All the war, conflict, and misery that has beset civilisation for centuries and longer may lead you to think human society is tragically defined by a constant clash of irreconcilable cultures.
Not so, according to a new study, which in fact found startling and optimistic evidence to the contrary: all cultures are actually bound by a common moral code of seven distinct shared rules and behaviours.
Based on a deep analysis of over 600 cultural records from 60 societies around the world – the largest sample ever in this field of study, the researchers say – there is empirically much more that unites us than divides us, in terms of moral values.
“Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code,” says anthropologist Oliver Scott Curry from the University of Oxford.
“All agree that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do.”
Delving into a research database on cross-cultural variation called the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF, hosted by Yale University), Curry and fellow researchers sought to explore the theory that morality evolved in human cultures to promote cooperation.
To do so, they scanned for evidence of seven discrete moral behaviours across over 600,000 words of ethnographic accounts.
These cooperative behaviours and rules – the proposed universal moral code – are the following: helping family, helping your group, reciprocating, being brave, deferring to superiors (respect), dividing disputed resources (fairness), and respecting prior possession (property rights).
In their analysis, the team found that these seven rules were uniformly considered positive and morally good across the different cultures surveyed – never being construed as morally bad.
Also, the majority of these behaviours were observed in the majority of cultures, and with equal frequency across different regions of the world.
“We conclude that these seven cooperative behaviours are plausible candidates for universal moral rules,” the authors write in their paper, “and that morality-as-cooperation could provide the unified theory of morality that anthropology has hitherto lacked.”
Out of 962 observations of these principles, there was one rogue exception noted, among the Chuuk society of Micronesia: “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 note – but found this hawkish trait to be a form of one of the cooperative values (bravery).
That aside, the universal code also means that conduct in opposition to the cooperative behaviours is considered as morally bad: neglecting kin, betraying your group, free-riding (not reciprocating), cowardice, disrespect, unfairness, and theft.
Not every society ranks or prioritises these social norms in the same way, but the fact that they are uniquely considered positive and observed in so many different societies goes a long way to supporting what is known in ethics as moral universalism, at the expense of the contrasting view, moral relativism.
“The debate between moral universalists and moral relativists has raged for centuries, but now we have some answers,” Curry says.
“People everywhere face a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them.”
In a sometimes scary and divisive world, it’s a useful, uplifting thing to keep in mind – a strong reminder of what we have in common, not what we don’t.
The findings are reported in Current Anthropology.