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.