On the island of Sumba, Indonesia, the anthropologist Webb Keane described to a local woman how Americans freely choose their spouses. The woman exclaimed in shock, “So Americans just mate like animals!”1

Human societies have varied tremendously in the behaviors or cultural practices that beget moral opprobrium or praise. But there are also some commonalities, which may constitute an evolved moral sense.2 Humans tend to judge unfairness, dishonesty, theft, disloyalty to the community, disrespect, impurity (e.g. incest), and harm of the vulnerable as morally bad, though the relative importance of these domains may vary cross-culturally3 and across the political spectrum.4 Other putative, universal elements of human moral judgment include the distinction between intention and accident,2 and the tendency to see morals as absolute truths rather than parochial values.5

Most comparative studies of human moral judgment have been restricted to large-scale, industrialized populations, but critical tests of putative universals must include small-scale societies. Small-scale societies are characterized by traditional subsistence practices and low population density, and they tend to have less extensive formal legal systems. Humans have lived in small-scale societies for the large majority of our species’ existence, so small-scale societies better approximate the conditions under which universals in moral judgment might have evolved.

Most comparative studies of human moral judgment have been restricted to large-scale, industrialized populations, but critical tests of putative universals must include small-scale societies.

The Culture and the Mind Project, directed by Stephen Laurence at the University of Sheffield, has recently published two studies of moral judgment across societies, importantly including many small-scale societies.6,7 The societies range from African hunter-gatherers to Amazonian horticulturalists to urban Americans. Participants from these societies were read vignettes, each of which described a different harm, including battery, theft, spreading a false rumor, bribery, violating a food taboo, and poisoning a well. Participants reported the “badness” of the harms, as well as effects on perpetrators’ reputation and probability of being punished. In the first study, harms were judged less bad/punishable/reputation-reducing (but still unacceptable) when described as occurring far away rather than in a nearby community, distant in time rather than in the present, and approved rather than unsanctioned by a local authority figure. In other words, there was cross-cultural evidence of moral parochialism. In the second study, harms were judged more bad/punishable/reputation-reducing when described as intentional.

In both studies, there was significant variation across societies in terms of sensitivity to these moderations of harm. Urban Americans were as or more morally parochial than several of the small-scale societies. But urban Americans were more likely to increase the severity of their badness ratings when harms were intentional. Intention had the least effect among rural Fijians, which is notable since other populations in Oceania have been described by anthropologists as having “mental opacity” norms- a reluctance to discuss or act on what others are thinking.1

Moral parochialism, whether found in large or small-scale societies, is consistent with several evolutionary theories of moral judgment, in which punitive sentiment is calibrated to its immediate effects on our relationships with group members.6 Why societies vary in moral parochialism requires theory development.  Similarly, additional theorizing is needed to explain why societies vary in the moral weight given to intentions. In many small-scale societies, the reasons underlying actions may be less important in moral judgments because of increased emphasis on kin-group (vs. individual) responsibility, adjudication processes that adopt less explicit standards of evidence, or the presence of witchcraft beliefs wherein attributions of bad intentions can lead to cycles of violence.7 Future cross-cultural studies of moral judgment should pair standardized protocols with detailed ethnography to test among these and other possibilities.8

Identifying how moral judgment changes within a society will also improve our understanding of the origins of the cross-cultural variation. A recent longitudinal study found that Millennials in Western large-scale societies are more utilitarian in their moral judgments than past generations.9 I am currently tracking how, in one small-scale society (the Tsimane’ of Bolivia), an individual’s prestige positions him or her to shift others’ moral judgments.


  1. Keane, W. (2016). Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  2. Hauser, M. (2006). Moral Minds. New York: Ecco.
  3. Shweder, R., Mahapatra, M., and Miller, J. (1990). Culture and moral development. In (J. Stigler, R. Shweder, and G. Herdt, Eds.) Cultural Psychology: Essays on Comparative Human Development (pp. 130-204). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why God People are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage.
  5. Turiel, E. (1983). The Development of Social Knowledge: Morality and Convention. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Fessler, D. et al. (2015). Moral parochialism and contextual contingency across seven societies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282, 20150907.
  7. Barrett, C. et al. (2016). Small-scale societies exhibit fundamental variation in the role of intentions in moral judgment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113, 4688-4693.
  8. Sperber, D. (May 26, 2016). How not to combine ethnography and experiments in the study of moral judgment. http://cognitionandculture.net/blog/dans-blog/how-not-to-combine-ethnography-and-experiments-in-the-study-of-moral-judgment
  9. Hannikainen, I., Machery, E., and Cushman, F. (2018). Is utilitarian sacrifice becoming more morally permissible? Cognition, 170, 95-101.

Thanks to Daniel Fessler for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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

Published On: May 17, 2018

Christopher von Rueden

Christopher von Rueden

Chris von Rueden is an anthropologist and assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. He studies status hierarchy and collective action in small-scale societies, in particular the Tsimane forager-horticulturalists of lowland Bolivia. His research has implications for why humans in general are motivated by social status, how and why we adopt leader-follower relationships in groups, and how more politically complex societies emerged over the past few millennia.
Website:  https://sites.google.com/site/chrisvonrueden/home



  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks for this great commentary. While the Culture and Mind project is a trove of information, I think it is a mistake to equate “moral universal” with “found in all cultures”. Imagine a biologist who wanted to list what is universal across all life forms. The list would be very short, not even including DNA. The power of evolutionary theory is to explain biological diversity–why species are different from each other, based on evolutionary forces, including but not restricted to selection.

    By the same token, if we regard our moral psychology as a set of adaptations for deriving and enforcing group-adapted norms, then that is the universal statement. The actual norms are free to be diverse, based on both selective and historical factors. The set of specific norms that are shared in common need not be large and do not represent what’s general about morality.

    • Chris von Rueden says:

      I agree David, we shouldn’t in general equate “moral universal” with “found in all cultures”. A universal mechanism can produce different outputs, often by design. Thus, the Culture and the Mind project raises more questions than it answers. Does the cross-cultural variation we see reflect the specific reaction norms of a universal, evolved moral psychology to different socio-ecological contexts? Or a universal evolved moral psychology that is more domain general, aligning behavior with local norms whose content is unspecified by natural selection? How much is noise? There are questions we can answer though just by pointing to the diversity, such as testing the ubiquity of a moral-conventional distinction.

  • Mark Sloan says:


    Right. We are are not all WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). The intuitive moral judgments and enforced moral norms of small scale societies are critical data for the data set we need to test evolutionary moral theories (theories about what morality ‘is’ rather than what morality ‘ought’ to be).

    As I mentioned in my comment to Richard Sosis, the more bizarre and divergent moral judgments we can add to that data set the more rigorous our evaluation of moral theories can be. The more bizarre, the better!

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