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To What Extent Are Morals Developed Before Birth?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 4562 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Morality is the ability to judge right from wrong and good from bad (Nugent). However, it is hard to limit morality to one specific definition. According to the University of Stanford, morality can be looked at in two different ways. It can be defined as a set of rules put out by a society or group that an individual accepts (the descriptive definition). Another way morality can be looked at as a code of behavior that all people who are rational should follow (the normative definition).

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 The descriptive definition of morality was more common during the 20th century. Descriptive morality definition leads to the creation of countries’ laws. It is a code of conduct that is seen as “morally” correct. It leads to people guiding their moral definitions towards not hurting other people. When looking at morality described in a descriptive way, one must specify which culture it is. A person could be moral in American culture, but not be considered moral in Asian culture. The descriptive definition of morality can steer morals towards loyalty to a group or it could mean the well-being of everyone.

 On the contrary, the normative definition of morality means all rational people could agree with the principles of behavior. This definition of morality considers a person morally right if they are happy and make other people happy. Normative morality is something that is widespread and not defined by one specific group. It is something that is seen as a system of norms that everyone knows, and it is not set by any one group or culture. Normative morals are not defined by sets of laws or rules. This definition of morality focuses more on rational responses. There are theories of normative morality that define morality as a natural law. The theories view morality as something humans have always had.

 Morality, specifically normative morality, can be defined as a sense of right or wrong that is accepted by all humans. Actions such as helping, recognizing fairness, and being kind are considered universally as good moral actions. For centuries scientists and philosophers have pondered about whether humans came with morals. Some psychologists felt that babies are born with a moral core and therefore have morals. Some scientists such as Darwin and Frans de Waal argue that morals developed through evolution. Others have said that humans are born knowing nothing about right and wrong and their morals develop later in life. This paper aims to explain to what extent morals are developed before birth.

 Morals are important because we live in a society in which people are judged based on good or bad and right or wrong actions. Laws in countries are based on what is deemed as morally correct. For example, stealing is seen as morally wrong, so there is a law against it. Without what humans call morals, people in life would be self centered and there would be no order. However, there are people within history that have acted morally wrong. By pinpointing when and where morals developed, society as a whole can have a better understanding of humans as moral beings.

1. Morality is innate in Humans


Some theories say that humans’ morals are developed as a result of evolution. Other theories find it in parts of children’s brains and other say morals are genetically inherited. Morality is innate because from birth humans are able to tell right from wrong and good from bad.

The idea that morals were developed before birth first developed from Charles Darwin. He looked at morality from an evolutionary perspective. He saw morality as a social activity. Animals showed good social behaviors and through natural selection, the traits continued to be passed down. Primatologist Frans de Waal agreed with Darwin’s perspective. He looks at human morality by studying monkeys, who are humans’ closest ancestors. He argues even though morality is strictly human, it develops from our predecessors. By studying the closest evolutionary ancestors to humans, it can be deduced that humans have always had moral tendencies. To de Waal, morality is a result of sympathy, empathy, sharing, and conflict resolution. These four traits form the basis for morality, in a normative sense, to be natural in humans. Before modern humans developed, these traits were present, and when the modern human evolved, the word morality and moral rules were based on these natural tendencies. 

He performed observational studies with chimpanzees and capuchins that show them behaving with what he calls psychological altruism. This is the willingness to do things for others without thinking of the immediate benefit. De Waal cites his observation of a chimpanzee helping another mentally disabled chimpanzee out with a tire even though the chimpanzee did not have to help (Kitcher). Psychological altruism is an example of the empathic abilities of animals. Since these are present in monkeys it is deduced that empathy is in our nature.

 To test the theory that children had a natural empathetic response, a study was conducted by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello (Smith). They put a toddler in a room with his mother and another stranger. This stranger walked in with full hands and tried to open a closet door but couldn’t get it open. While trying to open the closet door, the toddler was watching the stranger struggle. Without any urging from the adults, about half of the toddlers got up and helped the person that was struggling. Warneken and Tomasello found it unusual because normally toddlers would avoid dealing with strangers. They explained this as children having morals in them inherently and having a want to do what is right. This study is beneficial because it proves that humans by nature are empathetic beings. Even though children tend to be scared of strangers, they will are willing to help because they are biologically predisposed to help. This study shows that morality is developed before birth because these young, toddler aged children, have one of the basic evolutionary foundations for modern morality in them. From an evolutionary perspective acting in “good” morals would be instinctual.

