What Science Says About the Age of Accountability

The latest research on good, evil, and infants.
What Science Says About the Age of Accountability

As far back as Aristotle, philosophers have assumed that the human mind at birth is a blank slate—tabula rasa. The articulated modern theory is generally attributed to John Locke, who argued that since people are born as a blank slate, they can author the content of their soul. Psychologist Sigmund Freud further asserted that the job of society, particularly parents, is to form children into moral, civilized beings. Subscribers to this view generally favor nurture in the classic nature versus nurture debate.

The legal concept of mens rea or “guilty mind” means to define at what point a child can understand and intentionally commit a crime. The emphasis is on intentionality, not guilt. Even if guilt can be proven, intentionality must also be proven before an individual can be punished. The concept grows out of the nurture perspective—society is responsible for moral development in children.

In a parallel discussion on spiritual accountability, Christians have tended to consider whether babies have a sin nature. The emphasis is on culpability—are children capable of right and wrong? Parents know even young children are capable of behaving badly or well. Because of this, Christians have debated an age of accountability, attempting to account for how God might still save children who haven’t reached an age when they understand their sin.

Yet as modern science asks questions about babies’ morality, it helps us consider human nature as morality developed throughout our lives from infanthood to our senior years. What we find is not so black and white but a developed sense of morality resulting from a mix of nature and nurture.

Can My Baby Sin?

First, in contradiction with early philosophers, ...

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Christianity Today
What Science Says About the Age of Accountability
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June 2017

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