Seven moral rules found all around the world

February 12, 2019, University of Oxford
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Anthropologists at the University of Oxford have discovered what they believe to be seven universal moral rules.

The rules: help your family, help your group, return favours, be brave, defer to superiors, divide resources fairly, and respect others' property. These were found in a survey of 60 cultures from all around the world.

Previous studies have looked at some of these rules in some places – but none has looked at all of them in a large representative sample of societies. The present study, published in Current Anthropology, is the largest and most comprehensive cross-cultural survey of morals ever conducted.

The team from Oxford's Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology (part of the School of Anthropology & Museum Ethnography) analysed ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies, comprising over 600,000 words from over 600 sources.

Dr. Oliver Scott Curry, lead author and senior researcher at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, said: "The debate between moral universalists and moral relativists has raged for centuries, but now we have some answers. People everywhere face a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them. As predicted, these seven moral rules appear to be universal across cultures. Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code. All agree that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do."

The study tested the theory that morality evolved to promote cooperation, and that – because there are many types of cooperation – there are many types of morality. According to this theory of 'morality as cooperation," kin selection explains why we feel a special duty of care for our families, and why we abhor incest. Mutualism explains why we form groups and coalitions (there is strength and safety in numbers), and hence why we value unity, solidarity, and loyalty. Social exchange explains why we trust others, reciprocate favours, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. And explains why we engage in costly displays of prowess such as bravery and generosity, why we defer to our superiors, why we divide disputed resources fairly, and why we recognise prior possession.

The research found, first, that these seven cooperative behaviours were always considered morally good. Second, examples of most of these morals were found in most societies. Crucially, there were no counter-examples – no societies in which any of these behaviours were considered morally bad. And third, these morals were observed with equal frequency across continents; they were not the exclusive preserve of 'the West' or any other region.

So, among the Amhara, 'flouting kinship obligation is regarded as a shameful deviation, indicating an evil character." In Korea, there exists an 'egalitarian community ethic [of] mutual assistance and cooperation among neighbors [and] strong in-group solidarity." "Reciprocity is observed in every stage of Garo life [and] has a very high place in the Garo social structure of values." Among the Maasai, "Those who cling to warrior virtues are still highly respected," and 'the uncompromising ideal of supreme warriorhood [involves] ascetic commitment to self-sacrifice…in the heat of battle, as a supreme display of courageous loyalty." The Bemba exhibit 'a deep sense of respect for elders' authority." The Kapauku 'idea of justice' is called 'uta-uta, half-half…[the meaning of which] comes very close to what we call equity." And among the Tarahumara, 'respect for the property of others is the keystone of all interpersonal relations."

The study also detected "variation on a theme"—although all societies seemed to agree on the seven basic moral rules, they varied in how they prioritised or ranked them. The team has now developed a new moral values questionnaire to gather data on modern moral values, and is investigating whether cross-cultural variation in moral values reflects variation in the value of cooperation under different social conditions.

According to co-author Professor Harvey Whitehouse, anthropologists are uniquely placed to answer long-standing questions about moral universals and moral relativism. "Our study was based on historical descriptions of cultures from around the world; this data was collected prior to, and independently of, the development of the theories that we were testing. Future work will be able to test more fine-grained predictions of the theory by gathering new data, even more systematically, out in the field.

"We hope that this research helps to promote mutual understanding between people of different cultures; an appreciation of what we have in common, and how and why we differ," added Curry.

The full paper, "Is it good to cooperate? Testing the theory of morality-as-cooperation in 60 societies," can be read in Current Anthropology.

Explore further: Advocating for social issues at work more likely to succeed linking morality and mission, study says

More information: Oliver Scott Curry et al. Is It Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies, Current Anthropology (2019). DOI: 10.1086/701478

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6 comments

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Macrocompassion
1 / 5 (1) Feb 14, 2019
The most important one is missing. Hillel the Elder said: "What is offensive to you, do not do it to your neighbor. The rest of the Torah (Jewish Law as in the first 5 books of the Bible) is commentary. Now go and study it." Yet nowhere in the above is this vital principle stated. It covers so much more than all the rest.
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Feb 14, 2019
"The rules: help your family, help your group, return favours, be brave, defer to superiors, divide resources fairly, and respect others' property."

-Tribal law, as old as humanity itself.

Tribal morality: anything that benefits your tribe and/or hurts enemy tribes is good; anything that hurts your tribe and/or benefits enemy tribes, is bad.
Yet nowhere in the above is this vital principle stated. It covers so much more than all the rest
Sure it is. Its intrinsic in all of them.

But it ignores the human state of tribalism which is intrinsic in all of us. Us vs them. An intrinsic part of every surviving religion. Their morality is only universal when the world finally accepts their god and their god alone.
Cont>
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Feb 14, 2019
And I assume you prefer the list with the following caveats:

"You shall have no other Gods but me.
You shall not make for yourself any idol, nor bow down to it or worship it.
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
You shall remember and keep the Sabbath day holy."

-for without them the other 6 are a pissing into the wind, correct? Pearls before swine.
torbjorn_b_g_larsson
5 / 5 (1) Feb 14, 2019
Interesting.

But I don't see why and how the analysis could veer into Bronze Age magic belief systems, since these morals are evolved and universal, independent of later brands of magic, and modern secular moral is shown to be more universal and better as well. Morally the Bronze Age stuff was inferior if not derivative.

The cited magic myth text is purloined from earlier myths back to when we can't tell the type of source, secular or myth related, and was socially invented several times to boot [ https://en.wikipe...den_Rule ]. It is a good example of how stultifying the myth moral was [as today we source our claims or when we borrow].
TheGhostofOtto1923
not rated yet Feb 14, 2019
But I don't see why and how the analysis could veer into Bronze Age magic belief systems, since these morals are evolved and universal
Tribalism is universal. But any animal will protect itself and its own at the expense of its enemies.

The surviving religions are all identical in what they promise (anything and everything you ever could want) and what they expect in return (faithful devotion to the tribe along with the understanding that outsiders are not good, honest, decent, trustworthy people, and must be treated accordingly)
rrwillsj
not rated yet Feb 15, 2019
The creepiest part of the offer of eternal salvation?
The religion's all wind up making it sound as if the "saved soul" will be a perpetual fetus returned to their eternally suffering mother's wombs.

Myself? I am happy with the thought that I will not have to endure the tedium of endless existence with all the rest of you consistently unchanging monkeys.

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