Universal Norms in a Diverse World

There are, evidently, at least seven:

What’s more, the theory leads us to expect that, because there are many types of cooperation, there will be many types of morality. Kin selection explains why we feel a special duty of care for our families, and why we abhor incest. Mutualism explains why we form groups and coalitions (there is strength and safety in numbers), and hence why we value unity, solidarity, and loyalty. Social exchange explains why we trust others, reciprocate favors, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. And conflict resolution explains: why we engage in costly displays of prowess such as bravery and generosity; why we defer to our superiors; why we divide disputed resources fairly; and why we recognize prior possession.

And, as predicted by the theory, these seven moral rules – love your family, help your group, return favors, be brave, defer to authority, be fair, and respect others’ property – appear to be universal across cultures. My colleagues and I analyzed ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies (comprising over 600,000 words from over 600 sources)2. We found that these seven cooperative behaviors were always considered morally good. We found examples of most of these morals in most societies. Crucially, there were no counter-examples – no societies in which any of these behaviors were considered morally bad. And we observed these morals with equal frequency across continents; they were not the exclusive preserve of ‘the West’ or any other region.

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5 thoughts on “Universal Norms in a Diverse World

  1. I once read an essay arguing that one statement all or nearly all world religions agree on is the Golden Rule. The Abrahamic faiths all have it, maybe worded a little differently (“Do unto others as you would have done unto you” vs. “Do not do what is abhorrent to you to your neighbor”), but it’s the same thing.

    I’ve also known agnostic/atheist folks who ascribed to it, as well.

    I tend to consider it a pretty good rule.

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  2. Going back and looking at Leninism’s ideal society, at Stalinism’s, and Maoism’s, it seems like there is at least a little bit of tension between what they want and these universal norms.

    If the norms are, in fact, universal (or close enough to universal for jazz), then that’s pretty much why those systems all failed.

    Any political theory that does not take into account these norms (or wishes to work around them) will find itself failing in short order. Probably have to start punishing people who prefer the universal norms to whatever newfangled system is trying to be put in place.

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  3. This brings to mind Jonathan Haidt and Moral Foundation Theory. Now short of actually paying for access to an academic paper or two I find it difficult to compare their respective methods for identifying these foundational or universal moral principles, but I note that the lists differ quite a bit.

    I’m not sure what to make of that given that both groups seem to be using some similar methods to go after the same idea and they seem to share a common theoretical framework.

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