"Handshake" by Aidan Jones is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Acton Institute Powerblog

The seven moral rules of cooperation that unite humanity

In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul affirms that Gentiles have the law “written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15). Since then there has been a constant debate about what constitutes the natural law (i.e., a body of unchanging moral principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct) or whether it even exists.

A new study finds confirmation for the natural law and identifies seven of these laws that are related to cooperation.

Oxford University researcher Oliver Scott Curry led a team that studied ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies across over 600 sources to test the theory of “morality-as-cooperation,” which argues that morality consists of a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life.

In a new paper recently published in Current Anthropology, they report that seven cooperative behaviors “are observed in the majority of cultures, with equal frequency across all regions of the world.” Their candidates for universal moral rules based on cooperation are:

1. Help your family (allocation of resources to kin)
2. Help your group (coordination to mutual advantage)
3. Return favors (social exchange or reciprocity)
4. Be brave (resolving conflicts through contests which entail “hawkish displays of dominance”)
5. Defer to superiors (resolving conflicts through contests which entail “dovish displays of submission”)
6. Divide resources fairly (fairness)
7. Respect others’ property (property rights)

The rules do appear to be (almost) universal. In 961 out of 962 observations (99.9 percent), cooperative behavior had an intrinsic moral attractiveness. The one exception to the rule they found was among the Chuukese, the largest ethnic group in the Federated States of Micronesia. Among the Chuuk “to steal openly from others is admirable in that it shows a person’s dominance and demonstrates that he is not intimidated by the aggressive powers of others. The researchers conclude that it appears to be a case in which one form of cooperation (respect for property) has been trumped by another (respect for a hawkish trait, although not explicitly bravery).

There were 18 other examples of these seven moral values coming into conflict: nine examples of conflict between helping family and helping group; two of conflict between helping family and being brave; two of conflict between helping family and deferring to authority; and one example each of conflict between helping family and reciprocating, helping group and being brave, reciprocating and being brave, being brave and being deferential, and being deferential and respecting possession. But as the researchers note, in these cases the moral values were portrayed as being in conflict, rather than one being good and the other bad.

This findings contradicts the philosopher John Locke, who argued that, “He that will carefully peruse the history of mankind, and look abroad into the several tribes of men . . . will be able to satisfy himself, that there is scarce that principle of morality to be named, or rule of virtue to be thought on . . . which is not, somewhere or other, slighted and condemned by the general fashion of whole societies of men.”

In contrast, another Enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, argued that moral judgments depend on an “internal sense or feeling, which nature has made universal in the whole species,” and that as a result certain qualities—such as “truth, justice, courage, temperance, constancy, dignity of mind . . . friendship, sympathy, mutual attachment, and fidelity” are “the most universal, established principles of morals,” “esteemed universally, since the foundation of the world,” “in all nations and all ages.”

As Curry observes, “In short, Hume was right, and Locke was wrong. When you ‘look abroad into the several tribes of men’ there are some widely held morals that are not elsewhere ‘slighted or condemned,’ and they include precisely those morals predicted by morality-as-cooperation.”

“Handshake” by Aidan Jones is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).