A Universal Moral Code?

57 varieties It appears that there may be a universal moral code, at least across 60 very different cultures, at least according to this large metastudy of anthropological literature. The authors focus explicitly and exclusively on manifestations of cooperative behaviour, so the level of abstraction is fairly high. I’m not totally convinced that it constitutes anything as formulaic as a code, and it contributes little or nothing to philosophical or pragmatic debates about ethical behaviour, but it is nonetheless a very interesting discovery.

The seven moral behaviours/values that the authors hypothesized would be universal, based on their theory of morality-as-cooperation (a game-theory inspired model) are:

  • allocation of resources to kin (family values),
  • coordination to mutual advantage (group loyalty),
  • social exchange (reciprocity),
  • contest between hawks (showing bravery), and
  • doves (showing respect),
  • division (fairness), and
  • possession (property rights).

The hypothesis was confirmed by the analysis. Fascinatingly, one almost-exception was found relating to property rights. In Chuuk society, openly stealing from others is valorized as a form of bravery, albeit that other indicators show that property rights are normally respected by most Chuuk people most of the time, so all that this shows is that bravery is sometimes considered a more important moral value than respect for other people’s property. I suspect similar behaviours might be found among gangs in many cultures, where such actions may signify group loyalty, bravery, respect for other group members, and so on. Assuming that people generally behave well according to their social norms (which they manifestly do), moral issues are only ever a matter of deliberation when they come into conflict with one another so this is not so much an exception as a proof of the rule.

The authors wisely note the limitations of the study, which uses papers that were not originally intended to explore ethical issues, that only looks at 60 cultures, and that uses a methodology that is almost guaranteed to introduce bias, albeit that they took sensible precautions to limit the worst effects of this. They cannot claim that these are the only 7 universals, by any means: these are just the ones that they looked for. Nor can they even reliably claim universality, though this is a decent sample so any exceptions are likely to be quite exceptional, and the results do support their theory.  Because their focus is solely on cooperative strategies, there is nothing relating to pretty big ethical questions on which most societies are likely to agree, like whether it is OK to kill other people, or eat them, or lie to them, and so on. There’s still a lot of scope for variation in ethical beliefs and behaviours within this broad framework.

None-the-less, this provides a rare chunk of empirical evidence to support there being some universality to at least broad groups of moral behaviours and values. Mostly, and unsurprisingly given the game-theoretical basis of the model, the concerns addressed are what you might predict if you were thinking about how a complex society might develop methods of cooperation, given a few basic evolutionary assumptions about gene preservation, an innate urge to hang around with others of your species, and a limit on resources. Such patterns are likely to be innate simply due to the inevitable consequences of a large group of reproducing social animals living together with limited resources. This implies that we might see exactly the same universals in other social species in such circumstances too, at least in those with the capacity for complex thought like most mammals and higher avians. I can’t immediately think of any obvious real-life exceptions, though there are certainly differences in the significance and influence of each value in different social species. Also, at least some of the values may not translate well to truly eusocial creatures like naked mole rats, nor to species where territory or other forms of ownership mean very little (some fish, for instance) nor to those that do not normally spend a lot of time together (cats or octopuses, for instance).

There are potential conflicts between several of the values, the most obvious being bravery/respect, fairness/property rights, though it is possible to imagine conflicts between any or all of them, as the example of the Chuuk people illustrates. The fact that these might be universal ethical patterns does not imply that there are therefore any universal solutions to ethical dilemmas. Nor does universality have any bearing on the fact-value gap or the naturalistic fallacy: universality does not imply rightness. It does, though, provide a promising theoretical model that may be useful when imagining alien intelligences, including those we might one day design ourselves.

Originally posted at: https://landing.athabascau.ca/bookmarks/view/3982628/a-universal-moral-code

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

1 Comment on A Universal Moral Code?

  1. dave says:

    nice weather in Chuuk land. R.D. Laing in his latter days used to talk about similar things. I did did some business recently with some people in Kagali. Their office is between the Gorilla Statue and the Genocide Memorial. Rwanda must be way up the list of places where life is much, much better now – just so long as you agree with the government. Keep well!

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