Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

How there's a lesson for us all in the world seen through eyes of a child

Once I watched my baby sister, eight years my junior, marvel at the antics of a Punch & Judy performance on the seafront, and pondered how she, and the other spectators so young, could cheer for Judy and jeer at the puppet's other half: in short, tell who was the good guy and who the bad.

Watch a baby the next time you are in its company: at six months old he or she will reach for those in a room who offer them comfort and sustenance, most often the parent. By a year, say, they will turn away from, and not offer their toy to, the bad guy – most likely the infrequent visitor, the casual caller.

Morality or, at any rate, the roots of it, seems to come naturally to a baby, as if it has been hardwired through evolution, so that they can 'tell' good from bad. That at least is the argument running through a new book, Just Babies: The Origins Of Good And Evil by Paul Bloom (£14.99), a professor of psychology at Yale, who belittles the belief that babies are born without any sense of morals – and that parents, teachers and Church leaders have to beat such in to us – proposing instead that we are all born "possessing an innate and universal morality".

In an accessible style, Bloom draws on his research into many societies, including our ancient ancestors, those hunter-gatherers of old. And he tackles the moral claims of philosophy and religion, arguing that the natural selection of evolution instilled in us the foundations for moral thought and action.

While 'kindness to kin' is pretty obvious, given that for most of us blood is thicker than water, Bloom draws on Darwin to support his belief that when individuals share the same outlook, the same common good, then the group – all the individuals together – thrive and prosper. Goodness brings its own reward.

Babies' moral generosity, however, seems solely parochial, as research shows babies favour the familiar from almost the word go. (I would have thought that was a no-brainer, doh!) At just a few days old, babies, for example, quicken their sucking on a dummy or bottle when listening to the sound and voice of their mother, not so the father, nor a stranger.

And Bloom further shows that in developing a preference for those nearest and dearest, Caucasian babies prefer Caucasian faces, Asian babies prefer Asian faces. Tellingly, in mixed communities, most babies don't show any preference.

Despite the 'face preference', by age three the race of a playmate does not matter to a child. (The Media Initiative For Children in Northern Ireland, formerly NIPPA, is currently running a campaign in the media highlighting diversity in the early-learning years.) I live in a very mixed community, an hour over the border, and see this every day; the kids not caring about their playmate's curly hair, the young teenagers, when first love blooms, walking hand-in-hand from school, all of which I find joyous and heartening, and boding well for the future. Something the adult dissidents and flag-wavers of this province could learn a thing or two from.

Of course, the problem with Professor Bloom's contention is this: if babies are born with an innate sense of morality, why do some 'turn' when no longer toddlers, why do others become racist?

Is the 'good behaviour' of babies the same as adult morality? I think not.

Babies may well be born endowed with a sense of morality but this has to be built on by parents and teachers – and some fail utterly as we see with so many young inveigled into rioting because of their elders' prejudices. For the better part of what becomes adult morality draws on what the tenets of Christianity call 'Man's capacity for reason'.

Back then at that Punch & Judy show with my baby sister, I was some years past the 'age of reason' – that age when the Catholic Church, in having allowed me to make my first confession, believed I was old enough to tell right from wrong.

But on that same holiday, one day in Woolworth's on the High Street, I saw a at the back of the store a large container of wicker baskets which were all the fashion then for little girls, and grabbed one and ran as fast as my legs could carry me, proffering it to my sister, much to the alarm of my father who there and then branded me a thief, before returning the basket to its rightful place – unnoticed, thank goodness.

I had seen nothing wrong in helping myself to what I had reasoned was a container of goods about to be binned.

It seems my reasoning was off-kilter.

I think the same could be said for a lot of us today.

And if we had more reason, we'd have less conflict.

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