New research from the University of Oxford reveals that people everywhere do, in fact, share a few moral rules — seven of them, to be exact.

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UK anthropologists say that helping your family, helping your group, returning favors, courage, deference to superiors, the fair division of resources, and respect for the property of others are things we all hold in esteem. The findings are based on a survey of 60 cultures around the world.

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While previous research has looked into moral rules on the local level, this is the first to analyze them in a globally-representative sample of societies. It is the largest and most comprehensive cross-cultural survey of morals ever conducted, the authors write. All in all, the team analyzed ethnographic accounts of ethical behavior 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,” says Dr. Oliver Scott Curry, lead author and senior researcher at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology.

“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.”

One of the theories this study put to the test is that morality evolved to promote in-group cooperation. This theory proposes that, because there are many different ways a group can work together, there should be several behavioral patterns people see as moral or ethical.

The team looked at the seven patterns of morality I’ve mentioned earlier. These seven are expressions of four fundamental types of cooperation, the team explains: “the allocation of resources to kin; coordination to mutual advantage; social exchange; and conflict resolution.”

Kin selection makes us feel compelled to care for our family and steer clear of incestual relationships. Coordination for mutual advantage pushes us to form groups and value solidarity and loyalty. Social exchange hinges on our ability to trust others, reciprocate favors, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. Finally, conflict resolution explains why we engage in costly displays such as courage and generosity, defer to our superiors, try to settle disputes fairly, and respect others’ property.

All these seven cooperative behaviors were universally considered morally good, the authors found. More importantly, the team found no society in which any of them were considered morally bad. Finally, the team writes that they were noted as being ethical across continents with more-or-less equal frequency — in other words, they were not exclusive to any one region.

Among the Amhara, “flouting kinship obligation is regarded as a shameful deviation, indicating an evil character,” the team writes, while Korea developed an “egalitarian community ethic [of] mutual assistance and cooperation among neighbors [and] strong in-group solidarity.” Garo society puts a large emphasis on reciprocity “in every stage of [life]” and it has “a very high place in the Garo social structure of values.” The Maasai people still hold “those who cling to the warrior virtues” in high respect, with the ideal of a warriorhood revolving around on “ascetic commitment to self-sacrifice […] in the heat of battle, as a supreme display of courageous loyalty.”

The Bemba hold a deep sense of respect for their elders and their authority, while the Kapauku ideal of justice is called “uta-uta, half-half”, the meaning of which comes very close to what we call equity. And among the Tarahumara, “respect for the property of others is the keystone of all interpersonal relations,” they also write.

While cultures and societies around the world held these seven elements to be basic moral rules, the team did find variations in how they were ranked. The team plans to gather data on modern moral values in the future, to see how differences in moral rankings today impacts cooperation under various social conditions.

“Our study was based on historical descriptions of cultures from around the world,” says co-author Professor Harvey Whitehouse. “This data was collected prior to, and independently of, the development of the theories that we were testing”

“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.”

“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,” Curry adds.

The paper, “Is it good to cooperate? Testing the theory of morality-as-cooperation in 60 societies” has been published in the journal Current Anthropology.

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