The Moral Life of Babies

Here’s a fascinating article in the New York Times, which describes research that examine the extent of a babies’ innate moral sensibility.

It seems that even very young infants are instinctively able to tell ‘good’ from ‘bad’, a fact which is difficult to explain from a biological point of view. The traditional perspective has it that children are acculturated to learn morality as they grow.

Some researchers have been tempted to ascribe this innate moral sense to “the voice of God within our souls.” From a Buddhist point of view, of course, we would prefer to think in terms of rebirth.

Regardless of the reason why, the practical outcome of this is that people are, before culture, primed with at least the basics of a moral sensibility. This falls short of a truly mature ethics, as babies, for example, are still not impartial in the sense required by higher ethical discernment. (But then, who is?)

This reminds me of the Socratic belief that we have all learned everything in countless past lives, and so what we call ‘learning’ is in fact merely ‘remembering’. If children have an innate sense of morality, then it would seem that the most useful form of education would be that which ‘draws out’ (to use the literal meaning of ‘educate’) knowledge that is already innate.

This issue has recently become the focus of intense debate in Sydney, with the recent proposal to trial teaching ethics in schools to children who choose not to go to ‘scripture’ classes. The basic method of the ethics class is to present the children with a bunch of ethical dilemmas, and discuss them.

The Sydney Anglicans, as always foremost in reaction, have come out strongly against this, insisting that they be involved in the process, while the Catholics have been more muted.

(For those of you not familiar with the Sydney religious scene, the local Anglican church is one of the extreme conservative wings of the international Anglican communion, and is separate from the rest of Australia’s Anglicans, who are generally quite progressive.)

Jensen & co. seem to be outraged that secular ethics should be taught in Australian Government schools – teaching secular ethics in a secular institution! What will they think of next.

Underlying this is the basic question of moral authority. The Western philosophical tradition, starting with Socrates, sees ones own inner voice as the prime source of truth, while the Church sees morality as descending from on high, and mediated by itself.

The time has long passed when secular institutions looked to Christianity for its values. Our children need to learn ethics, not from any self-appointed ‘authority’, but by learning to listen to their own voice of conscience, to dialogue with others, to accept different points of view, and to found ethics on a shared humanity, not adherence to any religious dogma.

29 thoughts on “The Moral Life of Babies

  1. This is fascinating.

    A class like this is long overdue in schools throughout this country.

    I hope they succeed and manage to keep it secular!!

  2. Why limit it to just young children? Ethics should be taught and re-taught throughout one’s education. The situations that are applicable to each stage in life differ, so there would always be something new to discuss.

    It seems to me, though, that we need to do more than just discuss it. There should be some neutral, non-religious basis for judging actions to frame the discussion, like harming oneself or others, the golden rule, etc. Values that are constantly brought to mind in a class setting go a long way to creating a positive social norm.

  3. No surprises that, in Singapore last year, a bunch of fundamentalist-leaning Anglican ladies seized control of AWARE (a women’s association), as it felt that its sex education programme portrayed homosexuality is ethically neutral terms.

    I wonder where an infant’s moral compass would point in issues of sexuality if untouched by the Anglicans?

  4. Well, I’m not convinced! How do they know what babies are thinking? Do they speak to the babies? What do the babies say?
    If they don’t then they are only filtering the motor or other physical responses through their own ideas and experiences. In this case, it’s also through the filter of the field of psychology, which itself is fraught with many conflicting theories.
    Also, who decided what’s good and bad? Isn’t that also a value judgement?
    Where I do agree is with the need to fill the current void left by those parents who provide no moral rudder to steer by. Bhante’s suggestion that they should “listen to their own voice of conscience, to dialogue with others, to accept different points of view, and to found ethics on a shared humanity” is an indication that such an approach would have to be formally structured and completed over a number of years – possibly in high school.
    Let’s hope that if such a program is added to the already crowded school day, that extra resources (including extra teachers) will be employed.
    By the way, why is it that TEACHERS have to do everything in Australia that used to be done by others? What happened to the idea of specialisation? For example, I’m trained to teach Music and Business Studies. Now I have to re-train to teach morals or ethics? How about some practical ideas not just day dreams?

