Dr Oliver Scott Curry

What is morality? And are there any universal moral values? Scholars have debated these questions for millennia. But now, thanks to science, we have the answers.

Converging lines of evidence – from game theory, ethology, psychology, and anthropology – suggest that morality is a collection of tools for promoting cooperation.

For 50 million years humans and their ancestors have lived in social groups. During this time natural selection equipped them with a range of adaptations for realizing the enormous benefits of cooperation that social life affords. More recently, humans have built on these benevolent biological foundations with cultural innovations – norms, rules, institutions – that further bolster cooperation. Together, these biological and cultural mechanisms provide the motivation for social, cooperative and altruistic behavior; and they provide the criteria by which we evaluate the behavior of others. And, according to the theory of ‘morality as cooperation’, it is precisely this collection of cooperative traits that constitute human morality.

What’s more, the theory leads us to expect that, because there are many types of cooperation, there will be many types of morality. 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 favors, 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 recognize prior possession.

Morality is always and everywhere a cooperative phenomenon.

And, as predicted by the theory, these seven moral rules appear to be universal across cultures:

  1. love your family
  2. help your group
  3. return favors
  4. be brave
  5. defer to authority
  6. be fair
  7. respect others’ property

My colleagues and I analyzed ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies (comprising over 600,000 words from over 600 sources). We found that these seven cooperative behaviors were always considered morally good. We found examples of most of these morals in most societies. Crucially, there were no counter-examples – no societies in which any of these behaviors were considered morally bad. And we observed these morals with equal frequency across continents; they were not the exclusive preserve of ‘the West’ or any other region.

For example, among the Amhara, “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 neighbors [and] strong in-group solidarity”. “Reciprocity is observed in every stage of Garo life [and] has a very high place in the Garo social structure of values”. Among the Maasai, “Those who cling to warrior virtues are still highly respected”, and “the uncompromising ideal of supreme warriorhood [involves] ascetic commitment to self-sacrifice…in the heat of battle, as a supreme display of courageous loyalty”. The Bemba exhibit “a deep sense of respect for elders’ authority”. The Kapauku “idea 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”.

‘Morality as cooperation’ does not predict that moral values will be identical across cultures. On the contrary, the theory predicts ‘variation on a theme’: moral values will reflect the value of different types of cooperation under different social and ecological conditions. And certainly, it was our impression that these societies did indeed vary in how they prioritized or ranked the seven moral values. With further research, perhaps gathering new data on moral values in contemporary societies, we shall be able to explore the causes of this variation.

And so there is a common core of universal moral principles. Morality is always and everywhere a cooperative phenomenon. And everyone agrees that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do. Appreciating this fundamental fact about human nature could help promote mutual understanding between people of different cultures, and so help to make the world a better place.

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This article is from TVOL’s project titled “This View of Morality: Can an Evolutionary Perspective Reveal a Universal Morality?” and was first posted on The Evolution Institute on May 17, 2018.


Dr Oliver Scott Curry is a Senior Researcher, and Director of the Oxford Morals Project, at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford. His research investigates the nature, content and structure of human morality, using a range of techniques from philosophy, experimental and social psychology and comparative anthropology.

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