Shared Human Values: Cooperation for the Common Good

Shared Human Values: Cooperation for the Common Good

May 17, 2019

One of the fundamental elements of a complete education is the inculcation of values in the young. While the factual content of many curricula around the globe (what, when, and where) offers a striking degree of similarity or comparability, the chief differentiator may often be found in the values that inform how children are raised to live their lives in a given culture or community. The question of why is of course somewhat metaphysical and is often left as an implicit, self-evident truth.

Despite the manifest differences in diverse principles and practices associated with human morality, the idea that there exists a set of universally applicable human moral values shared by all people in all cultures across the world has intrigued and perplexed researchers and philosophers from the dawn of recorded history. There have been many dimensions to this dialogue on universal values, both ecclesiastical and secular. Many religious faiths have enshrined as a central doctrine the notion that their particular moral code should be observed by all. Of course, the fact that each doctrine imposes a different set of moral and behavioural expectations on people tends to support the idea that this search is doomed to failure.

A recent study undertaken at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, based at the University of Oxford, sheds some intriguing new light on this search for humanity’s moral common ground (Curry, Mullins, & Whitehouse, 2019). Beginning with an inconclusive debate about morality being either innate or acquired, the study sought to compare moral codes across nations and cultures to find similarities. Ultimately, the study examined ethnographic evidence gathered from 60 different societies globally and found some apparently universal principles that suggest the possibility of a unified theory of human morality.

The perhaps unsurprising and deeply pragmatic finding is that cooperative behaviour is a non-zero-sum game that benefits both individuals and communities. Cooperation was not found to be morally bad anywhere. As social beings, we tend to work together quite naturally for survival. The study identified seven specific ways in which cooperative behaviour was found to be essentially omnipresent. Interestingly, these seven forms of cooperation map quite neatly onto our own Eight Virtues + One:

  • Family values – helping kin (孝 and仁)
  • Group loyalty – helping the community (仁 and 忠)
  • Reciprocity – social interaction and exchange (和 and 義)
  • Respect for property (義 and 平)
  • Courage in contests to resolve conflict (愛 and忠 )
  • Respect for agreed rules and laws (禮 and 孝)
  • Fairness in division (和 and平)

The study’s conclusion, that the overarching purpose of morality through cooperation – the common good – is also a very practical expression of wisdom (智) (Anderson, 2019).

It would appear that humans do have an innate, perhaps genetically predetermined, capacity to work with others for mutual benefit. While the practical form of cooperation and its immediate purpose may differ according to culture, custom, and context, its purpose – the common good – is strongly evident across the globe. Our own core values, the Eight Virtues + One, offer a concise and clear set of principles that guide the ‘how’ of an ISF education. We can have confidence that these values are timeless and ubiquitous, shared among communities across the world. Their purpose, the why, is perhaps best encapsulated by the Confucian expression of the virtue Ren (仁): 仁為己任 (one’s duty is benevolence).

Calligraphy by Yu Youren (1879-1964)



Dr. Malcolm Pritchard

Head of School





Anderson, J. (2019). These Seven Moral Rules Unite Human Beings, According to Research. Retrieved from          

Curry, O. S., Mullins, D. A., & Whitehouse, H. (2019). Is it Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies. Current Anthropology, 60(1), 47-69.


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