 De Waal’s theory is limited however because his studies are qualitative and performed on animals. Because he studies animals, it is complicated to study the extent that they could empathize with other animals. There might be some expectation of a return of the favor lent. In addition, the extent of the good morals of animals is limited. Animals could only be good to members of their families. They could also behave in a certain way because they realize that harmony is necessary for survival not because they feel empathy. It is hard to pinpoint the intentions of animals. Additionally, Warneken’s study is limited because the participants in the study are toddler aged children that have had time to be influenced by their parents and the people around them. There is a question of ecological validity because the child could have acted in a way they thought was expected of them. If it was a different environment, they may have acted differently. Nevertheless, it provides insight into how morals are innate.

 A person that has morality is also able to recognize good behavior from bad behavior. It was the common acceptance that babies couldn’t tell right from wrong until they were old enough to be influenced by the adults. This is due to the belief that babies did not consider nor recognize good and bad actions. There are studies emerging that demonstrate the capabilities of babies to see right from wrong. These studies show that babies have a moral sense and prefer people that act with good behavior over people that act with bad behavior.

 This theory that babies are born with a moral sense was proven through an experiment done at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale by a researcher named Bloom. Bloom and his team conducted a study on six to ten month year old babies by doing a morality play (Smith). The babies would watch a puppet attempt to push a ball up a hill. Then the babies would see two different situations. In one situation another puppet would come and help the first puppet push the ball. In the other situation, the second puppet would come and delay the process by pushing the ball down the hill. After the babies saw both situations, researchers would present them with a choice between the two puppets, either the good or the bad one. In all cases for all ages, the babies would choose the nice puppet. This means that the babies could tell which puppet had done wrong and which one was in the right. To make sure the babies didn’t just dislike the bad puppet, they introduced a neutral puppet that didn’t help nor hinder the first puppet. They then found that the babies were more partial to the neutral puppet than to the bad puppet and preferred the good puppet to the neutral puppet. The babies could tell which puppet was right and were able judgments on a moral basis to determine that they liked the puppet that was in the right.

 Bloom even conducted the study on babies as young as three months. Even though the babies couldn’t reach the puppets they would always look towards the good puppet. This study was repeated by Dr. Karen Wynn with stuffed bunnies (Chun). She found that eighty percent of babies would reach for the good bunny. To avoid any chances of color preference, she made sure to switch the colors that the puppets were wearing.

These studies are important because they show that babies have to ability to recognize kindness and fairness before they can speak, both aspects that go into having a good morality. These studies are beneficial because the babies involved in the study have yet to be influenced by societal opinions of good or bad. They alone recognized a good action, meaning they instinctually knew it.  Bloom argues that moral awareness develops before birth, however, it is limited. Babies have a small understanding of good and bad and it can be easily influenced by the adults in their lives. His findings are also limited because it is hard to understand the extent that a baby considers good or bad. At any moment a baby could be influenced by bad actions and see them as morally good.

2. Other Theories on the Development of Morals


 The development of morals can be looked at from a cognitive perspective. This is explained through Piaget’s Theory of Morality (1932).  Cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget argues morality has two different stages in the brain. Morals develop while the child’s cognitive abilities develop. The aim of his research was to show how children’s morals and their moral judgment developed as they aged. He concluded that young children have “heteronomous morality” in which they are able to recognize that rules of right and wrong come from an authority and relate to reward and punishment. It is then later that they develop “autonomous morality” in which they further develop what they find right and wrong based on their own understanding (Piaget). Piaget came to these conclusions by giving children different scenarios that were very similar and the asking who was naughtier. This helps psychologists further understand how we judge moral actions.

