7 Universal Moral Codes Found Around the World

Most people have a moral compass, or intuition for right and wrong, even if they don’t always follow it. This inner voice has long been credited to culture and religion, but while society does influence our sense of ethics, the roots of morality also seem to run much deeper. Research suggests it’s an ancient instinct in humans, and has found hints of morality in some other social animals, too.

And despite the wide variety of human cultures around the world, a new study identifies seven “universal moral rules” that exist in virtually every society. The study, published this month in the journal Current Anthropology, is “the largest and most comprehensive cross-cultural survey of morals ever conducted,” according to a news release about the findings from the University of Oxford.

“The debate between moral universalists and moral relativists has raged for centuries, but now we have some answers,” says lead author Oliver Scott Curry, senior researcher at Oxford’s Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, in a statement. “People everywhere face a similar set of social problems, and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them.”

Earlier studies have looked at some of these rules in certain places, Curry and his colleagues note, but none have analyzed all of them across a broad, representative sample of societies. For this new study, they explored a database called the Human Relations Area Files, which includes thousands of ethnographies “from simple hunter-gatherer bands to kingdoms and modern states.” They examined ethnographic views of morality from a stratified random sample of 60 societies around the planet (see map below), comprising more than 600,000 words from more than 600 sources.

They found that seven forms of cooperative behavior “are always seen as morally good,” with not a single society viewing any of them as morally bad. The morals seem to exist with equal frequency across continents, the researchers report, noting they are “not the exclusive preserve of ‘the West’ or any other region.”

Here is a list of those seven guidelines, which the study’s authors describe as “plausible candidates for universal moral rules”:

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

The study tests the theory of morality as cooperation, its authors write, which argues morality is “a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life.” It’s part of the idea that morality evolved in social animals because it unifies and bolsters their groups, discouraging individuals from behaving selfishly at the expense of the greater good.

Since there are many types of cooperation, this theory suggests we’ve adapted by developing many types of morality. We may be willing to risk our own lives to protect close relatives, for example, due to the evolutionary benefits of kin selection. We value unity, solidarity and loyalty because there’s strength and safety in numbers, compelling us to form groups and coalitions. Social exchange can explain why we build trust and return favors, as well as our patterns of guilt, gratitude, atonement and forgiveness. The need for conflict resolution may drive us to admire both “hawkish displays of dominance” (bravery) and “dovish displays of submission” (deference to superiors), along with fair division of resources and property rights.

“Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code,” Curry says. “All agree that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do.”

Every society seems to agree on these seven basic rules, but the study did find variations in how the rules are prioritized. That makes sense, since their ambiguity could set the stage for moral dilemmas. If your family betrays your country, for example, which loyalty takes precedence? And how much should we really defer to corrupt superiors who abuse their power? “In some societies, family appeared to trump group; in other societies it was the other way around,” the researchers write. “In some societies there was an overwhelming obligation to seek revenge; in other societies this was trumped by the desire to maintain group solidarity.”

It’s worth noting these rules focus widely on what we should do, without specifying particular sins to avoid. They are broad principles, illuminating our shared values but not necessarily offering a definitive code of human ethics. Their ambiguity means they could encompass specific taboos that aren’t spelled out, but the authors add that under the theory of morality as cooperation, “behavior not tied to a specific type of cooperation will not constitute a distinct moral domain.”

Hitting someone without permission, for example, “is not a foundational moral violation,” they write. “Instead, the moral valence of harm will vary according to the cooperative context: uncooperative harm (battery) will be considered morally bad, but cooperative harm (punishment, self-defense) will be considered morally good, and competitive harm in zero-sum contexts (some aspects of mate competition and intergroup conflict) will be considered morally neutral — ‘all’s fair in love and war.'”

A growing body of research suggests altruistic instincts push humans and other social animals to cooperate, but some researchers say the “morality as cooperation” theory is still too reductive. It may not account for societies in which cooperative traits aren’t considered moral, for example, like utilitarians who don’t care about kinship or anarchists who don’t defer to superiors. Cooperation may also fail to explain certain aspects of human ethics like sexual morality, as some outside researchers write in comments published along with the new study, or the existence of destructive morals throughout human history. Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of philosophy at City College of New York, has also called the study’s premise “both interesting and more than a bit irritating,” arguing that it “fails to make the crucial conceptual distinction between the origins of morality and its current function.”

Curry and his colleagues address many of these points in a reply at the end of their paper. They found no societies where these seven rules don’t fit, even though “our survey methodology explicitly set out to find them,” they write, arguing that any such society would be an “outlier” whose beliefs don’t represent humanity as a whole. Still, they agree it remains to be seen whether morality as cooperation “can explain all moral phenomena,” and that sexual morality in particular is still poorly understood. They also acknowledge that “morals sometimes go wrong,” but say those cases could just reflect “the inevitable limitations and by-products of cooperative strategies.”

