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.