In the mid-1990s, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork with the inhabitants of a remote atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia. Their contact with the outside world consisted of a government ship that, about six times a year, serviced the atoll and other remote islands in the region. Thus, it came as a great surprise when half a year into my fieldwork a yacht appeared one morning in the atoll’s lagoon. The yacht was owned by a German couple who, following retirement, decided to travel the world by sea. They were clearly well versed in the cultural customs of Micronesia; once they disembarked they headed directly to the chief, with the appropriate gifts in tow, to ask permission to visit the atoll. While the German couple spoke to the chief, some teens decided to visit the yacht and help themselves to some of the retirees’ equipment. When the couple returned to their yacht and noticed the missing items they insisted that the chief find those who were responsible for the theft so that the stolen items could be returned. The chief, however, refused. The helpless couple eventually went on their way, presumably regretting that they had ever stopped for a visit.

I was troubled by the affair, but conversations throughout the day made it clear that others did not share my concerns. As was explained to me, the retirees were wealthy so why shouldn’t the teens help themselves to this surfeit? In their mind there was no stolen property or act of theft; this was simply an appropriate redistribution of wealth. I had heard this argument during my first days of fieldwork when I returned to my hut to find some new friends looking through my luggage. My anthropological training—understanding before judgment—was being tested to the limits. It was a useful encounter early in my fieldwork because it emphasized something that is more fully appreciated through experience than books: my moral assumptions were not necessarily their moral assumptions.

“… breach of obligation may be ‘one of the few, if not, indeed, the only act that is always and everywhere held to be immoral’.”

Anthropologists are often unwelcome guests to evolutionary conversations about human universals. My non-anthropological colleagues have understandably tired of the anthropological refrain “But in my tribe, they do X…,” where X is some exception to whatever universal belief or behavior is under discussion. So yes, in our discussion we can scratch “stealing” off the list of potential universal moral rules, although on Ifaluk taking resources from someone who does not exceed your wealth is immoral and understood as stealing. And of course, many other potential candidates ultimately fall short. For example, in many cultures killing is sanctioned under specific conditions (e.g., in defense) and incest is not only acceptable in some cultures but expected, especially among the aristocracy. Finding universal moral rules is no easy task.

Anthropologist Roy Rappaport, however, suggested that breach of obligation may be “one of the few, if not, indeed, the only act that is always and everywhere held to be immoral.”1 Rappaport’s argument is long and difficult, but in short, he suggested that ritual performances establish obligations to behave according to the moral values explicitly or implicitly encoded in the rituals. Rituals do not enforce moral behaviors—lying following an oath in a court of law is all too common—but they do establish that such an action is no longer simply lying, it is a breach of a publicly accepted obligation (to tell the truth) and is now understood as perjury. 

Why should anyone care that upholding obligations established through ritual is possibly a universal moral rule? Because it moves the conversation away from searching for humanity’s universal characteristics, a search that even if successful will not help us build a better world. As Adam Seligman and colleagues note, such commonalities will not provide guidance in living with our differences.2 Rappaport’s thesis does not sweep away the rich cultural diversity in moral rules, but rather posits a universal underlying structure through which moral obligations are established. Understanding this structure is vital for facing the inherent challenges of living in a morally diverse global community.


  1. Rappaport, R. A. (1999). Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity. Cambridge University Press. (quote from page 132)
  2. Seligman, A. B., Wasserfall, R. R., & Montgomery, D. W. (2015). Living with Difference: How to Build Community in a Divided World. University of California Press.

Image: Global Environment Facility | Flickr

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

Richard Sosis

Richard Sosis

Richard Sosis is James Barnett Professor of Humanistic Anthropology at the University of Connecticut. His work has focused on the evolution of religion and cooperation, with particular interests in ritual, magic, religious fertility, and the dynamics of religious systems. To explore these issues, he has conducted fieldwork with remote cooperative fishers in the Federated States of Micronesia and with various communities throughout Israel.  He is cofounder and coeditor of the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior, which publishes research on the bio-cultural study of religion.



  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks, Rich, for this welcome reminder about cultural diversity in the contents of norms. Along with Rappaport, you identify “breach of obligation” (=violation of agreed-upon norm?) as a cultural universal. However, it seems to me that we can go further because the contents of norms, while variable, are not an “anything goes” affair. No matter how different from our own norms, the norms of the Micronesians were easy enough to understand as a sensible cooperative arrangement once you explained the context. More generally, we might be able to conclude that not only do all cultures have obligations and punish their breaches, but whenever these obligations are considered moral, it is because they are seen as mutually beneficial.

