In 2012, Oliver Scott Curry was an anthropology lecturer at the University of Oxford. One day, he organized a debate among his students about whether morality was innate or acquired. One side argued passionately that morality was the same everywhere; the other, that morals were different everywhere.

“I realized that, obviously, no one really knew, and so decided to find out for myself,” Curry says.

Seven years later, Curry, now a senior researcher at Oxford’s Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, can offer up an answer to the seemingly ginormous question of what morality is and how it does—or doesn’t—vary around the world.

Morality, he says, is meant to promote cooperation. “People everywhere face a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them,” he says as lead author of a paper recently published in Current Anthropology. “Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code. All agree that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do.”

Image: University of Chicago

For the study, Curry’s group studied ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies, across over 600 sources. The universal rules of morality are:

  • Help your family
  • Help your group
  • Return favors
  • Be brave
  • Defer to superiors
  • Divide resources
  • Respect others’ property

The authors reviewed seven “well-established” types of cooperation to test the idea that morality evolved to promote cooperation, including family values, or why we allocate resources to family; group loyalty, or why we form groups, conform to local norms, and promote unity and solidarity; social exchange or reciprocity, or why we trust others, return favors, seek revenge, express gratitude, feel guilt, and make up after fights; resolving conflicts through contests which entail “hawkish displays of dominance” such as bravery or “dovish displays of submission,” such as humility or deference; fairness, or how to divide disputed resources equally or compromise; and property rights, that is, not stealing.

The team found that these seven cooperative behaviors were considered morally good in 99.9% of cases across cultures. Curry is careful to note that people around the world differ hugely in how they prioritize different cooperative behaviors. But he said the evidence was overwhelming in widespread adherence to those moral values.

“I was surprised by how unsurprising it all was,” he says. “I expected there would be lots of ‘be brave,’ ‘don’t steal from others,’ and ‘return favors,’ but I also expected a lot of strange, bizarre moral rules.” They did find the occasional departure from the norm. For example, among the Chuukese, the largest ethnic group in the Federated States of Micronesia, “to steal openly from others is admirable in that it shows a person’s dominance and demonstrates that he is not intimidated by the aggressive powers of others.” That said, researchers who studied the group concluded that the seven universal moral rules still apply to this behavior: “it appears to be a case in which one form of cooperation (respect for property) has been trumped by another (respect for a hawkish trait, although not explicitly bravery),” they wrote.

Plenty of studies have looked at some rules of morality in some places, but none have attempted to examined the rules of morality in such a large sample of societies. Indeed, when Curry was trying to get funding, his idea was repeatedly rejected as either too obvious or too impossible to prove.

The question of whether morality is universal or relative is an age-old one. In the 17th century, John Locke wrote that if you look around the world, “you could be sure that there is scarce that principle of morality to be named, or rule of virtue to be thought on …. which is not, somewhere or other, slighted and condemned by the general fashion of whole societies of men.”

Philosopher David Hume disagreed. He wrote that moral judgments depend on an “internal sense or feeling, which nature has made universal in the whole species,” noting that certain qualities, including “truth, justice, courage, temperance, constancy, dignity of mind . . . friendship, sympathy, mutual attachment, and fidelity” were pretty universal.

In a critique of Curry’s paper, Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, says that we are far from consensus on a definition of morality. Is it about fairness and justice, or about “maximizing the welfare of sentient beings?” Is it about delaying gratification for long-term gain, otherwise known as intertemporal choice—or maybe altruism?

Bloom also says that the authors of the Current Anthropology study do not sufficiently explain the way we come to moral judgements—that is, the roles that reason, emotions, brain structures, social forces, and development may play in shaping our ideas of morality. While the paper claims that moral judgments are universal because of “collection of instincts, intuitions, inventions, and institutions,” Bloom writes, the authors make “no specific claims about what’s innate, what’s learned, and what arises from personal choice.”

So perhaps the seven universal rules may not be the ultimate list. But at a time when it often feels like we don’t have much in common, Curry offers a framework to consider how we might.

“Humans are a very tribal species,” Curry says. “We are quick to divide into us and them.”