Are we born good or evil? (naughty or nice)

By Tom Aglietti

Are we born with an innate moral compass or is it something we develop as we grow?

Whether humans are born good or evil has been debated by philosophers for centuries. Aristotle argued that morality is learned, and that we’re born as “amoral creatures” while Sigmund Freud considered new-borns a moral blank slate. Anyone who has read “Lord of the Flies” will expect children to be fully-fledged sociopaths just waiting to be freed from their adult-imposed shackles to (spoiler alert) start a cult and brutally attempt to kill each other.

Maybe the two most famous opposing views on this debate are those of Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Hobbes describes humans as ‘nasty’ and ‘brutish’, needing society and rules to reign in their instincts in order to thrive; later Rousseau openly criticised him, arguing instead that man would be gentle and pure without the corruption of greed and inequality caused by the class system imposed by our society.

However, developmental psychology studies show there may be some natural “good” in humanity (or, to be more technical, that at least kids are capable of passing moral judgements at an earlier age than previously thought).

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To do this, babies less than a year old were made to watch a puppet show where different coloured shapes acted in ways that were clearly recognisable as morally right or wrong. A red circle is shown struggling to climb a hill while an “evil” blue square tries to push it back down. Meanwhile, “good” yellow triangle attempts to help the red circle by pushing it up.

After the play, the babies were asked which shape they wanted to play with: evil blue square or good yellow triangle. As you may have guessed, they all picked the latter, the triangle that exhibited ‘helpful’ and ‘selfless’ behaviour. This applied even for babies as young as seven months.

The scene replicates the findings of a 2010 study from the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University, which went further to prove that babies were choosing the puppets because of their actions rather than other variables (for example, an innate preference or familiarity with a certain colour or shape). When the show was replayed with the shapes taking on the opposite role, the infants still mostly chose the shape that had taken on the role of the ‘helper’.

devil and angel egg
People have long debated if we are born bad and 'civilised' by society - or the reverse. © Blackred | Getty

A 2017 study from Kyoto University had a similar approach and findings to the puppet study, seemingly confirming these results. Children as young as six months were shown videos featuring three Pacman-like characters, called ‘agents’: a ‘victim’, a ‘bully’ bumping aggressively against the victim and squashing it into a wall, and a ‘third party’ agent. The third-party agent would sometimes intervene to help the victim by putting itself between the victim and the bully, and would sometimes flee instead. After watching the video, children had to choose their preferred character and most chose the intervening third-party agent who had tried to help the victim.

Other studies have also shown babies exhibit altruistic behaviour, like the ‘Big Mother Study’ from Harvard, where infants who didn’t know they were being observed still acted kind and were helpful to others, suggesting that this isn’t just a learned behaviour to avoid punishment or scrutiny.

While these studies can’t completely disprove Freud and Hobbes’ more pessimistic views on human nature, they do seem to suggest that babies are naturally inclined to prefer altruistic behaviour and that parents can be fairly confident that, while leaving their children on a desert island is probably still not the best idea, they at least won’t try to squash the weakest one with a rock (sorry, William Golding).

Featured image © Image Source | Getty

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