Findings from the largest anthropological study on morals

World

14 Feb 2019

Study: Seven moral rules exist across societies around the world

Despite there existing thousands of cultures around the world, anthropologists from the University of Oxford have identified seven 'universal' moral rules that are present across human cultures.

The study, the most comprehensive and cross-cultural survey of morals ever conducted, was recently published in the journal Current Anthropology and gives some direction in the debate over moral relativism and moral universalism.

Here's all about it.

Study

Details about the study

Details about the study

The study was conducted by a team of researchers from Oxford's Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology.

The researchers analyzed ethnographic accounts of ethics from across 60 different societies, comprising over 600,000 words from over 600 sources.

The study found that across societies, seven universal moral rules were present to promote cooperation and the common good among human groups.

The study pored over historical descriptions of different human cultures

"Our study was based on historical descriptions of cultures from around the world; this data was collected prior to, and independently of, the development of the theories that we were testing," said Professor Harvey Whitehouse, a co-author.

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The seven rules

What the seven universal morals are

The seven universal moral rules are: help your family, help your group, return favours, be brave, defer to superiors, divide resources fairly, and respect others' property.

The researchers said that across human cultures, humans face a similar set of social problems, and hence have similar moral rules to help solve them.

"All agree that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do," said Dr. Oliver Scott Curry, lead-author.

Theory

The study tested the 'morality as cooperation' theory

The study tested the 'morality as cooperation' theory

The study further tested the theory that morality evolved to promote human cooperation.

For instance, kinship explains family ties and why we abhor incest; social exchange explains trust, why people feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive; mutualism explains group formation and group values like loyalty and unity; conflict resolution explains why we listen to superiors, divide disputed resources fairly, display traits like bravery, generosity etc.

Findings

The three major findings of the study

Interestingly, it found the aforementioned seven moral rules were always considered to be good values across societies, and that examples of these seven rules were found across societies.

Notably, it found that none of these seven moral behaviors were considered to be bad in any society.

Further, the seven moral rules were observed with equal frequency across continents, thereby indicating no particular geographical region had a monopoly on these rules.

Looking forward

The team is now testing where cooperation differs with values

The team is now testing where cooperation differs with values

The study also had another very significant finding.

It found that while all societies valued these seven moral rules, societies differed in how they ranked or prioritized these rules.

Now, the team is investigating whether this cross-cultural variation in values reflects varying degrees of cooperation across cultures under different social conditions.

The research should promote mutual understanding between different people

"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," added Dr. Curry.

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Anthropology

Morality

Oxford University

Research

's Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology

Current Anthropology

Evolutionary Anthropology

Harvey Whitehouse

Oliver Scott Curry

Professor Harvey Whitehouse

University of Oxford

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