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Friday, May 17, 2024

Moral universals: A machine-reading analysis of 256 societies

Alfano, M., Cheong, M., & Curry, O. S. (2024).
Heliyon, 10(6).


What is the cross-cultural prevalence of the seven moral values posited by the theory of “morality-as-cooperation”? Previous research, using laborious hand-coding of ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies, found examples of most of the seven morals in most societies, and observed these morals with equal frequency across cultural regions. Here we replicate and extend this analysis by developing a new Morality-as-Cooperation Dictionary (MAC-D) and using Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) to machine-code ethnographic accounts of morality from an additional 196 societies (the entire Human Relations Area Files, or HRAF, corpus). Again, we find evidence of most of the seven morals in most societies, across all cultural regions. The new method allows us to detect minor variations in morals across region and subsistence strategy. And we successfully validate the new machine-coding against the previous hand-coding. In light of these findings, MAC-D emerges as a theoretically-motivated, comprehensive, and validated tool for machine-reading moral corpora. We conclude by discussing the limitations of the current study, as well as prospects for future research.

Significance statement

The empirical study of morality has hitherto been conducted primarily in WEIRD contexts and with living participants. This paper addresses both of these shortcomings by examining the global anthropological record. In addition, we develop a novel methodological tool, the morality-as-cooperation dictionary, which makes it possible to use natural language processing to extract a moral signal from text. We find compelling evidence that the seven moral elements posited by the morality-as-cooperation hypothesis are documented in the anthropological record in all regions of the world and among all subsistence strategies. Furthermore, differences in moral emphasis between different types of cultures tend to be non-significant and small when significant. This is evidence for moral universalism.

Here is my summary:

The study aimed to investigate potential moral universals across human societies by analyzing a large dataset of ethnographic texts describing the norms and practices of 256 societies from around the world. The researchers used machine learning and natural language processing techniques to identify recurring concepts and themes related to morality across the texts.

Some key findings:

1. Seven potential moral universals were identified as being very widespread across societies:
            Deference to authorities/respect
            Loyalty to the in-group
            Ownership/property rights

2. However, there was also substantial variation in how these principles were interpreted and prioritized across cultures.

3. Certain potential universals like harm/care and fairness were more universally condemned when violations impacted one's own group versus other groups.

4. Societies' mobility, population density, and reliance on agriculture or animal husbandry seemed to influence the relative importance placed on different moral principles.

The authors argue that while there do appear to be some common moral foundations widespread across societies, there is also substantial cultural variation in how these are expressed and prioritized. They suggest morality emerges from an interaction of innate psychological foundations and cultural evolutionary processes.