    • Good points Greg.

      Maybe teachers who teach ethics should be Specialists… 🙂 Just think of the extra D.O.T.T time! 😉

  5. In my (not terribly humble) opinion, you either have ethics and morals from your innate sense and upbringing or you don’t. Ethics class is bollocks. You cannot teach it. I mean sure – go ahead and have a class – I won’t say “no, but if it isn’t there already … meh ….

    I was raised in a non-religious household one parent – the athiest wouldn’t have taken a paper clip from work, the other parent – the “spiritual one” – liked to take restaurant silverware and antiques from my Grandad’s hom much to the chagrin of the truly “moral” parent.

    Interestingly, when I got to school, I found that some of the nastiest, oiliest, slimiest people were those who were raised “with religion” – of any kind, mind you. They were especially good at equivocating, justifying questionable actions.

    As to whether babies know what is inately “good” or “bad” – interesting. Perhaps the babies are picking up on their parents’ cues? I dunno – but that seems a possibility. However what if one has the good parent/bad parent thing?

    I tended towards scrupulosity yet I have a sibling that’s a liar, dissembler and manipulator. I note that I used “that’s” rather than “who is”. Hmmmm.

    Not theorising – rambling on the page here. I’m not yet legally awake, you see.

    Nonetheless, I do think that most of us have an inner sense of “who’se a rotter” and who isn’t. This is that truly valuable “gut feeling” that the proverbial “they” try to wring out of one.



    • Hehe, Vepacitta,
      “teaching ethics is bullocks” Isn’t that what Mara said to the Buddha just after his awakening? Those bloody homo sapiens, they are too slow! They’ll never get it!
      Hehe. Sila Samadhi Panna – it can be taught – that is why we are here conversing with one another, part of a group of 500 million people attending the Buddha’s life course on ehtics.

    • Dear Lisa Karuan:

      Those bloody homo sapiens are indeed s-l-o-w. I suppose there are a few without much dust in their eyes – but I’ve yet to meet any, including myself, so don’t think I’m putting “moi” up on that pedestal(!)

      I suppose one could look at being placed in the world of samsara as a “learning experience” (gaaaack!) and in that context one could, I suppose, posit that “panna” can be “taught”.

      But that’s not what’s being proposed here.

      However, as I said in my earlier post – sure – why not teach ethics – it won’t hurt anything – and it’ll get a few of the little trolls, er, humans, to think perhaps – which could only be a good thing.

      And I agree with V Kawasaki – teaching logic would be a very good thing – they don’t do that anymore in schools.

      This is because – “they” don’t want the human herd to think for themselves. Heavens, if you have people thinking for themselves, they might not buy into industrial-consumerist-military complex and heavens we can’t have that can we? (This is sarcasm in case no one groks)

      All the best Ms. Karuna – may you live up to your moniker!


      Vepacitta (the Asura – just in case that wasn’t clear to anyone)

    • Hehe,
      Vepacitta, what would you know about ethics anyways, you guys are always drunk on Gandapāna wine, and you only behave when Sakka is watching.

    • Roots of Empathy – again – yes sounds nice and lovely – sure why not. But again – I think one either has empathy or doesn’t.

      Sometimes dramatic life upheavels can promote empathy in otherwise insensitive clods. However, if those nasty circumstances are overcome – I’ve noted that the newly gained “nice behaviour” reverts back to the original model. Sometimes it does stick. It all depends. Nothing is set in stone.

      I go by what I see.


      NB – you might want to look more closely into the history of the Asuras re: ethics (specifically – the potion of immortality)

    • Potion of Immortality. How could I resist? Shamefully ignorant about Diwali until now. Was this infamous potion transferred to the Buddhist lore as well?

  6. Dear Bhante,

    You will like this: What’s more, babies are invited to classrooms to help teach empathy to children.

