Universal moral values

One of the arguments that religious people give for their religion is that it provides a basis for morality. Without religion, they say, people will feel that there is nothing wrong in committing even the most vile acts. This has never been a good argument. For one thing, it implies that the only reason religious people behave well is because of the fear of divine retribution, which is hardly a sign of morality. The second is that there is no evidence that people who do not have any religious beliefs act worse than those who do. And finally, most religions came along fairly late in human civilization, long after moral codes had been established. Religions can be seen as codifying and policing the moral standards that were already there rather than creating new ones.

An ethnographic study by Oliver Scott Curry, Daniel Austin Mullins, and Harvey Whitehouse based on non-zero sum game theory of 60 different cultures finds that there are seven rules that every culture considers to be morally good and that form the basis of a universal moral code. These rules are based on the idea that societies long ago realized that cooperative behavior is beneficial. The abstract of the paper lays out the basic idea.

What is morality? And to what extent does it vary around the world? 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. Morality-as-cooperation draws on the theory of non-zero-sum games to identify distinct problems of cooperation and their solutions, and it predicts that specific forms of cooperative behavior—including helping kin, helping your group, reciprocating, being brave, deferring to superiors, dividing disputed resources, and respecting prior possession—will be considered morally good wherever they arise, in all cultures. To test these predictions, we investigate the moral valence of these seven cooperative behaviors in the ethnographic records of 60 societies. We find that the moral valence of these behaviors is uniformly positive, and the majority of these cooperative morals are observed in the majority of cultures, with equal frequency across all regions of the world. We conclude that these seven cooperative behaviors are plausible candidates for universal moral rules, and that morality-as-cooperation could provide the unified theory of morality that anthropology has hitherto lacked. [My emphasis-MS]

The seven cooperative behaviors that I have bolded are better in morality to the crude morality rules of many religions. For example, they are far superior to the crude rules of the Old Testament such as the Ten Commandments and provide far more specific and helpful guidelines for moral behavior than the New Testament’s “Love one another” or the more generic Golden Rule to treat others as you would have them treat you.

One perpetual question is whether moral norms are universal or culture specific. One advantage of this study is that it is not based purely on WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies that limit their claims to universality. The authors state in their conclusion that some moral values based on cooperation appear to be truly universal.

We have shown how morality-as-cooperation, through the use of game theory, exhibits a theoretical precision and explanatory scope that supersedes that of previous cooperative accounts of morality. And we have shown how one of the theory’s central predictions—that cooperation is always and everywhere considered moral—is supported by an extensive cross-cultural survey of moral values. As such, we have removed two major obstacles to the theory’s wider adoption. Thus, we recommend morality-as-cooperation to the field, and encourage fellow anthropologists to join us in testing its many further implications.

The authors identify the limits of the study.

First, the study investigated the moral valence of only seven cooperative behaviors—it did not investigate the moral valence or prevalence of the other cooperative traits encompassed by morality-as-cooperation (such as forgiveness or generosity). And it remains to be seen whether the theory can be extended to provide cooperative explanations of other moral phenomena, including those encountered in this ethnographic review—industry and laziness, truth-telling and honesty, chastity and fidelity, hospitality and gossip, the virtues expected of a leader, some forms of purity, and the behavior expected by gods, spirits, and ancestors.

Second, the present study employed a sample of 60 cultures to minimize “Galton’s problem” of the nonindependence of cross-cultural data points. Hence this review cannot exclude the possibility that there are other societies—beyond these 60—that have moral values that provide counterexamples that refute the theory. Nor does the selected sample of 60 cultures completely solve the problem of nonindependence of cross-cultural data points (Ember and Otterbein 1991).

Third, the nature of the source material meant that we were able to code only for the (binary) presence or absence of the cooperative moral; we were not able to measure within- or between-society variation in how strongly these various moral values were held or endorsed, or how conflict between these different moral values was resolved.

One nice feature of this journal is that at the end of the paper, they publish comments by other researchers in the field and a response by the authors. That kind of exchange is very helpful to people outside the field to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a study, since they may not have the background and expertise themselves.


  1. says

    deferring to superiors


    Also, I’m surprised by the lack of not harming others. Not stealing is listed, but none of those can be read as “don’t murder or rape.”

  2. deepak shetty says

    Without religion, they say, people will feel that there is nothing wrong in committing even the most vile acts.

    Except that there is no divine retribution even for those who do commit vile acts, atleast in this world where it would have mattered.
    I’ve never understood how hell was supposed to work because wouldnt the devil be best buddies with all the vile people rather than torture them ? It seems like the ones the devil would like to torture are all the good people who supposedly don’t make it to hell. But maybe I read too much of Garth Ennis’ Hellblazer at an impressionable age.

  3. deepak shetty says

    @Tabby Lavalamp

    but none of those can be read as “don’t murder or rape.”

    Most older cultures did not frown on murder or rape as long as they were sanctioned by authority. Rape was a common punishment inflicted on women for transgressions by any member of the family for e.g. It still is in some parts of India/Pakistan (likely other regions too , but these are the ones that I routinely read about)

  4. Jean says

    That would imply that hierarchies are universal (and important)? It’s not really difficult to believe but still disappointing.

  5. deepak shetty says

    The scenario you have in mind is Doctors say vaccines are important so we should defer to them because most of us would not have the knowhow to evaluate claims made by anti-vaxxers.
    Given the context of the article a more appropriate scenario would be for e.g. the Caste system in India. The Higher castes (The Brahmins) did educate themselves and their children and kept the lower castes away from education systems.
    Given that the situation existed, it was probably objectively true that the Brahmins did have superior knowledge, in general -- but it does not follow that the lower castes should defer to the upper castes that education is only for the upper castes . The helping kin and group also have both negative and positives depending on how someone interprets “their” group.

  6. Jean says

    Deferring to people with superior knowledge or experience is not the same thing as deferring to superiors. The latter implies hierarchy while the former may not. Inequality in qualifications or knowledge does not require inequality in social status.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    most religions came along fairly late in human civilization, long after moral codes had been established.

    How do you know either of these assertions is true? How do you define “religion”? What is “late”? When were moral codes established?

    To be clear, I certainly think that our major common Homo Sap moral “codes” have much more to do with our social nature than with religion. But you seem to be making very specific claims.

  8. Mano Singham says

    Rob @# 8,

    The idea of morality is thought to have originated as an outcome of the formation of groups of hunter-gatherers who needed to cooperate to survive, and this occurred long before we had any of the modern religions. This article is one such source.

  9. Holms says

    What about the theory advanced by noted philosophers Theodore Logan and William S. Preston Esq., which is perhaps the simplest of all: be excellent to one another. It is certainly superior to anything espoused by any religion that I have seen.

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