In 2012, Professor Oliver Scott Curry became interested in the definition of morality. Once, in an anthropology class at Oxford University, he invited his students to discuss how they understand morality, whether it is innate or acquired. The group was divided: some ardently convinced that morality is the same for everyone; others – that morality is different for everyone.
“I realized that, obviously, so far people have not been able to definitively answer this question, and therefore I decided to do my own research,” Curry says.
Seven years later, Curry, now a Senior Fellow at the Oxford Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, can provide an answer to the seemingly complex and ambiguous question of what morality is and how it differs (or does not) in different parts of the world.
In an article recently published in Current Anthropology, Curry writes: “Morality is at the heart of human cooperation. All people in human society face similar social problems and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them. Everyone, everywhere, has a common moral code. Everyone supports the idea that cooperation for the common good is something to strive for.”
During the study, Curry’s group studied ethnographic descriptions of ethics in more than 600 sources from 60 different societies, as a result of which they were able to identify the following universal rules of morality:
Help your family
Help your community
Respond with a service for a service
· Respect elders
Share with others
Respect other people’s property
The researchers found that across cultures, these seven social behaviors were considered morally good 99,9% of the time. However, Curry notes that people in different communities prioritize differently, although in the vast majority of cases all moral values are supported in one way or another.
But there were also some cases of departure from the norm. For example, among the Chuukes, a major ethnic group in the Federated States of Micronesia, “it is customary to openly steal to demonstrate the dominance of a person and that he is not afraid of the power of others.” The researchers who studied this group concluded that seven universal moral rules apply to this behavior as well: “it seems to be the case when one form of cooperation (being brave, although it is not quite a manifestation of courage) prevails over another (respect property),” they wrote.
Many studies have already looked at some moral rules in particular groups, but no one has tried to study moral rules in such a large sample of societies. And when Curry tried to get funding, his idea was even repeatedly dismissed as too obvious or too impossible to prove.
Whether morality is universal or relative has been debated for centuries. In the 17th century, John Locke wrote: “… we clearly lack a general principle of morality, a rule of virtue, which would follow and which would not be neglected by human society.”
Philosopher David Hume disagrees. He wrote that moral judgments come from “an innate feeling that nature has made universal for all mankind”, and noted that human society has an inherent desire for truth, justice, courage, moderation, constancy, friendship, sympathy, mutual affection and fidelity.
Criticizing Curry’s article, Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, says that we are far from consensus on the definition of morality. Is it about fairness and justice, or is it about “improving the welfare of living beings”? About people interacting for long-term gain, or about altruism?
Bloom also says that the authors of the study did little to explain how exactly we come to make moral judgments and what role our mind, emotions, social forces, etc. play in shaping our ideas about morality. Although the article argues that moral judgments are universal due to “a collection of instincts, intuitions, inventions, and institutions,” the authors “do not specify what is innate, what is learned through experience, and what results from personal choice.”
So perhaps the seven universal rules of morality may not be a definitive list. But, as Curry says, instead of dividing the world into “us and them” and believing that people from different parts of the globe have little in common, it is worth remembering that we are nevertheless united by largely similar morality.