Universals of Morality (without God)

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s all about cooperation, being the uber-social mammals that we are:

Studies led by my colleague Oliver Scott Curry have shown that much of human morality is rooted in a single preoccupation: cooperation. More specifically, seven principles of cooperation are judged to be morally good everywhere and form the bedrock of a universal moral compass. Those seven principles are:

  1. help your kin,
  2. be loyal to your group,
  3. reciprocate favours,
  4. be courageous,
  5. defer to superiors,
  6. share things fairly,
  7. and respect other people’s property.

This new idea was quite a big deal because up until then it seemed quite reasonable to assert – as cultural relativists have always done – that there are no moral universals, and each society has therefore had to come up with its own unique moral compass. As I will explain, this is not the case. Moreover, the same seven principles of cooperation on which these moral ideas are based are found in a wide range of social species and are not unique to human beings.39 These moral intuitions evolved because of their benefits for survival and reproduction. Genetic mutations favouring cooperative behaviours in the ancestors of social species, such as humans, conferred a reproductive advantage on the organisms adopting them, with the result that more copies of those genes survived and spread in ensuing generations. Take the principle that we should care for (and avoid harm to) members of our family. This moral imperative likely evolved via the mechanism of ‘kin selection’, which ensures that we behave in ways that increase the chances of our genes being passed on by endeavouring to help our close genetic relatives to stay alive and produce offspring. Loyalty to group, on the other hand, evolves in social species that do better when acting in a coordinated way rather than independently. Reciprocity (the idea that I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine) leads to benefits that selfish action alone cannot accomplish. And deference to superiors is another way of staying alive, in this case by allocating positions of dominance or submission in a coordinated fashion rather than both parties fighting to the death.

The theory of ‘morality as cooperation’ proposes that these seven principles of cooperation together comprise the essence of moral thinking everywhere. Ultimately, every human action that prompts a moral judgement can be directly traced to a transgression against one or more of these cooperative principles.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (pp. 66-67). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition. (my formatting)

Universal Morality

That’s the theory. What follows is a description of an “unprecedented study” to test the hypothesis that these seven principles are indeed universal. Harvey Whitehouse and his colleagues took sixty societies that had been extensively studied by anthropologists:

To qualify for inclusion, each society had to have been the subject of at least 1,200 pages of descriptive data pertaining to its cultural system. It must also have been studied by at least one professionally trained anthropologist based on at least one year of immersive fieldwork utilizing a working knowledge of the language used locally. The sample of societies was selected to maximize diversity and minimize the likelihood that cultural groups had adopted their moral beliefs from one another. They were drawn from six major world regions: Sub-Saharan Africa, Circum-Mediterranean, East Eurasia, Insular Pacific, North America, and South America.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (p. 67). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition.

In 3,460 paragraphs from 400 documents they located the seven principles being judged by each society according to an ethical value.

This produced 962 observed moral judgements of the seven types of cooperative behaviour. In 961 of those instances (99.9 per cent of all cases), the cooperative behaviour was judged morally good. The only exception was on a remote island in Micronesia where stealing openly (rather than covertly) from others was morally endorsed. In this unusual case, however, it seemed to be because this type of stealing involved the (courageous) assertion of social dominance. So, even though this one instance seemed to contradict the rule that you should respect other people’s property, it did so by prioritizing the alternative cooperative principle of bravery.

The main take-home here is that the seven cooperative principles appear to be judged morally good everywhere.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (p. 68). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition.


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9 thoughts on “Universals of Morality (without God)”

  1. “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

    Those who cooperate, put aside minor differences to work for a greater good, eventually prevail against the selfish who are always squabbling over spoils.

        1. It doesn’t mean we all live by the same absolutes in the sense of the Big Ten. Each of those seven factors are up for different emphases and applications in different cultures.

          1. Yes, which also applies to Anat’s post below: the principle of cooperation per se doesn’t resolve everything, there remains to be decided whom to cooperate with for what end. At that point the conflict may become Darwinian: the strongest cooperation network wins.

  2. To the extent that such commonalities between cultures are the result of evolutionary selection (and merely finding such commonalities is not sufficient evidence for such selection), we no longer live in the environment in which these traits could have been selected for. We live in much larger societies with multiple levels of organization, where each of us belongs to multiple intersecting sets of groups, each demanding loyalty to some extent. Many of us interact with few to no blood relatives, and with many unrelated people. Also, there are many situations where loyalty to one’s group can drive one to do many wrongs to those who are not group-members, as can deferring to superiors. How do we overcome these instincts when they no longer lead us to do good?

    1. Those are the interesting questions Harvey Whitehouse explores in Inheritance. Our cooperative nature is the product of evolution, but the seven universals that were selected through the success of cooperation have been used to serve different interests in complex and technologically advanced societies — as you imply.

      I’d like to post more about his synthesis of the research over the past 40 years. I’m currently following up a wider reading based on his work.

  3. It’s a matter of survival. Most species are made up of individuals who simply can’t survive for long periods of time alone in the wilderness. No human hermit survives without tools and knowledge brought with him from his group; and, no hermit survives without regular contact with society to buy necessities. Knives and hatchets don’t grow on trees (yes, the handle does but the blade doesn’t.)

    1. Yes, we can scarcely survive for long without reliance upon some form of social cooperation. As social groups grow in size, however, different methods are used to keep them united as a social group: first there is the natural biological bond of kinship; beyond that we have rituals (feasts at harvests, etc) as the society gets larger to bind us; but not even rituals remain as a strong glue when there are so many anonymous faces as societies grow larger still so fear to disobey a chief can be found to be effective, with that fear maintained by gruesome displays of cruelty (killings, human sacrifice); but even that kind of violence cannot be used over larger societies still (the fear of the ruler diminishes the further away one lives), and that’s where doctrinal religions help out — inculcating a shared sense of values….. But doctrinal religions and ideologies also invite a compulsion to “make everybody conform”, even outsiders — hence imperialistic wars. . . . & there, in the smallest nutshell you can imagine, is a history of the human race! 😉

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