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.