    Please visit the site for Roots of Empathy

    “At the heart of the program are classroom visits by an infant and parent. Through guided observations of this loving relationship, children learn to identify and reflect on their own thoughts and feelings and those of others (empathy). Independent evaluations consistently show children who receive Roots of Empathy experience dramatic and lasting effects in terms of increased pro-social behaviour (sharing, helping and including) and decreased aggression. For more information, watch our video (9 minutes) or read our Key Information and History and Milestones fact sheets. .

    “The program was founded in Canada in 1996 by Mary Gordon, an internationally recognized educator, social entrepreneur, and child advocate, and today has reached more than 315,000 children worldwide. Roots of Empathy also has a sibling program, Seeds of Empathy, designed for early childhood settings. Roots of Empathy has been recognized by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, Daniel Goleman, the World Health Organization, Helen Clarke, Administrator of the United Nations Development Program and former Prime Minister of New Zealand”

    Founder Mary Gordon is on the Board of a network of similarly innovative “social entrepreneurs” changing the old ways of the world for the better…

    The network is aptly named after someone you might know. 🙂

  7. In lieu of ethics, how about logic? Being able to think clearly, detect fallacies, faulty reasoning, ad hominems etc. could go a long way toward an educated citizenry. And for Buddhism, good behavior is the logical thing to do, isn’t it?

  8. Bhante Sujato,
    I have a vinaya question. I heard of a certain bhikkhuni monastery who does not allow visiting bhikkhunis during the rains. My understanding of the vinaya is that the monastery does not belong to those few nuns but rather the bhikkhuni sangha of past, present & future and if a bhikkhuni wishes to practice at that monastery then they have the right. Is this correct?

    Also, monastics have the Dhamma and vinaya to follow and not the dictatorship of any monastic. The idea of having an ‘abbot’ or ‘core wat’, all this is later additions is this correct? If a monastery has certain ‘ways of doing things’, they do not need to impose this on other monastics right? As long as everyone is following dhamma/vinaya?

    It is good to know the pure teachings of the Buddha and to be removed from cultural additions. We all follow the Buddha Sasana and it would be good to be free from the impositions of cultural traditions and defilements of certain monastics.

    For instance, if a monastery has many meetings: morning and evening chanting, it is not part of the vinaya and just because a few monastics like that idea doesn’t mean they must enforce it on everyone. Those that want to get together can, but they cannot create a new rule governing monastics. The Buddha already laid down the vinaya and noone can add to it. The Buddha didn’t have an abbot, there is no pali word for abbott i was told. There is seniority but decisions are made by the whole sangha and if one person disagrees then it doesn’t go through.

    It is quite beautiful the way the Buddha laid down the vinaya, it really prevents the authoritative power of one monastic, especially if they are not wise.

    There were certain great teachers at the time of the Buddha who had great influence, like Sariputta and Mogalana, but people followed them out of inspiration, not because of dictatorship or force.

    I am bringing this issue up because it is of crucial importance at this time. Why is it important, because there is not much choice for a bhikkhuni to go. Men have much choice. Women= zilch.
    Those few bhikkhuni monasteries that are already established must allow a supportive environment to practice the Dhamma/Vinaya and should not impose or control their monastics. No bhikkhu or bhikkhuni should force a certain practice on another. If someone gets inspired and follows someone’s teachings it is a different matter.

    so in brief, this is a question to ask if: a monastery belongs to a certain few monastics or if it belongs to the sangha of past, present and future? Also if Buddha specified a distinction between bhikkhu and bhikkhuni sangha or did he say a monastery belongs to the sangha (either bhikkhu or bhikkhuni).
    Can certain resident monastics refuse other monastics into staying at their monastery even if there is space available? Also, did the Buddha allow monasteries to have their own rules which all monastics must obey? Basically can monastics add to the vinaya? I know the answers sound obvious but they must be made clear and we must get down to the fundamentals and the Buddha’s teachings: vinaya and dhamma. There are few bhikkhuni monasteries out there and many women wishing to ordain. Those monasteries should be of great support and conducive environment to practice Dhamma/Vinaya and not create their own rules and power.

