In the mid-1990s, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork with the inhabitants of a remote atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia. Their contact with the outside world consisted of a government ship that, about six times a year, serviced the atoll and other remote islands in the region. Thus, it came as a great surprise when half a year into my fieldwork a yacht appeared one morning in the atoll’s lagoon. The yacht was owned by a German couple who, following retirement, decided to travel the world by sea. They were clearly well versed in the cultural customs of Micronesia; once they disembarked they headed directly to the chief, with the appropriate gifts in tow, to ask permission to visit the atoll. While the German couple spoke to the chief, some teens decided to visit the yacht and help themselves to some of the retirees’ equipment. When the couple returned to their yacht and noticed the missing items they insisted that the chief find those who were responsible for the theft so that the stolen items could be returned. The chief, however, refused. The helpless couple eventually went on their way, presumably regretting that they had ever stopped for a visit.

I was troubled by the affair, but conversations throughout the day made it clear that others did not share my concerns. As was explained to me, the retirees were wealthy so why shouldn’t the teens help themselves to this surfeit? In their mind there was no stolen property or act of theft; this was simply an appropriate redistribution of wealth. I had heard this argument during my first days of fieldwork when I returned to my hut to find some new friends looking through my luggage. My anthropological training—understanding before judgment—was being tested to the limits. It was a useful encounter early in my fieldwork because it emphasized something that is more fully appreciated through experience than books: my moral assumptions were not necessarily their moral assumptions.

“… breach of obligation may be ‘one of the few, if not, indeed, the only act that is always and everywhere held to be immoral’.”

Anthropologists are often unwelcome guests to evolutionary conversations about human universals. My non-anthropological colleagues have understandably tired of the anthropological refrain “But in my tribe, they do X…,” where X is some exception to whatever universal belief or behavior is under discussion. So yes, in our discussion we can scratch “stealing” off the list of potential universal moral rules, although on Ifaluk taking resources from someone who does not exceed your wealth is immoral and understood as stealing. And of course, many other potential candidates ultimately fall short. For example, in many cultures killing is sanctioned under specific conditions (e.g., in defense) and incest is not only acceptable in some cultures but expected, especially among the aristocracy. Finding universal moral rules is no easy task.

Anthropologist Roy Rappaport, however, suggested that breach of obligation may be “one of the few, if not, indeed, the only act that is always and everywhere held to be immoral.”1 Rappaport’s argument is long and difficult, but in short, he suggested that ritual performances establish obligations to behave according to the moral values explicitly or implicitly encoded in the rituals. Rituals do not enforce moral behaviors—lying following an oath in a court of law is all too common—but they do establish that such an action is no longer simply lying, it is a breach of a publicly accepted obligation (to tell the truth) and is now understood as perjury.

Why should anyone care that upholding obligations established through ritual is possibly a universal moral rule? Because it moves the conversation away from searching for humanity’s universal characteristics, a search that even if successful will not help us build a better world. As Adam Seligman and colleagues note, such commonalities will not provide guidance in living with our differences.2 Rappaport’s thesis does not sweep away the rich cultural diversity in moral rules, but rather posits a universal underlying structure through which moral obligations are established. Understanding this structure is vital for facing the inherent challenges of living in a morally diverse global community.


  1. Rappaport, R. A. (1999). Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge University Press. (quote from page 132)
  2. Seligman, A. B., Wasserfall, R. R., & Montgomery, D. W. (2015). Living with Difference: How to Build Community in a Divided World. University of California Press.

Image: Global Environment Facility Flickr

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.