When does morality begin?
I read a review of cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik’s book The Philosophical Baby in the New York Review of Books recently. Gopnik suggests that the relationship between an infant and his or her caregiver constitutes the beginning of morality for us, the first ethical relationship.
Carol Gilligan and others have emphasized the role of relationships as central to moral development, and the close connection between empathy and morality. Gopnik argues that our imaginative capacity, which allows us to envision the perspectives of other people, develops out of our early attachments. The attachment we have to our first caregivers is the seed from which our ethical lives develop, as we learn, to put it in simple terms, that other people have feelings too.
Gopnik explores the first five years of life, contending that this period involves states of consciousness, memory and mental life vastly different from those we experience after age 5. Our consciousness of time as involving past, present and future, and of ourselves as unified beings, remaining more or less intact from moment to moment, does not appear to form until after those early years. So our lives stem from this mysterious beginning, a time we barely remember that nevertheless played a central role in forming who we are.
This made me think about the role of ethics in children’s lives once they reach elementary school age. At this stage, most children have experienced reciprocal love with their caregivers, providing an emotional foundation for their ethical lives. Moreover, they have started to establish a sense of personal memory and consecutive time, allowing them to develop conceptions of themselves as continuous and separate beings, all essential to moral reasoning.
At this point, then, it seems to me, a more structured introduction of ethics can help children, at a crucial age, to expand their capacities for moral reasoning. My own experience facilitating ethics discussions with elementary school students convinces me that these early years are a prime period in the development of our ethical lives. Open and carefully organized discussions about moral issues with their peers reinforces, at an early stage in their ethical growth, children’s development of empathy and moral imagination.