Study Identifies Seven Universal Moral Codes

Study Identifies Seven Universal Moral Codes
Kin Man Hui/The San Antonio Express-News via AP
Study Identifies Seven Universal Moral Codes
Kin Man Hui/The San Antonio Express-News via AP
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Anthropologists at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at University of Oxford have identified seven universal moral codes.

Conducting an extensive search through ethnographic data spanning 300 years from unique 603 sources on 60 different societies spread all across the world, Senior Researcher Oliver Scott Curry, Postdoctoral Researcher Daniel Austin Mullins, and Chair of Social Anthropology Harvey Whitehouse found that helping kin, helping your group, reciprocating, being brave, deferring to superiors, dividing disputed resources, and respecting prior possession were viewed as universally positive traits.

Their findings are published in Current Anthropology.

The names and locations of the sixty cultures studied.

In the ethnographic literature on the studied societies, these qualities and actions were mentioned positively 961 times and negatively only once. The single exception was seen amongst the Chuuk people who predominantly dwell in the Federated States of Micronesia, a chain of islands in the Western Pacific. Some in Chuuk society believe that "to steal openly from others is admirable in that it shows a person’s dominance and demonstrates that he is not intimidated by the aggressive powers of others."

The researchers specifically searched for these traits in the literature as they are facets of a theory which states that cooperation forms the basis for human morality.

"The theory of “morality-as-cooperation” argues that morality consists of a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life," they wrote.

The foundation of morality has been debated and discussed for thousands of years. Philosophers, theologians, scientists, and religious figures have jumped into the fray with all sorts of ideas. Most of these hypotheses come with little empirical backing, so it's refreshing to see Curry, Mullins, and Whitehouse support their favored theory with data.

The data is far from perfect, however. On a world with 7.5 billion inhabitants, sixty cultures is a comparatively paltry sampling. Moreover, the ethnographic search was handicapped in that it didn't measure the strength of the seven moral values in societies. It also left out other potentially even more fundamental moral codes.

"Hitting someone is a foundational moral violation," Yale University Psychologist Paul Bloom wrote in a comment to the paper. "Indeed, these sorts of physical infractions are found to be morally wrong by the youngest babies we can test. This might be at the core of morality, as opposed to more subtle and later developing capacities such as valuing bravery or respecting the possessions of others."

As evidenced in the study, cooperative behaviors do seem to be universally moral, but whether or not cooperation is the basis for all morality cannot be answered with this paper.

Source: Oliver Scott Curry, Daniel Austin Mullins, and Harvey Whitehouse, "Is It Good to Cooperate?: Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies," Current Anthropology 60, no. 1 (February 2019): 47-69.

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