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 Piaget’s Theory of Morality starts at the age of five and goes to the age of nine. This is what Piaget calls heteronomous morality. Between these ages, children think that rules are absolute. They based their good and bad off of what other’s rules say good and bad is. These morals are imposed upon children from the outside. A child will think something is morally wrong if their parents or the world around them says it is wrong. Also, children see things as bad if the consequences are worse. For example, if they see a child make a big mess because they accidentally spilled their juice they would think that child did something worse than a child that purposely spilled a little bit of their juice. This is due to the fact that children think the bigger mess is worse despite the intention of it being an accident. At this stage, they make their decisions to do something based on how big the punishment will be from the people around them.

 The next stage of Piaget’s morality starts around the age of nine to ten and continues throughout adult life. Cognitively a child has lost the egocentric viewpoint of life. The child is having logical thoughts along with abstract reasoning. Piaget calls this stage autonomous morality. In this stage, children realize rules are not completely set. They make judgments of good and bad based on personal conclusions. Because they are no longer egocentric they can think of other’s perspectives and reasoning for their actions. This means that when evaluating whether something is moral they consider the intentions of the action. Giving them the same scenario from earlier, they would consider the child who made the smaller mess in the wrong because the child intended to make that mess. Adults are included in this stage as well. This is where morals get more complicated because adult morals based on their experiences and what they personally feel is correct. This is how people end up with more diverse morals.

 Piaget’s Theory of Moral Development is beneficial because it provides insight into how the brain evaluates moral situations. This theory tells that morality is based on the way a person thinks. The theory challenges morals as being innate because, from a cognitive perspective, a baby wouldn’t be thinking about whether their actions are good or bad.  It relies more on a person’s ability to think about an action and make sound judgments about other’s actions.  It does not address what the individual thinks of its own moral actions. This theory also does not specify how the individual would react in certain moral situations. Also, it does not consider a person’s ability to feel empathy or to sympathize with others. Despite that, this theory has value because it explains why people end up with different definitions of what is considered moral.

 However, Piaget’s way of coming to his conclusion is flawed. Piaget relied on observations and clinical interviews. These are qualitative research methods.  It is hard to generalize results from qualitative research methods because they are hard to replicate. With limited replication, the conclusions from the study may only apply to a specific group. Also, Piaget is known to ask questions in ways that confuse children. This made it so children could have been in another stage earlier than what he accounted for. Psychologist Nelson (1980) argues that children at age three are able to make moral judgments if the story is simple enough for them to understand.

 Kohlberg’s Theory of Morality is another attempt to explain the way morals develop in humans. This theory is developed by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg. His theory further explains Piaget’s theory of how morals develop in humans. To explain his theory he conducted interviews with moral dilemmas included. The aim was for him to see why people answered the way they did to the questions he asked. He splits moral development into three main categories with two stages per category (W.C Crain).

The first category is described as pre-conventional morality. This includes his first stage called obedience and punishment orientation followed by his second stage called individualism and exchange. In the first stage, morality is based on rules imposed by adults that have to be obeyed. The second stage explains good moral behavior as something that benefits the individual. If a person’s actions benefit themselves than they are morally right. The next category, Kohlberg calls conventional morality. This category includes stages three called good interpersonal relationships and four called law and order. During stage three children are in their early teenage years. They believe people should act with good motives and display love and empathy for others. Stage four is when morality is based on maintaining the social order and following laws. Someone who has good morals follows the laws. The last category is post-conventional morality. It includes stage five called social contract and individual rights and the final stage called universal principles. People in stage five are normally adults who are able to put aside what benefits society and look whether a moral action violates or helps an individual’s rights. The sixth stage is where a person believes there should be rules that protect the individual rights of everyone and that any issues should be solved through democratic processes to ensure fairness (Kohlberg).

 Kohlberg’s theory of morality is beneficial because it explains that morality is a result of how people think about a situation. According to his findings, morals is not something that just develops from social influences or from the mental capabilities of a person. It is based on the thought processes that a person has when looking at a moral action. Not every adult makes it to the last stage of moral thinking but has the capability to change if someone questions their moral standing. For example, two adults can be having a conversation about someone who has done something wrong. One of them says that the person deserves to be punished based solely on the reason that it was against the law. The other person explains that the laws are not always morally “right” because they could violate a person’s rights. This will make the first person re-evaluate their moral views and now their morals have developed further. It also goes into further detail so now morality is understood into adulthood. This theory is limited though. It only focuses on how people judge morality and not how they make moral decisions about their own actions. People make judgments and say that people should act a certain way, but they do not always act in a way that reflects their views. There is not a certain connection between moral thoughts and moral actions.

