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Building on innate morality in babies is promising start towards nurturing human morality, says IBE Director

This year’s winner of one of the world’s most prestigious research prizes has shown that babies have real, but limited, moral sensibilities. However, these apparently innate sensibilities require nurturing with critical and rational insights if adults are to achieve a higher morality.

To learn from research that “we are born with some moral foundation that can be nurtured is really reassuring,” said Dr Mmantsetsa Marope, IBE Director. “The glass is half full from birth. It’s the collective responsibility of the human community to fill it and to let it overflow,” added Dr Marope.  She was keynote speaker in Zurich at the Klaus J. Jacobs Awards 2017, where the Jacobs Foundation distributed its annual prizes for exceptional achievements in research and practice in the field of child and youth development.

Research prize of 1 million Swiss Francs
This year’s Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize went to Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. The recipient of this annual prize receives 1 million Swiss Francs to pursue their research.  Professor Bloom’s research examines how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with a special focus on morality, and particularly explores the origins, nature and development of children’s moral thought and behaviour.

Meanwhile, War Child in the Netherlands was awarded this year’s Klaus J. Jacobs Best Practice Prize for the organisation’s global efforts to improve the lives of children exposed to war by promoting psychosocial well-being and fostering emotional resilience for their future. With the prize money, War Child will rigorously test and evaluate its programs to produce evidence-based interventions, which can be scaled up and replicated by other organizations.

Babies have primitive sense of right and wrong
Professor Bloom’s research has demonstrated that babies - some as young as 6 months - have a primitive sense of right and wrong. However, he contends that a fully developed morality is the product of culture, not biology. Reason and deliberation, he argues, make possible our more sophisticated moral discoveries, such as the wrongness of slavery. Ultimately, it is through our imagination, our compassion, and our uniquely human capacity for rational thought that we can transcend the primitive sense of morality with which we are born, so that, as adults, we become, morally, more than babies.

So, for example, almost all children care about a small circle of families and friends. However, Professor Bloom’s studies challenge researchers to develop interventions that can help children learn to care about those outside that circle, such as the new kid in class, someone who does not speak their language or follows a different religion; someone who lives in, or comes from, a distant country, or comes from a country that is a former enemy of that country.

Understanding psychology of morality can help bring peace
Dr Marope thanked Professor Bloom for his scientific contribution: “Creating this knowledge base, which stands out as a global public good, can contribute to global efforts to address one of the biggest challenges that the world faces today: attaining and sustaining global peace and security. This is at the very heart of UNESCO’s mandate.

“An appreciation of children’s moral psychology – what they know and, critically, what they need to learn – can help us promote more compassionate, inclusive, equitable, just communities that thrive in their diversity.”

Dr Marope highlighted IBE-UNESCO’s publication, “Preventing Violent Extremism through Universal Values in Curricula,” published in 2016. It details how educational systems can integrate universal values in the curriculum, so that children learn to recognize cultural differences as diverse manifestations of our universal values and shared humanity. This experience can help reduce the appeal of violent extremism.

She added: “Determining what these values should be requires intensive, mutually intelligible dialogue, underpinned with common understanding and a common language. Professor Bloom’s work in this direction is therefore profound.”