There is much evidence to suggest that humans everywhere recognize the virtues of kindness, fairness, loyalty, respect, sharing, courage, and obedience and abhor cruelty, cheating, betrayal, subversion, hoarding, cowardice, and disobedience2,5,10. But people are often obliged to prioritize one virtue over others or condemn some vices more than others, depending on a wide range of contextual factors and goals. And this variability is apparent also at the level of entire cultural groups, some tending historically to emphasize certain virtues more highly or punishing particular vices more harshly than others. Social scientists have presented countless examples of moral values that serve to reinforce locally prevailing social structures – for example, that egalitarian hunter-gatherers value sharing14, armies demand loyalty and self-sacrifice4, chiefdoms emphasize respect for natural superiors11, and affluent liberal democracies value kindness9.

Universal moral intuitions are like anchors, invisible from the surface but immovably secured to the seabed, whereas culturally prevalent moral norms are like buoys on the surface of the water, available to direct observation.

At an even cruder level, it is possible to distinguish two main kinds of societies from a moral perspective: those that privilege individual rights (even at the cost of collective safety and security) and those that prioritize devotion and conformity to the group (even at the cost of personal freedoms and privileges). Durkheim associated the first kind of society with a highly elaborated division of labor in which a great diversity of human skills and abilities needed to be integrated into an organic whole, whereas deference to the group was more prominent in simple societies in which individual qualities mattered less3. A modern variant of this argument is presented by Moral Foundations Theory which associates the individualizing virtues of care and fairness with Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (aka WEIRD) societies8 and more groupish and authoritarian moral values with traditional societies6,7. It is possible also to characterize the whole of human history in terms of shifts of moral emphasis. For instance, despotism has been said to follow a U-shaped curve in cultural evolution: while our ancestors were egalitarian apes, valuing compassion and fairness, the rise of agriculture heralded increasingly cruel and repressive empires based on conquest, slavery, and the absolute power of rulers, but in the wake of the Axial Age and the rise of more ethical religions the tide turned again in the direction of increasingly liberal and democratic social formations1.While the details of such theories could be wrong, they all suggest that moral systems are variations on a set of universal themes.

To use a nautical analogy, the relationship between universal morality and its cultural expressions may be compared to the way in which invisible anchors and chains constrain the movements of visible buoys floating on the surface of the sea. Universal moral intuitions are like anchors, invisible from the surface but immovably secured to the seabed, whereas culturally prevalent moral norms are like buoys on the surface of the water, available to direct observation. The same analogy might apply to numerous other domains of culture. For example, there is much evidence that explicit religious beliefs, including so-called ‘theologically correct’ teachings of a given tradition12, are similarly analogous to visible buoys while more intuitive, or ‘cognitively optimal’ religious concepts13, are analogous to hidden anchor points. A key question would then become whether there is some kind of interaction between different kinds of anchors and buoys. At the risk of over-extending this metaphor, we might ask whether the lines linking religious buoys and their anchors somehow get tangled up with normative buoys and moral anchors. For example, do theologically correct religious representations somehow activate our foundational moral principles and thereby amplify or constrain their expression? Efforts to investigate questions of that kind would also need to take into account the effects of environmental factors on religion and morality, ranging from drought and pestilence to institutional innovation and warfare, analogous perhaps to the effects of wind and tides on the position of buoys. Efforts are only now beginning to explore the massive battery of empirically tractable research questions such an approach inevitably generates.


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  10. McKay, Ryan and Whitehouse, Harvey (2014). Religion and Morality. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. Printed 2015, 141(2): 447-73.
  11. Sahlins, Marshall D. (1963). Poor Man, Rich Man, Big-Man, Chief: Political Types in Melanesia and. Polynesia . Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 285-303.
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  14. Woodburn, James (1982). Egalitarian Societies, Man (NS), Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 431-451.

This article is from TVOL's project titled “This View of Morality: Can an Evolutionary Perspective Reveal a Universal Morality?” You can download a PDF of the project [here], comment on this article below, or comment on the project as a whole in the Summary and Overview.