A team from Oxford University’s Institute of Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology analyzed ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies, and discovered what they believe to be seven universal moral rules:
1. help your family, 2. help your group, 3. return favors, 4. be brave, 5. defer to superiors, 6. divide resources fairly, and 7. respect others’ property.
Previous studies have looked at some of these rules in some places – but none has looked at all of them in a large representative sample of societies. The present study, published in Current Anthropology, is the largest and most comprehensive cross-cultural survey of morals ever conducted….
Dr. Oliver Scott Curry, lead author and senior researcher at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, said: “The debate between moral universalists and moral relativists has raged for centuries, but now we have some answers. People everywhere face a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them. As predicted, these seven moral rules appear to be universal across cultures. Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code. All agree that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do.”
The study tested the theory that morality evolved to promote cooperation, and that – because there are many types of cooperation – there are many types of morality. According to this theory of ‘morality as cooperation,” kin selection explains why we feel a special duty of care for our families, and why we abhor incest. Mutualism explains why we form groups and coalitions (there is strength and safety in numbers), and hence why we value unity, solidarity, and loyalty. Social exchange explains why we trust others, reciprocate favours, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. And conflict resolution explains why we engage in costly displays of prowess such as bravery and generosity, why we defer to our superiors, why we divide disputed resources fairly, and why we recognise prior possession.
The research found, first, that these seven cooperative behaviours were always considered morally good. Second, examples of most of these morals were found in most societies. Crucially, there were no counter-examples – no societies in which any of these behaviours were considered morally bad. And third, these morals were observed with equal frequency across continents; they were not the exclusive preserve of ‘the West’ or any other region.
Churches often grapple with the issue of unity. This moral code centers on unity. How does it compare (or contrast) with the unity that followed an outpouring of the holy spirit, recorded in the Book of Acts?
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people…. (Acts 2:42-47)
Can the outpouring of the holy spirit be considered the outpouring of doctrine regarding unity and obedience? What exactly does it mean to “be of one accord”?
Donald: The small group of people upon whom the holy spirit descended and who then witnessed Christianity to the rest of the world was simply a gathering of Christians, not a church. Nowadays we tend to conflate church behavior and Christian behavior. Unity is my Christian yearning but it has very little to do with evangelism and trying to bring others into the fold of my church group. Most denominations seem to focus their evangelism more on spreading the denomination than on spreading Christianity.
Jay: Jesus said:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19)
How can one be a disciple and teach others without having a doctrine (which implies specific rules) to teach?
Don: One of the remarkable things about the seven moral rules is that they do not mention God at all. They also seem too general—insufficiently granular—to live by in practice. An example of our need for specifics was given when Jesus was asked for doctrine about how a widowed in-law should be treated. This was a cultural specific, that certainly spoke to the issue of unity, but today in our culture such a specific rule about widows would be considered bizarre and even creepy.
There seems to be a level of doctrinal definition that needs to be refined, made granular, before we are comfortable with it; otherwise we doubt it, or we find it impractical.
David: We should doubt conclusions from social science research studies until we have satisfied ourselves of their validity and reliability, by examining the study’s methodology and potential biases. The study that reported seven moral rules appears to have been well conducted, based upon the following limitations mentioned in the report itself and on its suggestions for future research into the issue that could overcome this study’s limitations:
And of course, the present study has its limits. 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. As such, we were not able to test morality-as-cooperation’s further prediction that, far from being identical, moral systems will vary as a function of variation in the value of different types of cooperation under different conditions—in other words, to the extent that individuals (or societies) face different cooperative problems, and benefit from different solutions, they will prioritize different moral values (Curry 2016). Consistent with this view, our impression of the source material was that, even if all societies shared the same moral values, they varied in how they prioritized or ranked them. In some societies, family appeared to trump group; in other societies it was the other way around. In some societies there was an overwhelming obligation to seek revenge; in other societies this was trumped by the desire to maintain group solidarity. And of course our study found that moral obligations to members of one’s family, one’s group, and to senior members of one’s hierarchy were relatively frequent, but (positive) reciprocity and fairness were relatively rare. Morality-as-cooperation would predict that this was partly because, in our sample of societies, cooperative interactions with kin and group and high-status individuals occurred more frequently (or conferred greater benefits) than cooperative interactions with anonymous, mobile strangers of equal status.13 But further research will be needed to test this conjecture.
To overcome these limitations, future work should aim to investigate the moral valence of a wider range of cooperative behaviors, in more societies, using more sophisticated methods. Theorists should mine the game theory literature to look for further accounts of cooperation that could perhaps explain further aspects of morality, and they should investigate whether the cooperative approach can be extended to as yet undertheorized aspects of morality such as sexual, religious, and political ethics (McKay and Whitehouse 2014). Ethnographers should employ new statistical techniques, including multiple imputation and two-stage instrumental variables regression, that now make it possible to overcome Galton’s problem at the analysis stage (Brown and Eff 2010; Eff and Dow 2009) and thereby potentially test morality-as-cooperation against eHRAF’s full sample of approximately 200 ethnographically attested cultures.14 And psychologists, anthropologists, and historians should also investigate the relationship between particular moral values and the corresponding individual- and societal-level indicators of cooperation—such as family size and dispersal, group size, mobility, subsistence strategy, reliance on trade, frequency of warfare, degree of inequality, political structure, age structure, resource base, and territory size (Gelfand et al. 2011; Turchin et al. 2012; Turchin et al. 2015). These predictions could be further tested by gathering new data on the full range of moral values, using survey and questionnaire methods, from representative cross-cultural samples (Curry, Jones Chesters, and Van Lissa 2019). Such work would help to move the debate on from arguing about whether or not morality varies, to explaining precisely how and why it varies, and thereby steer a middle way between the extremes of unbending moral absolutism and anything-goes moral relativism, and toward a more theoretically nuanced, and empirically tractable, view of moral variation (for one such example, see Wong 2006).
