Morality is a "human universal" (i.e., exists across all cultures worldwide), a part of human nature acquired during evolution.

Because they occur universally in all human cultures with no known exceptions, moral universals like the ones displayed here are most likely evolved psychological phenomena (Brown, 1991).

Anthropologist Donald E. Brown didn’t expect to discover the moral unity of mankind. But he did.

The scientist was looking for behavioral or cognitive traits common to all neurologically-normal humans, no matter what culture they belonged to. His idea was to list “human universals” in all societies.

His project uncovered a number of constant ethical patterns present in every single culture.

The faiths and belief systems on all the continents were colorful and variegated. Nonetheless, each proscribed certain conduct. Rape? - prohibited. Murder? - forbidden in all.[1]

Other commonalities were identified. Empathy, for example. Cooperation. Shame. The concept of Fairness. And so on. From developed Western democracies to isolated indigenous societies – “moral universals".[2]

Decades of cross-cultural research has demonstrated that no society has a monopoly on good behavior. Moral human conduct doesn’t depend on one’s preferred religion or deity [3-7], which points to its evolutionary roots.

There is a now a large body of global research about morality across cultures, some of which builds on the moral universals that Brown discovered.[8-11] The social scientist Ara Norenzayan sums it up: “…Religion’s connection with morality is culturally variable; this link is weak or absent in small-scale groups, and solidifies as group size and societal complexity increase over time and across societies.”[12]