    My point is similar to Victor Turner’s distinction between “Structure” and “Communitas” in his book “The Ritual Process”. Communitas is a spirit of community that all cultures possess, which insists that everyone within the community is a moral equal. Structure is the roles and institutions that exist in all but the simplest societies. Ritual is the process that anchors Structure to Communitas. Oops! Without meaning to, I am using Harvey and Ryan’s nautical metaphor! In any case, Rappaport’s statement about breach of obligation doesn’t say anything about Communitas as a moral universal.

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    I want to make another comment on your Micronesian example. You describe it as if the Micronesians were acting toward the European couple as they would among themselves, but is it possible that they were treated the Europeans as outside their moral circle, therefore fair game for exploitation? This is also extremely common, if not universal.

  • Mark Sloan says:


    Are you aware if the Ifaluk also did not enforce “do not steal” norms regarding wealthier people that are clearly members of their in-group, such as their chief? That would be an interesting counter-example to claims for moral universals!

    I am keenly interested in extreme, bizarre moral norms. Such moral norms are a critical part of the data set needed to test evolutionary morality hypotheses. The robustness of moral hypothesis confirmation depends largely on the hypotheses’ explanatory power. The better its explanatory power for outlier moral norms, the more robust the hypothesis. I am hoping ethnographers have many such moral norms, the more bizarre the better!

  • Andy Norman says:

    Love the story: a useful reminder of how different cultures can be. I have to question this claim, however: “A search [for moral universals] will not help us build a better world.” For the findings of such a search would have at least one very salutary use: it helps us define a set of shared assumptions that anyone can draw from to build compelling arguments for normative conclusions. Put differently, it helps us carve out conceptual common ground. As cultures evolve, and seek out ways to co-exist with other cultures, our ability to engage in fruitful reason-giving dialogue is going to be critical, and for *that* purpose, the search for moral universals should prove to be really important.

    • Katy says:

      I think you can find very common traits to build common ground and they don’t necessarily have to be universal. If 99% percent of people believe that it’s wrong to steal even from someone who is wealthier than you, that can take you quite far in building common ground between people even though it’s not completely universal. But I’m not even sure that “it’s wrong to steal from people who are wealthier than you” is even that consistent of a norm in the west when we celebrate Robin Hood and peasants revolting against their monarchs. Heck, the wealth redistribution argument is also used by many shoplifters and their supporters! Supporters of ethical shoplifting (their term) also use in-group/out-group logic (a corporation is not a person, and therefore not a moral agent; no individual employee is directly harmed by the act since shrinkage is budgeted for as a cost of doing business) and the idea that the property taken does not actually belong to the store (since it is ill-gotten gains from Walmart’s own various thefts from society, so there’s no harm in “society” taking some of it back). Most anarchists don’t believe in private property at all, so theft from any corporation or wealthy individual would be encouraged except for personal possessions of the wealthy individual (so, you can take their investment portfolio or their factory, but not their toothbrush or their bed). But in general, most people in the west agree it is unethical to steal from a richer person under most circumstances, and that’s enough that we can build laws and norms around it.

  • Katy says:

    Breach of obligation sounds a bit circular to me but maybe I am missing some nuance. If ethics are the things that you should and shouldn’t do, then aren’t they obligations? I think many people in the West would consider it understandable and moral if it came out that you lied under oath because if you didn’t mobsters would kill you and your whole family. In that case it’s a formal “obligation” but it wouldn’t be a social/moral one. In the west many also consider it moral to steal bread or medicine to feed your family although you will still often go to jail if caught. There are also many things we widely consider immoral that are perfectly legal. So the obligations we’re talking about must be social ones? Doesn’t this mean that the universal obligation is that you are obligated to do what you’re obligated to do? To me it sounds like another way to say that the only universal is that every society has some kind of ethical system. Which I guess is probably true because I feel that a society with no ethical system at all would probably collapse quite quickly.

  • Brent Meeker says:

    To search for moral universals to build a better world strikes me as asking for directions when you don’t know where you want to go. First, you need to define “better”. Are there universal values. How can we know whether one world is better or worse than another. One proposal would be to have people move from one to another at will. Do more tend to move from Syria to France or the other way around? Which one provides more satisfaction of personal values? If we can get and idea of what it means for a world to be better, THEN we can look at what public ethics and private moral teachings realize a better world.

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