These limitations notwithstanding, a study that has to the extent possible removed sources of bias and acknowledged its own shortcomings is valuable in enabling us to conclude that it points in the direction of truth, even if it is not “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” This study, it seems to me, points to the likelihood that universal ethics do indeed exist, even if the specific universals it names are not valid or reliable.
KB: French sociologist Émile Durkheim posited that societies create and develop morals as a functional unifying imperative. With a strong religious upbringing himself, he recognized that morals are based upon beliefs, such as belief in a God. I came from outside of American society but identify with most of its moral code, especially as a member of the Adventist Church; and that enables me to function in American society.
Donald: If we could abide by the seven moral rules it would help keep us together. But to most of us they look like Boy Scout rules, and we want to embellish them and make them more complex, deep, and sophisticated. Maybe that’s what we do with simple instructions such as “Love thy neighbor.” We get caught up in debates. We think we do that in order to make improvements, but maybe it’s just a distraction. So perhaps we should just stop the debates, stop making things more complex, because it’s not doing any good.
Don: On one side of such debates are those who claim that they are advancing, modernizing, the faith; on the other side are those who claim they are holding the line against change to retain the purity of the original faith. Both sides believe they are helping the faith, which is surely a moral principle. Jesus said “Love your neighbor as yourself and worship God,” but we get tied up in increasingly granular debates pitting one side against another.
David: In our discussions about doubt some years ago, we noted that going through a period of chaos (debates are a form of controlled chaos) can be a good thing in helping people jump to a more enlightened stage of faith, to progress spiritually. It’s an old formula: The core of Marxism/Leninism/Mao Zedong Thought is the dialectic Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. So if debate is stopped—if chaos is ended—there will be no progress toward a better understanding.
Donald: What does the word “evangelism” bring to the young Adventist mind?
Jay: When I was young, it meant to make people become like us. We did not see this in a negative light. We said: “Look at me! Surely you must want to be like me!” Our motivation then seemed simple; to the mature mind, it is not so simple—we add motives, such as to help the Church expand and survive.
Don: It’s a natural human tendency to want to make a tribe, a club. It’s not just faith groups that have this tendency, and it’s not necessarily done for bad reasons. Evangelists sincerely believe they have something to offer—a point of view, a way of life, and so on. They share their faith with the best of intentions: To make life better for the other. But such harmony as evangelism may find seems superficial compared to that achieved by the earliest Christians in Acts 2 (quoted above)—until, that is, the cantankerous discussions seeking to let non-Jews into the Christian Club.
Jay: Being of “one accord” seems to be tied to—and breaks down over—the concept of being what God wants us to be. Accord disintegrates when we start getting into the detail of what God wants. If we have defined ourselves or our group as being in accord with what God wants then we open the door to dispute with others, who feel the same way about themselves and their group.
Mikiko: The Jehovah’s Witnesses believe there is urgent need for a global ethic:
An Urgent Need for “a Global Ethic”
Humanity’s survival “may depend on the acceptance of a global ethic,” says the journal Counseling and Values. “Perhaps the most agreed-upon universal moral value is the Golden Rule.” What is that rule? Taught by Jesus Christ, it says: “Do for others what you want them to do for you.” —Matthew 7:12, Good News Translation.
The moral values found in the Bible reflect our Creator’s deep love for us, for those values enable us to “walk in the way of good people.” (Proverbs 2:20; Isaiah 48:17, 18) When we follow that guidance, we, in turn, show our love for God and reap many rewards. In fact, the Bible makes this promise: “Keep [God’s] way, and he will exalt you to take possession of the earth. When the wicked ones are cut off, you will see it.” —Psalm 37:34.
Values That Elevate Us
• “Love your neighbor as yourself.” —Mark 12:31.
• “Return evil for evil to no one.” —Romans 12:17.
• “Continue . . . forgiving one another freely if anyone has a cause for complaint against another.” —Colossians 3:13.
David: The global ethic of the Golden Rule breaks down when we start to argue about its origin. Here, the claim seems to be that it was originated by Jesus. The point is irrelevant, but becomes a bone of contention. Simple Boy Scout homilies work; the devil is in the details we add.
Don: In Matthew 5, where Jesus said words to the effect: “This is what you were taught; now this is what you should really know…” He was basically suggesting a broad, universal Boy Scout code instead of the detailed doctrines of parochial Judaism. He said that this would fulfill the law, not destroy it. He was calling for a deeper yet less granular level of understanding.
Robin: Why do pastors quit their churches? Why do people stay away from church? Because there is no perfect church. And if there were, wouldn’t it be a lonely place? When we evangelize and baptize it should be in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is hard to learn not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Jay: It seems we are incapable of functioning at the non-granular, Boy Scout level. Yet we also need a granular identity, we need granular rules to live by. How do we reconcile the two?
David: It’s not inevitable that we function at a detailed, granular level, even though we tend that way. People like Jesus, Gandhi, and Mandela are revered because of their non-granular ethics. We tend to the opposite, but they prove that we can counter the tendency. If there were many people like them, how different the world would be!
Chris: We were not meant to live by rules, until we messed up in the garden of Eden. Now, we have to live in social groups and follow social constructs that require rules. They may not be bad, but they were not meant to be in the first place. God gave us grace so that we could overcome this dilemma.
Anonymous: Grace is the will of God. Loving one another proves that we are God’s children. It’s so easy and simple. The details are none of our business anyway.
Don: That’s essentially what Jesus said: “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” It doesn’t get any simpler. But we want to dive down into the deep and find ourselves entangled in weeds.