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  • Aime, H., Broesch, T., Aknin, L. B., & Warneken, F. (2017). Evidence for proactive and reactive helping in two-to five-year-olds from a small-scale society. PLoS One, 12(11), e0187787.
  • Apicella, C. L. (2018). High levels of rule-bending in a minimally religious and largely egalitarian forager population. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 8(2), 133-148.
  • Blake, P. R., Corbit, J., Callaghan, T. C., & Warneken, F. (2016). Give as I give: Adult influence on children’s giving in two cultures. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 152, 149-160.
  • Blake, P.R., McAuliffe, K., Corbit, J., Callaghan, T.C., Barry, O., Bowie, A., Kleutsch, L., Kramer, K.L., Ross, E., Vongsachang, H., Wrangham, R., & Warneken, F., (2015) The ontogeny of fairness in seven societies. Nature, 528, 258–261.
  • Boyd R., Gintis H., Bowles S., & Richerson P.J. (2003). The evolution of altruistic punishment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 100, 3531-3535.
  • Brown, D.E. (1991). Human universals. New York : McGraw-Hill.
  • Bursztyn, L., Fiorin, S., Gottlieb, D., & Kanz, M. (2015). Moral incentives - Experimental evidence from repayments of an Islamic credit card (No. w21611). National Bureau of Economic Research.PDF
  • Cushman, F., Young, L., & Hauser, M.D. (2007). The role of conscious reasoning and intuition in moral judgments: Testing three principles of harm. Psychological Science, 17 (12), 1082-89. PDF
  • Dahlsgaard, K., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Shared virtue: The convergence of valued human strengths across culture and history. Review of General Psychology, 9(3), 203-213. PDF
  • Fehr E., Fischbacher, U. & Gachter, S. (2002). Strong reciprocity, human cooperation, and the enforcement of social norms. Human Nature, 13:1-25. PDF
  • Fiddick, L. (2003). Is there a faculty of deontic reasoning? A critical reevaluation of abstract deontic versions of the Wason selection task. In D. Over (Ed.), Evolution and the psychology of thinking: The debate. (pp. 33-60). Psychology Press. PDF
  • Fiddick, L. (2004). Domains of deontic reasoning: Resolving the discrepancy between the cognitive and moral reasoning literatures. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 57A, 447-474. PDF
  • Geipel, J., Hadjichristidis, C., & Surian, L. (2015). The foreign language effect on moral judgment- The role of emotions and norms. PloS one, 10(7), e0131529.PDF
  • Gintis, H., Bowles, S., Boyd, R. & Fehr, E. (2003). Explaining altruistic behavior in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24, 153-172. PDF
  • Graham, J., Meindl, P., Beall, E., Johnson, K. M., & Zhang, L. (2016). Cultural differences in moral judgment and behavior, across and within societies. Current Opinion in Psychology, 8, 125-130.PDF
  • Henrich, J., Boyd, R., Bowles, S., Camerer, C., Fehr, E., Gintis, H., . . . Tracer, D. (2005). 'Economic Man' in cross-cultural perspective: Behavioral experiments in 15 small-scale societies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(6), 795–855. PDF
  • Johnson, D.D.P. (2005) God's punishment and public goods: A test of the supernatural punishment hypothesis in 186 world cultures. Human Nature, 16 (4), 410–446. PDF
  • Lieberman, D. & Symons, D. (1998).  Sibling incest avoidance: From Westermarck to Wolf. Quarterly Review of Biology, 73 (4), 463–466.
  • Lieberman, D. (2007). Moral sentiments relating to incest: Discerning adaptations from by–products. In W. Sinnott–Armstrong (Ed.), Moral Psychology Volume 1: The Evolution of Morality. Cambridge, MA : MIT Press.
  • Lieberman, D., Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (2003). Does morality have a biological basis? An empirical test of the factors governing moral sentiments regarding incest. Proceedings of the Royal Society, London B, 270, 819–826. PDF
  • McNamara, R. A., Norenzayan, A., & Henrich, J. (2016). Supernatural punishment, in-group biases, and material insecurity- Experiments and ethnography from Yasawa, Fiji. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 6, 34-55. PDF
  • Newman, G. (1976). Comparative Deviance: Perception and law in six cultures.
  • Norenzayan, A., Shariff, A. F., Gervais, W. M., Willard, A. K., McNamara, R. A., Slingerland, E., & Henrich, J. (2016). The cultural evolution of prosocial religions. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39.PDF
  • Norenzayan, A. (2016). Theodiversity. Annual Review of Psychology, 67, 465-488.PDF
  • Norenzayan, A. (2016). Psychology, Cultural Evolution, and Religious Diversity. Annual review of psychology, 67(1).PDF
  • Norenzayan, A., & Gervais, W. M. (2013). Secular rule of law erodes believers’ political intolerance of atheists. Religion, Brain, and Behavior. PDF
  • O’Neill, P., & Petrinovich, L. (1998). A Preliminary Cross-Cultural Study of Moral Intuitions. Evolution and Human Behavior, 19(6), 349-367.
  • Purzycki, B. G., Henrich, J., Apicella, C., Atkinson, Q. D., Baimel, A., Cohen, E.,...& Norenzayan, A. (2017). The evolution of religion and morality: a synthesis of ethnographic and experimental evidence from eight societies. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 1-32.
  • Purzycki, B. G., Ross, C. T., Apicella, C., Atkinson, Q. D., Cohen, E., McNamara, R. A., ... & Henrich, J. (2018). Material security, life history, and moralistic religions: A cross-cultural examination. PLoS One, 13(3), e0193.
  • Roes, F. L., & Raymond, M. (2003). Belief in moralizing gods. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24, 126–35.
  • Schaefer, M., Haun, D. B. M., & Tomasello, M. (2015). Fair is not fair everywhere. Psychological Science, 26(8), 1252-1260.PDF
  • Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the structure and contents of human values? Journal of Social Issues, 50(4), 19-45. PDF
  • Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2011). Mean gods make good people - Different views of God predict cheating behavior. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 21(2), 85-96.PDF
  • Shariff, A. F., & Rhemtulla, M. (2012). Divergent effects of beliefs in heaven and hell on national crime rates. PLoS ONE, 7(6).PDF
  • Smith, K., Larroucau, T., Mabulla, I. A., & Apicella, C. L. (2018). Hunter-gatherers maintain assortativity in cooperation despite high-levels of residential change and mixing. Current Biology, 28, 1-6, 856.PDF
  • Smith, D., Dyble, M., Major, K., Page, A. E., Chaudhary, N., Salali, G. D., ... & Mace, R. (2019). A friend in need is a friend indeed: Need-based sharing, rather than cooperative assortment, predicts experimental resource transfers among Agta hunter-gatherers. Evolution and Human Behavior, 40(1), 82-89.PDF
  • Sugiyama, L.S., Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (2002). Cross-cultural evidence of cognitive adaptations for social exchange among the Shiwiar of Ecuadorian Amazonia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(17) , 11537-11542. PDF
  • Sznycer, D., De Smet, D., Billingsley, J., & Lieberman, D. (2016). Coresidence duration and cues of maternal investment regulate sibling altruism across cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111(2), 159. PDF
  • Sznycer, D., Tooby, J., Cosmides, L., Porat, R., Shalvi, S., & Halperin, E. (2016). Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across cultures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(10), 2625-2630. PDF
  • Sznycer, D., Xygalatas, D., Agey, E., Alami, S., An, X.-F., Ananyeva, K. I., Atkinson, Q. D., Broitman, B. R., Conte, T. J., Flores, C., Fukushima, S., Hitokoto, H., Kharitonov, A. N., Onyishi, C. N., Onyishi, I. E., Romero, P. P., Schrock, J. M., Snodgrass J. J., Sugiyama, L. S., Takemura, K., Townsend, C., Zhuang, J.-Y., Aktipis, C. A., Cronk, L., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2018). Cross-cultural invariances in the architecture of shame. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(39), 9702–9707. PDF
  • Thornhill, N. W. (1991). An evolutionary analysis of rules regulating human inbreeding and marriage. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 14(02), 247-261.
  • Wade, M.J., & Breden, F. (1980). The evolution of cheating and selfish behavior. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 7 (3), 167-172.
  • Wattles, J. (1996). The golden rule. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
  • Weeden, J., & Kurzban, R. (2013). What predicts religiosity? A multinational analysis of reproductive and cooperative morals. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34(6) 440-445.
  • Wenegrat, B., Castillo-Yee, E. & Abrams, L. (1996). Social norm compliance as a signaling system: Studies of fitness-related attributions consequent on a group norm violation. Ethology and Sociobiology, 17 (6), 417-424.
  • Westermarck, E. A. (1906). The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas. London: Macmillan
  • Wiessner, P. (2005). Norm enforcement among the Ju/'hoansi Bushmen: A case of strong reciprocity? Human Nature, 16, 115-145. PDF
  • Wu, J. J., Ji, T., He, Q. Q., Du, J., & Mace, R. (2015). Cooperation is related to dispersal patterns in Sino-Tibetan populations. Nature Communications, 6.PDF
  • Xygalatas, D., Klocová, E. K., Cigán, J., Kundt, R., Mano, P., Kotherová, and Kanovsky, M. (2015). Location location location - Effects of cross-religious primes on.PDF
The studies linked on this page are accessible via the researchers' websites and other public domain sources. If not linked, those studies are only available via academic journals.

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