The Oxford Morals Project

What is morality and where does it come from? Evolutionary theory suggests that human morality is the product of a range of domain-specific cognitive mechanisms designed by natural selection to solve the problems of cooperation that were recurrent in the lives of our ancestors. These problems include: kin altruism, mutualism, reciprocity and conflict resolution. This theory predicts that the structure and content of these ‘adaptations for cooperation’ in human psychology will be reflected in the structure and content of our moral concepts. The theory also predicts that the domain-specific structure of morality will not be unique to one particular culture, but will be cross-culturally universal. We are also interested in the cognitive processes underlying religious belief and moral judgment and have been exploring how the various cognitive systems required for religious thinking and behaviour (e.g., agency detection, Theory of Mind, hazard avoidance) may affect or be affected by various aspects of moral judgment (e.g., social cohesion, disgust, empathy) in both cultural and cognitive evolution. 

Oxford Team:
Oliver Curry
Harvey Whitehouse

Charles Efferson (Zurich)
Ernst Fehr (Zurich)
Ryan McKay (London)
Daniel Mullins (London)


Selected Publications

Curry, Oliver S, Daniel A Mullins, and Harvey Whitehouse (2018). “Is It Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies.” Open Science Framework, 20 Feb. 2018. Web.

McKay, Ryan and Harvey Whitehouse (2014). Religion and Morality. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication.  Printed 2015, 141(2): 447-73.

McKay, Ryan, Jenna Herold and Harvey Whitehouse (2013). Catholic Guilt? Recall of Confession Promotes Prosocial Behavior. Religion, Brain, and Behavior. Vol. 3, No. 3: pp 201-209.

McKay, Ryan, Charles Efferson, Harvey Whitehouse, and Ernst Fehr (2010). Wrath of God: religious primes and punishment.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Vol. 278: pp 1858-1863.