According to a major study coming out of Oxford University, everyone everywhere shares seven universal moral rules. In fact, all societies are held together by these seven rules. The huge study of 60 different cultures around the world found that all communities operate under these seven basic moral codes.
“It was the largest and most comprehensive and widespread survey of morals ever conducted, and aimed to find out whether different societies had different versions of morality.”
The study found they didn’t.
Here is what we all share in common – across continents, religions and politics – and value as important:
- Help your family.
- Help your group.
- Return favors.
- Be brave.
- Defer to superiors.
- Divide resources fairly.
- Respect the property of others.
They also found that inherent within this code was caring for frail relatives, passing on property to offspring, going to war if needed to protect the group and respecting elders.
“These seven moral rules appear to be universal across cultures,” notes Dr. Oliver Scott Curry, lead author and senior researcher at the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford. That fact can’t be emphasized enough, much less its significance.
Intuitively, each of us appeals to some sense of right and wrong in our dealings with ourselves, with others and with the world. If we have to get up from our seat for a moment in a crowded venue and someone sits in our place, we naturally say: “Hey, that’s my seat! I was here first!”
When we do that, we are appealing to some behavioral standard that the other person is supposed to know and accept. And, as the Oxford study shows, there is a surprising consensus from civilization to civilization, culture to culture, as to what is right and what is wrong. When you take the time to study the moral teaching of the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, it is amazing how similar they are to each other morally.
As C.S. Lewis once noted (and now we have even more evidence to support his claims), selfishness is never admired and loyalty is always praised. Men may have differed as to whether you should have one wife or 14, but they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you like.
As Lewis reflected on his stint as an atheist before his commitment to the Christian faith: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”
This, among many other things, moved Lewis into the Christian camp.
Why? Somehow we seem to have an innate sense of right and wrong. As Darwin once replied when asked whether man was in any way unique from other life forms, “Man is the only animal that blushes.”
Which presents a pivotal question: Where does this sense of right and wrong come from independent of an outside source?
Or, to borrow from Darwin, “How do we know when to blush?”
The answer is that we are not creatures of chance, evolved from a pool of primordial slime, but rather we are dependent on a Creator who put within us a spark of the divine, a reflection of the transcendent,
… a soul.
And it is precisely our soul that gives us inner conviction – a sense of right and wrong, true and false, good and bad – no matter how dulled our sinful choices might make it.
So cheers to Oxford for a study whose conclusion gives us all one more reason to believe that there just might be a God on the loose.
James Emery White
Sarah Knapton, “Everyone Everywhere Shares Seven Universal Moral Rules, Oxford University Finds,” The Telegraph, February 8, 2019, read online.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. For a detailed discussion, see Basil Mitchell, Morality: Secular and Religious (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), as well as Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason.
Luis Palau, God Is Relevant.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.