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Scientists identify seven universal moral rules
Oxford researchers have identified seven universal moral rules common around the world, suggesting that people across cultures live by the same basic ethical codes and values.
The rules include helping your family and group, returning favours, being brave, deferring to superiors, dividing resources fairly, and respecting 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 study, published in Current Anthropology, is the largest and most comprehensive cross-cultural survey of morals ever conducted, researchers said. The team from University of Oxford in the UK analysed ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies, comprising over 600,000 words from over 600 sources.
“The debate between moral universalists and moral relativists has raged for centuries, but now we have some answers,” said Oliver Scott Curry, senior researcher at Oxford. “People everywhere face a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them,” said Curry. “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,” he said.
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. The research found that these seven cooperative behaviours were always considered morally good. 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, researchers said. These morals were observed with equal frequency across continents; they were not the exclusive preserve of ‘the West’ or any other region.
Among the Amhara, an ethnic group in Ethiopia, ‘flouting kinship obligation is regarded as a shameful deviation, indicating an evil character.”
In Korea, there exists an ‘egalitarian community ethic of mutual assistance and cooperation among neighbours and strong in-group solidarity.” The Bemba, an ethnic group in Zambia, exhibit ‘a deep sense of respect for elders’ authority.” The study also detected “variation on a theme” — although all societies seemed to agree on the seven basic moral rules, they varied in how they prioritised or ranked them.
The team has now developed a new moral values questionnaire to gather data on modern moral values, and is investigating whether cross-cultural variation in moral values reflects variation in the value of cooperation under different social conditions. “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 Harvey Whitehouse, a professor at Oxford. “Future work will be able to test more fine-grained predictions of the theory by gathering new data, even more systematically, out in the field,” Whitehouse. (PTI)