What is morality? And to what extent does it vary around the world? The theory of morality-as-cooperation argues that morality consists of a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the nonzerosum problems of cooperation and conflict recurrent in human social life. This theory predicts that specific forms of cooperative behaviour – helping kin, helping your group, reciprocating, being brave, deferring to superiors, dividing disputed resources, and respecting prior ownership – will be considered morally good wherever they arise, irrespective of culture. This prediction challenges widely held ‘cultural relativist' views of morality. The present study tests this prediction by investigating the moral valence of these seven cooperative behaviours in the ethnographic records of 60 societies. The results provide strong support for the theory: the moral valence of cooperative behaviour is uniformly positive; and the majority of these cooperative moral values appear in the majority of cultures, in all regions of the world. These findings provide new insights into moral universals and moral variation. And they indicate that morality-as-cooperation could provide the unified theory of morality that the behavioural sciences have hitherto lacked.
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 psychology and comparative anthropology. Oliver’s work argues that morality is best understood as a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation and conflict recurrent in human social life. He has recently tested this theory of ‘morality as cooperation’ by means of a comprehensive cross-cultural survey of the moral values of 60 traditional societies. He is currently developing a new psychological measure of moral values for use in cross-cultural research.