    • Bhante, the buddha said that the monastery belongs to the Sangha of the four quarters? what’s that? North south west east? past present and yet to come?
      Also did they have taxes and bills at time of the Buddha or legal documents who owns a monastery? Seriously though. Basically, it is interesting who has ‘power’ over the activities in a bhikkhuni monastery? From my understanding its a place for monastics to practice the Dhamma/Vinaya. Can a lay organization who has the paperwork and pays the bills of a certain monastery building confiscate it (if they are not happy with the way the resident monastics practice and run it)?

    • Dear Dania

      Maybe that monastery’s rule was directed at preventing bhikkhunis from taking residence there DURING the rains (ie once the rains have started), as otherwise it would entail the visiting bhikkhunis breaking their vassa elsewhere and the new monastery sanctioning the discontinuity of their vassa? Just guessing.

      I think a visiting monastic’s “fit” with the normal residents’ expectations will have to be factored in, especially if it impinges on the harmony of communal affairs. I think once a visiting monastic drops in, he/she may form the constituent of that “Sangha” with voting privileges in all formal sanghakamma (depending on the size of the monastery’s siima). It would be very inconvenient if a Sangha were paralysed from consummating sangha acts, because a visiting monastic elects to demur all the time.

      Hope I’m not mistaken on the above.

  9. Dania,
    Yes I think it’s true without being well-read on it that there is no kind of abbott or authoritary hierachy in the vinaya. I also think it’s kind of a circumstantial question of if your monastery chants evenings and mornings and one monastic, say a young monk, doesn’t want to. Maybe it would go okay if he didn’t. Maybe it would in fact just be a kind of stubbornness on that monk’s own side.
    I also understand that while the vinaya is largely to be followed without exception, however that does not mean additional rules cannot be imposed in addition to it. For instance if you are a monk who is staying at a friend’s house for 2 nights, and this friend wants it to be absolutely quiet past 10 o’clock. In that case it would not be permissible to chant loudly after 10 o’clock. However no where in the Vinaya is it stated that one should not chant loudly after 10 o’clock.

  10. Dear Sujato

    Thank you for posting this.

    Knowing our own daughter, the findings don’t surprise me. She was noticeably empathetic and sympathetic from soon after she was born, and perhaps those two words best describe the findings, rather than saying that babies have an abstract morality. I think the education part of ethics is to widen that empathy and sympathy beyond immediate family and friends. When she meets people outside that group, fear can take over and dominate the empathy and sympathy.

    I’m not sure that rebirth is any better explanation than God for an innate moral sense. You’d still be looking back down the chain of rebirths to see where morality arose, and then you’d still be asking where it came from before that. I think it’s just better to say that it’s there. (On a tangent, interesting that most people these days would say that God, at least the Abrahamic one, is a pretty immoral character – prideful, self-centred, attention-seeking, child-sacrificing, and so on. He’s obviously not the source of any innate moral sense.)

    I can’t help relating this article to the fact that without a good basis in ethical living, meditation can’t really go beyond a fairly shallow level. I know, I tried it when I was younger. When we really look, we just are ethical beings and we aren’t happy being anything else.



    • You said: ‘I think the education part of ethics is to widen that empathy and sympathy beyond immediate family and friends.’

      just want to say that i think that’s brilliant.

      i wonder how you’d incorporate this into an ethics class? metta meditation, discussing real life moral dilemnas, training in putting these things into practise as they ocurr in children’s lives at school…? I wonder what they’ll actually do if ethics is taught in schools.

      I hope they don’t expect the already massively over-burdened classroom teachers to be the primary agents of delivering/facilitating ethics education. Ideally a specialist would focus on this but with a whole school policy actively supporting his/her work.

  11. The chicken-&-egg conundrum –

    Does our craving drive the rebirth consciousness towards a genetic mix that will manifest “human ethics”?


