Morality as Cooperation

Project leader: Oliver Scott Curry

What is morality? Where does it come from, and how does it work? And how and why do moral values vary, between individuals, and across cultures? The theory of ‘morality as cooperation’ (MAC) argues that morality is best understood as a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life. MAC draws on evolutionary game theory to argue that, because there are many types of cooperation, there will be many types of morality. These include: family values, group loyalty, reciprocity, heroism, deference, fairness and property rights. Previous research suggests that these seven types of morality are evolutionarily-ancient, psychologically-distinct, and cross-culturally universal. The goal of this project is to further develop and test MAC, and explore its implications for traditional moral philosophy. Current research is examining the genetic and psychological architecture of these seven types of morality, as well as using phylogenetic methods to investigate how morals are culturally transmitted. Future work will seek to extend MAC to incorporate sexual morality and environmental ethics. In this way, the project aims to place the study of morality on a firm scientific foundation.


Oliver Scott Curry is Research Director of, and a Research Affiliate of the School of Anthropology, University of Oxford. He received his PhD from the London School of Economics in 2005.


  • Curry, O. S., Mullins, D. A., & Whitehouse, H. (2019). Is it good to cooperate? Testing the theory of morality-as-cooperation in 60 societies. Current Anthropology, 60(1), 47-69.
  • Curry, O. S., Jones Chesters, M., & Van Lissa, C. J. (2019). Mapping morality with a compass: Testing the theory of ‘morality-as-cooperation’ with a new questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality, 78, 106-124.
  • Curry, O. S. (2016). Morality as Cooperation: A Problem-Centred Approach. In T. K. Shackelford & R. D. Hansen (Eds.), The Evolution of Morality (pp. 27-51): Springer International Publishing.