Human Morality: Are We Born Good or Evil?

By Isabelle Ho
Published on February 20th, 2021

Chinese philosopher Mengzi believed that humans are born with good instincts, but temptations in society distort our intuitive morality. In contrast, Western philosopher John Locke proposed the theory of a “Blank Slate”, meaning infants are born lacking morality and are instead, nurtured by environmental factors. If we were to propose a hybrid of both philosophies despite their contradictions, we would conclude that humans are either adulterated or nurtured by society. Fortunately, a scientific approach to the origins of human morality was discovered earlier this century.

“The Baby Lab” is an experiment targeting babies from three to five months old to determine whether infants have a sense of justice and basic morality. For example, a puppet show where a puppet struggled to open a toy box was portrayed. The play was repeated twice, wherein one case, another puppet came in to help, while in the second, another puppet would slam the box shut. The baby would then choose between the “good” or “bad” puppet. Experimental results showed that over 80% of the babies preferred the helpful puppet. A follow-up experiment was also done to test if babies sought punishment for the “bad” puppet. The puppet show was repeated, but it was the “bad” puppet who struggled to unlatch the toy box. 81% of the babies now preferred the puppet who slammed the box shut. Therefore, scientists concluded that humans were born with a sense of justice, where wrongdoers in society deserve condemnation. It was deduced that we are born with good instincts and equipped with the ability to prevail against injustice.

However, if we are born with concepts of morality as opposed to being a “blank slate”, where does the evil in society come from? Why do greed, injurious acts, and criminal offenses such as theft, murder, or rape still exist? Are offenders in society the 20% of babies who favored the “bad” puppet, or does society misshapen our values of justice?

Despite our intuitive morality, we were also born with the sense of bias and discrimination. We want people who are different from us to be treated differently, which in most cases, means to be treated unfairly. “The Baby Lab” scientists conducted another experiment to test this statement. Firstly, the baby chose one out of two kinds of snacks. Then, two other puppets who preferred the different snacks respectively were exhibited. Almost all babies chose the puppet with the same preference as them. Lastly, the same puppet show with the toy box was put on, where the struggling puppet was the one with a different choice from the baby. This proves that even at a young age, we do have hold biases. Not only do we stand with those who concede our perspectives, but we also desire those who are disparate from us to be treated differently. I believe this is due to our instinct presuming our superiority to others unlike us. Whenever people contradict our beliefs, our initial reaction is defense because we deem other’s thoughts as wrong or peripheral. In addition to this, we are also made to think that they deserve inferior treatment compared to us for not concurring with our outlooks.

To link these results with our society, prominent issues such as discrimination can be explained. To raise the simplest example, the basis of racial discrimination is also attributed to conflict of viewpoints. Dating back to the 17th century, the origin of racial discrimination was due to Europeans’ belief that their race was superior. The simple concept of “I’m right, you’re wrong; I’m better, you’re worse” can be portrayed in the case of racial discrimination. This is also an example of ethnocentrism, causing negative judgments on the behavior of the Africans. As the Europeans bore their racial supremacy, they carried out punishments to the Africans in the form of slavery. This is merely a societal example of a baby’s decision to punish the puppet that held contradicting opinions.

“The Baby Lab” experiments have proved that humans are most likely born with good instincts, making it natural for us to commit good deeds. However, we may be lured by temptations, bias, and selfishness. This is where the great debate of “nature versus nurture” comes in. Neurologists believe natural predisposition primarily determines our behaviors and potential, while sociologists are inclined to believe socialization and our upbringing are the primary factors. A similar experiment to “The Baby Lab” ones were conducted with six to ten-year-old children. They were given three choices: get one prize but leave none for others, get two prizes just like everyone else, or receive just one prize while others can receive more. The younger kids chose the first option, eight-year-olds chose the second, while nine and ten-year-olds chose the latter. The experiment displayed the essence of nurture. Selfishness and bias are in human nature, causing younger kids to want more for themselves. Fortunately, education shapes us and instills our heads with moral virtues such as generosity and altruism.

It is apparent that humans have moral instincts, but they may be overwhelmed by our natural negative tendencies. The most evident explanation behind wrongdoers in society would be that, like the 20% of babies preferring the “bad” puppet, they do not have an intuitive sense of justice, or that their upbringing failed to nurture them into “good” people.

However, there are also some flaws in this experiment. For example, would external factors such as the color of the puppet’s clothing (e.g. babies prefer the color yellow) affect the child’s decision? Also, there are doubts regarding whether or not the baby has fully developed thinking skills allowing them to decide which puppet is “good” or “bad”. These factors may reduce the reliability of “The Baby Lab” experiments.

Therefore, I believe the experimental results should be taken as a reference instead of a definite answer to the origins of human morality. We still cannot be sure of whether humans are born either good or bad, and there is no answer to the cause of “evil” in society. Yet, it is clear that as much as nature determines our character or morals, nurture still plays a vital role in shaping who we grow up to be.

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