (no bouncing with excitement when reaching the summit) and threw into the mix a neutral toy that minded its own business. What was the result this time? The 10-month old infants wanted the neutral toy as a playmate. They didn’t like collisions.

So it seems that there was no moral reasoning involved, but they were averse to confrontational collisions whatever the outcome and were opting for the uncomplicated peaceful life without unnecessary complications.

Interesting how many of us have retained this trait as we grow up as a way of avoiding trouble.  We stay as simple creatures that prefer to leave the wrestling with huge moral choices to characters in the movies.

  2. J.K Hamlin, K Wynn, and P. Bloom, Nature, 450, 557, (2007).

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