Journal Article

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Journal Article2018-04-04T14:37:00+00:00


Robert Hunsaker, MD

A graduate of Loma Linda University, Dr. Hunsaker specializes in cardiac anesthesiology.  He is currently living in the Boston area with his lovely wife Andi.

Moral Infant

in Winter 2015   |
Published on 01/14/2015   |
9 min

In previous articles, we have seen how recent research has supported the statements of inspiration from both Scripture and E.G. White. We have seen that long before science was thinking about epigenetics, behavioral genetics, and prenatal influences, the Bible was saying things like:

“Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” Ex.34:7.

And statements like,

“Behold, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and now drink no wine nor strong drink, neither eat any unclean thing: for the child shall be a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death.” Judges 13:7.

And more than a century ago, E.G. White said things like:

“children often receive the stamp of character before their birth; for the appetites of the parents are often intensified in the children. Thus unborn generations are afflicted by the use of tobacco and liquor.” {ST, October 17, 1878 par. 9}. And, “None need despair because of the inherited tendencies to evil, . .” {OHC 92.3}. And, “children inherit the dispositions and tendencies of their parents.” {PP118}.

Science and inspiration agree that we certainly “are what we eat,” think and do. We are also “what grandma and grandpa ate,” and thought and did. Choices that our parents and grandparents made are highly influential in making us who we are. Whether the influence is a few months before our birth, or a century before, research in the last few decades is lining up with inspiration.

Thus, we have looked at the epigenetic and genetic influences of previous generations in regards to how lifestyle circumstances, such as famine or times of plenty, continue to impact our physical and mental health today. We have looked at how choices and behavioral patterns in previous generations, such as aggression, anger, thrill seeking, smoking, etc, predispose us to similar ways of thinking, acting and behaving. We have seen that the choices that our parents make while we are in the womb affect us during our whole lives. And all of this attested to not just by Scripture and contemporary inspiration, but by significant amounts of contemporary research as well.

We now want to see how the epigenetic, genetic, and prenatal influences intersect with the postnatal influences. We will see again that the wisdom of Scripture and Ellen White are wonderfully supported by current research.

Inside the Infant’s Moral Mind

Only in recent decades have our research tools matured to the point where we can look into the moral natures of infants. Gone are the past ideas that infants are merely a blank slate to be written upon – an intellectual and moral “blob” of potential humanity that only eat and excrete. Instead, we will see how complex and developed the moral perceptions and choice-making abilities of infants in the first twelve months of life are.

Thomas Jefferson said in a letter to a friend: “The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree.” Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God “has put a sense of eternity” in all our hearts. This is the wise man Solomon’s way of saying that all of us have been given a conscience that has sensitivity to eternal, or moral, realities. Amazingly, this is not something that we merely develop as we perceive the environment around us and observe the decisions and consequences of others; instead, this “eternal” or moral sense is something that seems hard-wired in us, by God, from birth.

Infants around the age of 12 months can be studied and their preferences discerned in many ways. They can be observed to see what they look at for longer periods of times; this generally indicates what they like versus what they dislike (i.e. watching something for less time). And they can also be observed by what they reach for as a reflection of what they like or prefer.

A basic infant “morality” experiment is to show infants a puppet show. In the puppet show there are three characters. The puppet in the middle first rolls a ball to the puppet on one side that rolls the ball back to the puppet in the middle. The middle puppet then rolls the ball to the puppet on the other side, and this puppet takes the ball and runs away with the ball. After this, the “nice” puppet and the “mean” puppet are set in front of the infant and a treat is placed in front of both puppets and the infant is invited to take one of the treats away. Almost always, the infant takes the treat away from the “mean” or naughty puppet. Occasionally, the infant will not only take away the mean puppet’s treat, but will hit it on the head.

Clearly, the infant at 12 months of age – and even less – has a sense of right and wrong.


Another example is called the helper/hinderer experiment. This uses geometric objects with eyes (infants respond much more readily to objects with eyes than without them). A ball is portrayed as trying to get up a hill. A square is shown to assist the ball getting up the hill – the helper. Then, a triangle is shown trying to keep the ball from making it up the hill – the hinderer. Then the triangle and square are placed in front of the infant. The infant almost always reaches for the helper and almost never for the hinderer. The shapes were randomly assigned to assure that there wasn’t some sort of infant shape bias or preference. This effect of preferring the helper over the hinderer occurred down to just a few months of age.

To make the scenario slightly more complicated, the researchers introduced a fourth shape, at times, that neither helped nor hindered the ball getting up the ramp. As expected, in this scenario, the infants reached for the helper the most. But if only the neutral and hinderer were presented, they would reach for the neutral object. If only the helper and neutral were presented, they would reach for the helper. This is felt to be a fairly sophisticated lever of social and moral appreciation. The infants could differentiate between good, bad, and neutral or indifferent.

