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The ties that bind

According to Oxford University, all societies are held together by seven universal moral rules.

Many western cultures may seem to be moving towards more liberal, less hierarchical organisations, the new research suggests that traditional power structures and basic values of charity and fraternity are the cornerstones of successful societies.

The study of 60 different cultures around the world found that all communities operate under seven basic moral codes.

Those universal rules are: help your family, help your group, return favours, be brave, defer to superiors, divide resources fairly and respect the property of others.

Encompassed within the code would be caring for frail relatives, passing on property to offspring, going to war if needed to protect the group and respecting elders.

The character traits held for every kind of community, be they traditional hunter-gatherers or advanced western civilisations, helping to uphold civilised society and foster social cooperation, researchers found.

“Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code,” said Dr Oliver Scott Curry, lead author and senior researcher at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, at Oxford.

“These seven moral rules appear to be universal across cultures because people face the same social problems.

“Even if some of these traits look right wing or conservative, for example deferring to authority, left wing people will still have a group loyalty and deference to someone or something.

“This shows there really is more that unites us than divides us.”

The study, published in Current Anthropology, is the largest and most comprehensive survey of morals ever conducted and aimed to find out whether different societies had different versions of morality.

The team traveled to Yale University to analyse ethnographic accounts from more than 600 sources, of 60 societies around the world.

They found that the seven rules were considered morally good in all societies and despite appearing like Western Christian principles, were in fact, observed across all continents, religions and politics.

However some communities valued certain rules more highly than others.

For example, among the Amhara of Ethiopia, ‘flouting kinship obligation is regarded as a shameful deviation, indicating an evil character’, while in Korea, there exists an ‘egalitarian community ethic of mutual assistance and cooperation among neighbours and strong in-group solidarity”.

For the Maasai of Kenya, personal bravery was more important with ethnographic reports finding: ‘Those who cling to warrior virtues are still highly respected’, and ‘the uncompromising ideal of supreme warriorhood involves ascetic commitment to self-sacrifice and a supreme display of courageous loyalty’.

The Bemba in Zambia exhibit ‘a deep sense of respect for elders’ authority’ while among the Tarahumara of Mexico, ‘respect for the property of others is the keystone of all interpersonal relations’.

“Of course not everyone in society is an angel, and you’re going to get some bad guys but it shows there are similar underlying values across all cultures,” said Prof Curry.

“But 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.”

Co-author Professor Harvey Whitehouse, said anthropologists should now set about testing the theory in the field rather than relying on old data.

“This study was based on historical descriptions of cultures around the world,” he said.

“These descriptions were made independently of, and prior to, the theory we’re testing.
In future, if anthropologists are serious about testing theories of morality, they will need to gather new data, more systematically, out in the field.”


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