7 Moral Rules That Are Found All Around the World

Anthropologists at the University of Oxford have discovered what they believe to be seven universal moral rules.  (Image: via   pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
Anthropologists at the University of Oxford have discovered what they believe to be seven universal moral rules. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

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 favors, be brave, defer to superiors, divide resources fairly, and respect others’ property — 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 have 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) analyzed 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 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 favors, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. And conflict resolution 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 recognize prior possession.

The research found, first, that these seven cooperative behaviors 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 behaviors 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 prioritized 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, saying:

Curry added: “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.”

Provided by: University of Oxford [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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