Interestingly, these are considered “disinterested” judgments. This means that the behaviors (nice versus mean puppet, or helper versus hinderer object) don’t affect the babies themselves. They were not personally affected by the behaviors – but others were. This reveals the ability at only a few months to differentiate between kindness and cruelty.

Developing the Moral Compass

While all of this seems to indicate that we are born with a moral compass by and large – a “sense of eternal realities” – (sociopaths are a separate study), it is also true that we certainly develop these moral skills as we mature. For example, babies as young as one-year show distress when they harm others, and this level of distress increases as they get older.

An interesting experiment was done in the 1930s, where an adult and child are placed in a room, and the adult forbids the child to touch or play with a toy. Then the adult leaves the room. Almost all of the one- and two- year olds played with the toy when the adult left the room. Interestingly, 60% of the 16 month olds, and 100% of the 18 month olds, showed signs of embarrassment when the adult returned – blushing, frightened expressions, etc. Twenty-one month olds tried to make things better by returning the toy to its original place, while 24 month olds tried to claim the toy as their own.

While a lot of psychology is going on here, there is a clear progression of understanding and dealing with the situation, starting with merely shame and embarrassment, progressing to an attempt to rectify the situation (putting the toy back), to attempting to justify the situation by claiming the toy as one’s own. As a side note, the parallels with the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 are hardly coincidental. First there was shame and embarrassment (they knew they were naked); then an attempt to rectify the situation (fig leaves); then, finally, an attempt to justify the situation or self-justification (Eve, or the serpent, or God is responsible).

Clearly this pattern reveals a growth in moral reasoning through the first months of life – and not always for the better, either.

What Inspiration Says

So we see that God has implanted in us, from birth, a sense of moral realities in all our hearts, a conscience, a sense of kindness versus cruelty. This moral software is then influenced by experiences starting at a very young age. But this should not come as a surprise. Scripture says that God has put a sense of eternal realities in all our hearts – Eccl.3:11. “Thus says the LORD who made you, And formed you from the womb”, Is.44:2. “And now the LORD says, Who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant”, Is.49:5. “He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb,” Lk.1:15.

God has also told us the vital role that prenatal influences have on us: “Behold, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and now drink no wine nor strong drink, neither eat any unclean thing: for the child shall be a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death”, Judges 13:7. (We have looked at this in the last two installments of our “science and inspiration” series.)

And we probably need no reminders about the influence of environment on the cultivation of a moral character. “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” Prov.22:6

Here are some statements about the importance of genetic inheritance in regards to the moral tendencies that we are born with, prenatal influences, and the influence of parents on the infant’s moral character.

“Whatever may be our inherited or cultivated tendencies to wrong, we can overcome through the power that He is ready to impart. . . .” {CH 440.1}

“None need despair because of the inherited tendencies to evil.” {1MCP 31.4}

“The effect of prenatal influences is by many parents looked upon as a matter of little moment; but heaven does not so regard it.” {AH 255.2}

Upon fathers as well as mothers rests a responsibility for the child’s earlier as well as its later training, and for both parents the demand for careful and thorough preparation is most urgent. Before taking upon themselves the possibilities of fatherhood and motherhood, men and women should become acquainted with the laws of physical development–with physiology and hygiene, with the bearing of prenatal influences, with the laws of heredity, sanitation, dress, exercise, and the treatment of disease; they should also understand the laws of mental development and moral training. . . . {CG 63.3}

“The habits formed in childhood and youth, the tastes acquired, the self-control gained, the principles inculcated from the cradle, are almost certain to determine the future of the man or woman.” {MYP 233.2}

“The word ‘education” means more than a course of study at college. Education begins with the infant in its mother’s arms.” {CG 26.1}

“Few realize the effect of a mild, firm manner, even in the care of an infant.” {HR, November 1, 1878}


These Bible verses, Spirit of Prophecy quotes, and contemporary research citations are just the tip of the iceberg in the body of evidence regarding the moral infant. We are not “tabula rasa” at birth. For generations the idea has been that we are born as blank slates, but the evidence is now strong that we are born as moral infants, just as the Bible portrayed us. God has put enmity between the serpent and us. He has put a sense of eternity and morality in our hearts. And yet, although we are not born as blank slates, powerful influences can be brought to bear on our moral, intellectual, and emotional development, influences that contribute to who we are in personality and character.

May we build on the good foundations that God and our parents have given us, and tear down whatever is out of harmony with God’s character of beneficence and unselfishness. May we keep God in our genes and in our hearts.

*“Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil”, Paul Bloom, 2013, pp1-59

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