Might there be a unified field theory of ethics? This article considers work from anthropology and philosophy in arriving at "morality molecules."
"This theory of ‘morality as cooperation’ relies on the mathematical analysis of cooperation provided by game theory – the branch of maths that is used to describe situations in which the outcome of one’s decisions depends on the decisions made by others. Game theory distinguishes between competitive ‘zero-sum’ interactions or ‘games’, where one player’s gain is another’s loss, and cooperative ‘nonzero-sum’ games, win-win situations in which both players benefit. What’s more, game theory tells us that there is not just one type of nonzero-sum game; there are many, with many different cooperative strategies for playing them. At least seven different types of cooperation have been identified so far, and each one explains a different type of morality. ... Hence, seven types of cooperation explain seven types of morality: love, loyalty, reciprocity, heroism, deference, fairness and property rights. And so, according to this theory, it is morally good to: 1) love your family; 2) be loyal to your group; 3) return favours; 4) be heroic; 5) defer to superiors; 6) be fair; and 7) respect property. (And it is morally bad to: 1) neglect your family; 2) betray your group; 3) cheat; 4) be a coward; 5) disrespect authority; 6) be unfair; or 7) steal.) These morals are evolutionarily ancient, genetically distinct, psychologically discrete and cross-culturally universal. ... In a recent paper, my colleagues and I show how morality is a combinatorial system in which the seven basic moral ‘elements’ combine to form a much larger number of more complex moral ‘molecules’. A combinatorial system is one in which a relatively small number of simple things are combined to form a relatively large number of more complex things. ... Could morality be such a system? As an initial test of the idea, we hypothesised possible moral molecules that combined each pair of moral elements, and then tried to find examples of them in the popular and professional literature. In each case, we succeeded. ... To track those efforts, we have created a document called ‘The Periodic Table of Ethics’ that covers the 127 positive molecules. ... Readers are welcome to try to add to or improve upon our suggested molecules, fill in the remaining gaps, and come up with counterexamples that challenge the theory."
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