Morality may be instinctive, but even after all this time, we still have a lot to learn about it. More research will be needed to test this and other theories about our ethical instincts, the authors of the new study write, but for now they hope there’s at least one clear moral to this story: “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 says.


People tell more convincing lies when their bladder is full

David Cameron’s full-bladder technique really does work – but perhaps not in a way that the UK prime minister intends. Before important speeches or negotiations, Cameron keeps his mind focused by refraining from micturating. The technique may be effective – but it also appears to help people to lie more convincingly.

Iris Blandón-Gitlin of California State University in Fullerton and her colleagues asked 22 students to complete a questionnaire on controversial social or moral issues. They were then interviewed by a panel, but instructed to lie about their opinions on two issues they felt strongly about. After completing the questionnaire, and 45 minutes before the interview, in what they were told was an unrelated task, half drank 700 ml of water and the other half 50 ml.

The interviewers detected lies less accurately among those with a full bladder. Subjects who needed to urinate showed fewer signs that they were lying and gave longer, more detailed answers than those who drank less.

The findings build on work by Mirjam Tuk of Imperial College London, whose study in 2011 found that people with full bladders were better able to resist short-term impulses and make decisions that led to bigger rewards in the long run. These findings hinted that different activities requiring self-control share common mechanisms in the brain, and engaging in one type of control could enhance another.

Other research has suggested that we have a natural instinct to tell the truth which must be inhibited when we lie. Blandón-Gitlin was therefore interested to see whether the “inhibitory spillover effect” identified by Tuk would apply to deception.

Although we think of bladder control and other forms of impulse control as different, they involve common neural resources, says Blandón-Gitlin. “They’re subjectively different but in the brain they’re not. They’re not domain-specific. When you activate the inhibitory control network in one domain, the benefits spill over to other tasks.”

Blandón-Gitlin stresses that her study does not suggest that David Cameron would be more deceitful as a consequence of his full bladder technique. But she says that deception might be made easier using the approach – as long as the desire to urinate isn’t overwhelming. “If it’s just enough to keep you on edge, you might be able to focus and be a better liar,” she says.


Medication for Parkinson’s disease shown to lower morality and increase willingness to harm others

Healthy people who are given commonly prescribed mood-altering drugs see significant changes in the degree to which they are willing to tolerate harm against themselves and others, according to a study published Thursday. The research has implications for understanding human morality and decision-making.

A team of scientists from the University College London (UCL) and Oxford University found that healthy people who were given the serotonin-boosting antidepressant citalopram were willing to pay twice as much to prevent harm to themselves or others, compared to those given a placebo. By contrast, those who were given a dose of the dopamine-enhancing Parkinson’s drug levodopa made more selfish decisions, overcoming an existing tendency to prefer harming themselves over others.

The researchers said their findings, published in the journal Current Biology, provided clues to the neurological and chemical roots of common clinical disorders like psychopathy, which causes people to disregard the emotions of others.

The researchers compared how much pain subjects were willing to anonymously inflict on themselves or other people in exchange for money. Out of 175 subjects, 89 were given citalopram or a placebo and 86 were given levodopa or a placebo.

They were anonymously paired up into decision-makers and receivers, and all subjects were given shocks at their pain threshold. The decision-makers were then allowed to choose a different amount of money in exchange for a different amount of shocks, either to themselves or the receivers.

On average, people who were given a placebo were willing to pay about 35p per shock to prevent harm to themselves and 44p per shock to prevent harm to others. Those who were given citalopram became more averse to harm, paying an average of 60p to avoid harm to themselves and 73p per shock to avoid harm to others. This meant that citalopram users, on average, delivered 30 fewer shocks to themselves and 35 fewer shocks to others.

However, those who were given levodopa became more selfish, showing no difference in the amount they were willing to pay to prevent shocks to themselves or others. On average, they were willing to pay about 35p per shock to prevent harm to themselves or others, meaning that they delivered on average about 10 more shocks to others during the trial than those who took a placebo. They also showed less hesitation about shocking others than those given the placebo.

Similar research conducted by the same team in November found that subjects were willing to spare the stranger pain twice as often as they spared themselves, indicating that they preferred harming themselves over others for profit, a behavior known as “hyper-altruism.”

“Our findings have implications for potential lines of treatment for antisocial behavior, as they help us to understand how serotonin and dopamine affect people’s willingness to harm others for personal gain,” Molly Crockett of UCL, the study’s lead author, said in a press release. “We have shown that commonly-prescribed psychiatric drugs influence moral decisions in healthy people, raising important ethical questions about the use of such drugs.

“It is important to stress, however, that these drugs may have different effects in psychiatric patients compared to healthy people. More research is needed to determine whether these drugs affect moral decisions in people who take them for medical reasons.”