    Does our craving therafter drive the foetal “genes” to transcribe proteins that manifest as “ethical” behaviour?


    Do the genes and craving cooperate with one another?

    I wonder where craving, consciousness and genes stand in relation to one another in the 3-Lives Dependant Origination model, especially in the niddanas representing present life?

  12. This doesn’t really surprise me, Anger (tends to) provoke a very strong emotional response of pain, love (tends to) provoke a very strong emotional response of comfort (pleasure). Babies are absolutely sensitive to this, since they have not been so conditioned to be un-sensitive.

    From this it follows that anger is associated with bad, love is associated with good (because all beings prefer pleasure over pain, for whatever reason). It’s generally not hard to figure out what kind of actions ‘flow on’ from anger, in other words, what an ‘angry action’.

    It follows that an angry person is a bad person, and a loving person is a good person. It is a natural reaction to ‘lash out’ at badness (try to push it away or destroy it or disempower it) and desire closeness to goodness (to pull it near and preserve it and empower it). Destroying badness is good in this natural morality, because by destroying badness future pain is reduced.

    What about greed? It’s natural to suffer pain when separated from the pleasing or not united with the pleasing, thus theft and selfishness, is going to be experienced as painful, and associated with bad. Generosity (being united with the pleasing) will be experienced as pleasurable and associated with good.

    • Dear Anagarika Blake

      The interesting thing about the research was that some of it involved babies watching the behaviour of cartoon shapes on a TV screen, apparently “helping” or “hindering” each other, with no ambient emotional tone on which to pick up.



    • Yeah I read the article.

      Everything ultimately comes down to inference, whether it’s the tone of someone’s facial expression, or the tone of their voice, or the tone of their actions. This is a very instinctive thing, as revealed by animal-human interactions. Animals are perfectly capable of recognising a ‘gentle’ action vs a ‘startling’ action, and animals and humans alike draw all sorts of inferences from sensory cues (for instance seeing a stick on the path as a snake!) and no wilful or rational effort goes into this process, it’s exceedingly automatic – it’s mental association, and largely associates things with pleasure or pain, a kind of ‘gut-wrench’ reaction (the ‘snake’ on the path).

      Anyway my point more was on the categorisation of ‘the bad’ vs ‘the good’, and the natural reaction of wishing to eliminate or disempower ‘the bad’ and draw close to or empower ‘the good’, for the reason that ‘the good’ is associated with pleasurable feeling and ‘the bad’ is associated with painful feeling.

      Advanced morality is something like forgiveness, but even that stems simply from the idea that kindness tends to be reciprocated, even by someone who in the past has shown a tendency towards harmful behaviour. So kindness becomes the best practise when dealing with both ‘the bad’ and ‘the good’.

  13. Heaps of great articles in current and back issues:

    Would one of our philosophy multiple PhDs or wise Bhikkhus/Bhikkhunis please treat us to their take on the diiference between morality and ethics?

    “The Dalai Lama’s vision of the learning process involves a full engagement of our physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions. This holistic approach seeks wisdom rather than mere information. It naturally plugs into our capacity for compassion, forgiveness and imagination. This way of knowing – the cultivation of empathy – is at the heart of moral development. The Dalai Lama believes that the most essential knowledge arises not from the head but from the heart.

    The Center is committed to education (and developing a network of programmes/experts that have developed-) that fosters cognitive development and spiritual self-reflection. Under the guidance of the Dalai Lama, the Center will develop educational initiatives that nourish both intellect and wisdom in service to the greater good.”

  14. Bhante,
    I post this as a self-confessed lapsed theravadin, a confession I’m not keen on but working to rectify, so I don’t want to seem too forward. I saw an article that seemed to echo a lot of what you post here, and parallels can also be drawn with Ven. Dhammika’s ‘Broken Buddha’, so I thought you may like to give your perspective, or even just read it. A lot of the focus is on world events, yet it is rather interesting considering it’s western viewpoint.

    – Regards, Tom.

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