Science

Oxford anthropologists identify seven universal rules of morality

A study of 60 different cultures has confirmed seven universal moral rules based on social cooperation
A study of 60 different cultures has confirmed seven universal moral rules based on social cooperation
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A study of 60 different cultures has confirmed seven universal moral rules based on social cooperation
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A study of 60 different cultures has confirmed seven universal moral rules based on social cooperation

In the largest cross-cultural survey ever conducted, a team of anthropologists from the University of Oxford has determined seven moral rules they suggest are universal. Based on the examination of ethnographic accounts from 60 different societies the research concludes that while morality may not necessarily be innate, every single culture analyzed seems to be ruled by the same moral precepts.

The research hinges on a long-hypothesized idea arguing human morality is fundamentally driven to promote cooperative behavior. This suggests the moral valence of any action is determined by its social outcomes. So a morally "good" action can be defined as one that benefits cooperative behaviors that serve the collective.

In order to empirically examine this hypothesis, three Oxford anthropologists looked at the prominence of seven cooperative behaviors across 60 different societies. They discovered that these seven factors seem universally related to seven corresponding moral beliefs.

"The debate between moral universalists and moral relativists has raged for centuries, but now we have some answers," explains Oliver Scott Curry, lead author on the study. "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 seven moral rules seen in every culture studied ultimately come down to:

  • family values
  • group loyalty
  • reciprocity
  • bravery
  • respect
  • fairness
  • property rights

For example, recognition of prior ownership, or property rights, is an attribute that is valued in every studied culture. Maybe more commonly considered in Christian cultures as "Thou shalt not steal", the acceptance of respecting other's private property seems to be universally regarded as a moral good.
Another example comes with the moral rule of social reciprocation. This moral foundation underpins the idea of reciprocal altruism, or simply put, treating others how you would like to be treated. This precept, again seen in all the studied cultures, manifests in a positive valuation of behaviors such as trusting others, expressing gratitude and making amends. Curry suggests this work highlights how fundamentally similar all our human beliefs are, even when our cultural divisions seem massive and insurmountable.

"Morality is always and everywhere a cooperative phenomenon," Curry writes. "Appreciating this fundamental fact about human nature could help promote mutual understanding between people of different cultures, and so help to make the world a better place."

Of course, if you have read this far you may be quite reasonably questioning whether something so deeply philosophical as morality can reasonably be empirically honed down into a list of seven simple rules. The new study does itself suggest that while all seven of these moral rules are consistently positively valued across all cultures, there is certainly variation in how each society prioritizes each rule.

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci suggests simplifying morality to just a byproduct of cooperative behavior is not only reductive, but entirely unwarranted. He cites several situations where abiding by these specific rules may not be the most moral action. One of his examples considers the rule of respecting private property. In an age where the world is plummeting towards a giant division between those in poverty and multibillionaires, Pigliucci asks whether it is morally good to respect the rights of those who hoard massive volumes of resources.

"But surely we should respect other people's property," Pigliucci writes. "Well, it depends. If it is acquired unethically, even if legally, no, I don't think there is any such moral requirement. If your wealth is both disproportionate and arrived at by exploiting others (and let's be frank, if it is the former, it can hardly not be the latter), then it is just and fair to pass laws to relieve you of much of that burden, through proportional taxation, for instance."

Certainly this new study raises much to muse on. While these anthropologists seem sure they are close to determining a universal set of moral rules that transcends specific cultures, this is not the end but inevitably just another chapter in an eternal debate.

The new study was published in the journal Current Anthropology.

Source: University of Oxford

15 comments
rude.dawg
Mmmm, loving that sweet, delicious fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.... nom nom nom nom...
aksdad
Sorry, what connection does “philosopher” Massimo Pigliucci have to this research? None? He’s certainly not one of the authors of the study and they probably don’t know him. Then why is his banal socialist commentary relevant? Oh, it’s not. It’s just mindless “income inequality” drivel completely unrelated to the study. The study found that respect for property is a common moral value of many societies, full stop. It does not equivocate about how the property was earned or how much property one has in relation to others. That’s just Rich Haridy’s way of interjecting his opinion into an otherwise interesting study; by vicariously inserting Pigliucci’s justification for taking away someone’s property without their consent; otherwise known as “stealing” by people whose morals haven’t been corrupted by the self-justification rampant in liberal academia. “Income equality”, also known as socialism and Marxism, is the preferred ideology of people with autocratic tendencies. Simply put, they’re envious that others have more than they do.
Bob Stuart
Of course, in every society there are also many people in whom greed has overcome the sense of social morality, who love to ridicule it. These are parasites, treating moralists as a natural resource, while pretending to not need the fruits of cooperation at all.
Mzungu_Mkubwa
@aksdad, I wish this site's comment system let us like/star user's entries, cuz yours would get mine! Don't let the "Green New Deal" proponents read this list, as it surely won't fit their socialist agenda in the least bit! I'll take your "envious" comment a bit further to say that they're either not willing to put in the effort to earn those "big bux" for themselves or simply lack the cleverness to do so, and that apparently justifies their intent to relieve the current owner of their wealth. Hmmm.
jd_dunerider
Well said aksdad. This was a great article until philosipher Massimo Pigliucci was introduced. This particular quote was incredibly irritating "If your wealth is both disproportionate and arrived at by exploiting others (and let's be frank, if it is the former, it can hardly not be the latter)". Socialist garbage.
TonyB
The last few paragraphs should be clearly identified as the socio/political philosophy (bias) of the reporter, not part of the study being reported on.
piperTom
On defining Good action, the author summarizes it as action "that benefits cooperative behaviors...". It's hardly surprising, given that people come together largely for cooperation. But then the article gratuitously adds "that serve the collective." I don't see anything here to support any consideration of "the collective". Indeed, the seven attributes include (1) respect and (2) property rights, arguing against support of The Collective. Support for The Collective seems to be only the author's prejudice, here. The author also leaps to a confusion of property rights and stealing, ignoring a distinction that many ethicists make between property and possessions. Respect for your right to your tooth brush and your shirt does not imply respect for any land rights beyond that under your dwelling (plus curtilage). It can get complicated.
Expanded Viewpoint
Evidently, neither Haridy nor Pigliucci understand the difference between ethics and morals. Many people not only get them confused, but also use them interchangeably, thinking that they are the same thing! Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, does not take the masochist into account. As to Pigliucci, just who is it that gets to set the standard for what amount is "disproportionate"? How is it arrived at? People can be lured into Socialism, at first, but then they need to be forced into it when more is taken from them than they get back. That is why Sarah Brady said that guns need to be taken away from the public, so that a socialist agenda could be imposed upon them. Imposed upon them. That means done by some kind of force, right? Randy
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Land rights give the owner a vested interest in society. Otherwise, he is only indoctrinated to work for the good of society. Only a group of idealistic and like minded individuals can succeed in this way.
AryehZelasko
Massimo Pigliucci is an atheist and evolutionist. As such I do not understand his moral objection to the super rich. If there is no absolute truth and survival goes to the fittest, then those who are capable of becoming the super rich are obviously the fittest. His statements are ludicrous.