The Big Question
Blank Disk or Software Included: Are We Born with Ethics and Morals? by Sofiy Inck

Artwork © Kheng Ho Toh/Dreamstime.com

Are we born with morality? Do we have a sense of right or wrong from day one? Or are we just blank canvases that society paints on? If put in an extreme situation, could an ordinary person grow up to be a psychopath?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ethics are “moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior” whereas morality is defined as “the extent to which an action is right or wrong.” Ethics are specific to one group of people, while morality implies moral principles that relate to human beings more generally. For example stealing in general is considered bad and killing people is considered worse. Being kind is good and self-sacrificing even better.

At the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University, scientists are running studies to see if babies have an innate sense of good and evil. What they do is they show babies of about six months of age a puppet show. In one show they have a puppet trying to climb up a hill, but he can’t get up it. Then another puppet comes along that helps him up. Then they show it again but instead of the puppet helping him, a different puppet appears and pushes the first puppet down the hill. They run through this cycle six to fourteen times, alternating between the puppet being helped by one puppet and pushed down by another. They then “ask” the infant to choose between the good puppet and the bad puppet. Around 80 percent of the time the infant will choose the good puppet over the one that pushed the other puppet down the hill. Of course the scientists have to consider tons of other variables that could be in play when the baby chooses a puppet, like what color shirt they are wearing or whether they think this puppet is cuter then the other, etc. Since the babies are around six months old, the scientists must also consider the extent to which the babies are already slightly influenced by society. In spite of these factors, and considering the results of related studies, researchers at the Yale lab theorize that babies do have an innate sense of good and evil.

However you don’t need puppets or science labs to notice these things for yourself.

I’ve interacted with a lot of babies in my life. I am the oldest cousin on both sides of my family and the first child born in my parent’s group of friends. Because I am the oldest I am also the designated babysitter. As long as I have the nature/nurture question in mind and the children to study, I might as well have my own Infant Cognition Center of sorts, here’s one observation I have made.

I do think that we are born with empathy. That is, we are born with a very basic understanding of other people’s emotions.

I was at a family friend’s house a few weeks ago having dinner and I saw one of the younger girls chasing the cat around. Whenever she caught him, she would hit him on the head. The cat would run away and she would crack up. I approached her and asked what she and the cat were doing. She said that they were playing a game; I explained to her that it hurt the cat if you hit him on the head. She said okay and asked me if I wanted to play a different game with her. One might say that the reason that she stopped hitting the cat was because she was bored with the game. However, I think empathy played a role. Let’s say hypothetically, she fell down two days ago and her mom asked her “where does it hurt.” From then on, she will associate the word “hurt” with the pain she felt when she fell down. So when I told her to stop hitting the cat because it hurts him, she associated the word with the feeling of pain she had felt, and because she was born with empathy, she does not want to cause unnecessary hurt to others.

When I explained this situation to a friend, she said that the girl I had talked to might have stopped tormenting the cat not because she empathized with the cat, but rather because she didn’t want me to be upset with her. I agreed, but that only further proved my point. If she had noticed that I was upset with her she would have had to notice the emotion I was portraying in my voice and through the expression on my face. She would have understood how it felt to be me, angry with her and then not want me to be angry. So once again we have a young child who has empathy.

Based on my own experience and the research that I have read about I do think that we are born with empathy. That is, we are born with a very basic understanding of other people’s emotions. However, saying that we are born with empathy is not that same as saying that we are born with a sense of right and wrong, and honestly I’m not sure if we are. I do think, though, that empathy helps us from the second we are born to build our own set of moral standards. From day one we are watching how the people around us react to certain situations and from our social observations we get our sense of right and wrong. Maybe we are building on morals we are born with and maybe not, but either way empathy helps us build up our morals and develop as human beings.

Sofiy Inck

 

Sofiy Inck lives in Brooklyn, NY with her sister, parents and two huge cats. Around the corner from her house live Ruby, Jasper, Orna and Nigel with two smaller cats.
Artwork © Kheng Ho Toh/Dreamstime.com
  1. Hi Sofiy –

    Wow, I love these questions! I had no idea you were thinking so deeply while sitting your cousins. Keep up the great work.

    Love, An Anonymous Relative

  2. Hey Sofiy, not only will you be a writer, but a psychologist, too. Love and kisses from an admirer in your family.

  3. Sofiy
    Your observations on this topic are very thought provoking. I really like the smart, consistent methodology you use to support your position on empathy and morality. Such a fascinating and meaningful dialogue to be having with oneself and others. I applaud you both for engaging with it yourself and sharing it with others.
    I especially like the way your logic, argument and curiosity shine out as genuine attempts to understand and grapple with such complex human issues rather than assuming, as others might, an opinionated or judgmental stance.
    I love too the ever-so hip and witty title and the fact that you chose kids as empirical evidence for your opinions. You write very naturally, invitingly and with a lot of empathy for your reader!
    Great job.
    Best wishes from Nigel (down the road!).

  4. So thought provoking and well written Sofiy! I agree saying that we are born with empathy is not that same as saying that we are born with a sense of right and wrong. I believe people often struggle with making the “right” decisions weather it is be about being kind towards animals or giving to charity. This is not an innate feeling but rather a learned behavior. Thank you for inspiring me with your words.

    xo Your Aunt in China

  5. Sofiy–Your article was most interesting, thought provoking and educational. Your “research” was a great attempt to prove your points and I applaud that you tackled a topic which is subject to differing interpretations. I will save the article with your poetry and other articles– an not so anonymous relative

  6. Sofiy, your maturity in thinking and writing amazes me. Morality and Empathy are very complex topics! Keep up the great work.
    xo from a Grandmother in Cleveland.

  7. Hi Sofiy

    Interesting subject and well-written article.

    xo,

    Linn (down the road from your auntie in China)

  8. Sofiy-
    Wow!
    I loved the way you expressed the way you felt about empathy on both younger kids, friends of yours and adults. I aslo loved how you found a way to make people feel what you are feeling through your writing. I could really see your point of view!
    Lots of Love,
    Ruby (your neighbor)

  9. Hey Sofiy,
    I loved what you wrote. All the examples helped me understand the story more. Thanks so much,
    xoxoxoxo
    Hannah

  10. I am amazed by how well you are able to articulate such complex thoughts. You should be very proud! Awesome work. xo

    Aunt Stephanie

  11. I am proud of you, Soffiy. Deep thoughts, beautifully expressed. Perhaps the most outstanding line in your article was the artful segue: “However you don’t need puppets or science labs to notice these things for yourself” What a marvelous look back at the preceding paragraphs and a look forwqard to the thoughts to folloow. WELL DONE! Love, Grudy

  12. Sofiy: I agree with the central importance of empathy. We have all experienced interactions with people who have no clue how we are reacting to their behavior These people we try to avoid. It seems to me that without empathy, it is a short step to sociopathic behavior. Your article does a fine job of making the reader think through the relations between morality, ethics and empathy. You are right in focusiing on the connection between these three concepts. Another fine article — keep them coming!! Wes

  13. I was so lucky to witness you read this live. Incredible! Keep up the good work. Stay connected!

    -Niti Majethia