 Kohlberg’s original studies are also limited because of how he conducted the study to prove his theory. He only asked boys that were aged ten, thirteen, and sixteen. These boys were close in age so it does not take into account the young child perspective or the adult perspective. Boys also tend to have different perspectives when approaching a situation than a girl would. Because of this, his theories cannot be generalized for all humans instead it is more for males. Psychologist Carolyn Gilligan (1982) mentions how women tend to be more relationship oriented than men and think with more compassion (W.C. Crain). This would place women in the third stage of Kohlberg’s morality stages as opposed to me who would be considered to have a “higher” moral standing. His later studies, conducted in 1963 and 1970, included both boys and girls with a wider range of ages. This made his findings a little more inclusive.

 Another limitation of Kohlberg’s theory is in both of the post-conventional stages. His post-conventional stages theorize that morality should consider the rights of the individual and rules should be based off protecting individual rights. This is a westernized way of looking at morality. Psychologist Simpson (1974) highlights that Kohlberg’s theory does not take into account that eastern and traditional cultures might not have the same view of the individual (W.C. Crain). Because of this, Kohlberg’s post-conventional stage cannot apply to humans across all cultures. People that belong to other cultures might develop beyond conventional morality, but since it does not line up with Kohlberg’s definition of post-conventional, they stay in the conventional stage.



 The development of morals can be looked at from an evolutionary standpoint. By studying animals there are traits present that show morality as innate. However, there are other theories that argue morals are developed later on in life due to the cognitive aspect of moral thinking. This lead to the investigation of to what extent morals are developed before birth. To analyze this question, an evolutionary theory, Piaget’s theory of morality, and Kohlberg’s theory of morality were looked at.

According to Darwin and Frans de Waal, morals developed from times of natural selection while humans were evolving. They noticed these tendencies by looking at humans’ closest ancestors, chimpanzees (Flack). By observing their behavior de Waal was able to come to the conclusion that animals demonstrated traits such as empathy, sympathy and conflict resolution. These traits create the basis for what modern humans consider good morals.  The presence of these traits in monkeys, who were previously ancestors with humans, means the traits are present in humans also. This can be shown in the study conducted by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello. Their study shows little children empathizing and helping strangers even though toddlers tend to be scared of strangers. This helps prove that morals are innate because helping others came as a natural occurrence.

On the other hand, morals can be developed after birth. Piaget (1932) decided to look at this from a cognitive perspective. Cognitively, a young child would not have the mental capacity to think about morals. They also would not be thinking about whether their actions are good or bad. He says moral awareness develops around the age of five where morals are based on the rules that adults create. Rules are unchangeable and morals are shaped by adults. Then he theorizes that children who reach the age of ten to eleven are able to define morals on their own. This is because they are is cognitively able to think more logical. Off of Piaget’s theory, Kohlberg’s theory of morality emerges. He breaks moral development into six stages that fit into pre-conventional,  conventional, and post-conventional morality.

However, the alternate theories of morality are flawed. Piaget gathered his data through qualitative research which is hard to generalize. Piaget also tended to ask questions in a way children could not understand. When Kohlberg conducted his studies, he only asked boys in the study. This proposed a problem because girls have different ways of thinking about morals dilemmas. In addition, Kohlberg had a westernized way of moral thinking. Piaget and Kohlberg’s theories also have issues because they address the development of the way people think about morals and not how people act morally.

In conclusion, to a mild extent, morals are developed from birth. There is not enough evidence to make an accurate conclusion that morals are fully developed before birth. Due to traits inherited through evolution, there is a basis for moral actions and judgments but the extent of development is limited. Due to the cognitive approach of morality, morals aren’t developed until the brain is able to think about morals. Taking that into account, morals aren’t just a result of evolution. More studies with babies are emerging in moral situations. In the future, it raises the possibility of creating a new theory for moral development based on actions.


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