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, psychologists are finding that humans aren’t a blank slate at birth. As Paul Bloom, the author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil concludes, “With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone.”

This aspect Christians already acknowledge, though in some ways, it may seem contrary to tabula rasa theory and those who prefer a nurture perspective when it comes to personality and character formation. However, a balanced reading of the evidence shows the early glimmer of a moral foundation in babies, not a complex understanding of morality.

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In one of Bloom’s first studies, researchers acted out a scene for babies using manipulated physical shapes like puppets: A yellow square helped a circle up a hill; a red triangle pushed it down. After the show, the experimenter placed both the helper square and the hinderer triangle on a tray and brought it to the babies, ages 6 and 10 months, and found that infants overwhelmingly preferred the helper. Karen Wynn and Kiley Hamlin also found that infants prefer individuals who are nice to individuals who are mean.

Next, Bloom explored whether older babies and toddlers’ preferences had anything to do with moral judgement in a more mature sense. Could this begin to answer when kids intentionally behave either good or bad?

Along with colleagues, Bloom exposed 21-month-olds to the same good guy/bad guy scenarios, and then gave them an opportunity to either give a treat or take a treat away from a character. When asked to “give,” toddlers tended to give to the good character; when asked to “take,” toddlers tended to take from the bad character.

Despite the results, Bloom cautions us to interpret babies’ actions to mean that children understand moral subtleties. While children don’t seem to lack a sense of right and wrong, he says that this natural moral sense can still diverge from what adults might think it ought to be.

Bloom notes that evolutionary father Alfred Russel Wallace believed that a godly force must have intervened in human evolution since the “higher moral faculties” were higher than what you would expect through evolutionary biology.

But even though justice and generosity and caring about strangers, animals, or the environment are present in humans, these traits aren’t present in babies, and they still have to be nurtured.

Further, while babies do possess some sense of right and wrong, they do not necessarily understand morality in the context of options—Instead of choosing to do something wrong, I could have chosen to do something right. What’s more, infants don’t understand why something might be wrong.

“Their sympathetic reactions and motivations—including their desire to alleviate the pain of others—may not be much different in kind from purely nonmoral reactions and motivations like growing hungry or wanting to void a full bladder,” wrote Bloom.

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It’s gut-reaction morality. Bloom notes that this shouldn’t be too alien to adults: “While we adults possess the additional critical capacity of being able to consciously reason about morality, we’re not otherwise that different from babies—our moral feelings are often instinctive. In fact, one discovery of contemporary research in social psychology and social neuroscience is the powerful emotional underpinning of what we once thought of as cool, untroubled, mature moral deliberation.”

Measuring moral maturity

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has famously argued that moral reasoning is often simply justification following our behavior. Adults can easily explain why we shouldn’t drive drunk or why we should hold the door for someone on crutches, explained Bloom. People, even children, use reasoning to wrestle with moral dilemmas—explaining everything from vegetarianism to abortions.

For Christians, what’s remarkable about these findings might not be what it says about babies, but what it tells us about adults. Similar to how Jesus encouraged adults to receive the kingdom like children (Mark 10:14), what psychology tells us is that adult morality still sits on the same moral foundation we had as kids. Adult morality is often like a child’s—reactive at first, then reasoned.

When one flips the age question toward the adult years, it becomes quite reflective: Is adulthood the fulfillment of moral development? At what age is one capable of fully grasping either the depths of their sin or the wonders of real love? Am I accountable for even the wrong I do not know that I do? (Romans 7)

Considering the limited nature of even adult morality, it appears there’s no answer but grace, as New Testament and Greek professor Alex Bandy suggests.

Furthermore, God’s grace to us even extends to our moral foundation. Bloom writes, “If we didn’t start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest.”

­The moral foundation, however unformed, is part of what makes us human. Christians can agree somewhat with Wallace that there’s “a godly force” that interfered in human moral development. But we know it to be the grace of a Father who nurtures our growth as we pursue those “higher moral faculties.”

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