Why do cultural moral norms exist?

This question is a big part of what the science of morality studies.

Studies in the science of morality to date support the hypothesis that past and present cultural moral norms exist because they solve cooperation problems. Formally, “cultural moral norms are parts of strategies that solve cooperation problems”.

Claiming that the science “supports” this hypothesis means that the hypothesis 1) explains virtually all past and present cultural moral norms, 2) is not contradicted by any known facts, and 3) meets other appropriate criteria for scientific truth such as simplicity and integration with the rest of science.

As we might expect, behaviors that create cooperation problems (the opposite of cultural moral norms function) are consistent with moral norms that define what is immoral. For example, “do not steal, lie, or kill” forbid behaviors that create cooperation problems that prevent or inhibit future cooperation.

What about ethical judgments that may have little to nothing to do with cooperation? For example, vegetarianism can be an individual ethical choice. But an individual’s ethical choice is not a cultural moral norm. Individuals’ ethical choices can have other sources than cooperation strategies. For example, those ethical choices could be based on rational thought about questions such as “What is good?”, “How should I live?”, and “What are my obligations?” which are subjects that extend beyond cooperation strategies.

Cultural moral norms are norms whose violation is commonly believed to deserve punishment, though the person may not actually be punished. How, or if, a person is punished appears to be often calibrated to maximize the likelihood of future cooperation. This is what we should expect if moral norms are parts of cooperation strategies.

Punishment, or the threat of punishment, of violations is necessary for the stability of cooperation strategies. If the free rider who wants to accept help from others but refuses to reciprocate is not punished, then the cooperation that provides that help is unsustainable.

Cultural moral norms exist because they solve cooperation problems. For example, versions of the Golden Rule, “Do not steal, lie, or kill”, “eating pigs is an abomination”, “masturbation is a sin”, “women should be submissive to men”, and “homosexuality is evil” are all parts of known cooperation strategies from game theory.

Understanding why they exist and how they work removes the veil covering their often mysterious and mystical origins and provides an objective basis for resolving disputes about if they will be advocated and enforced in a society.

I would say yes for some of them, and no for other.

Vegetarianism can be a moral norm, a cultural one. It can be enforced by law or by custom, even in societies where it is not necessary to solve cooperation problems.

Most cultures promote a vision of the world, of the society, of the relationship between man, society and world. This vision is an ideology, meaning a sum of ideas among which the necessity of promoting cooperation is not an imperative. Fears and prejudices are often their sources.

Matter is that the definition of what is moral can be very subjective.

One very common idea is that the body of women is erotic and is enticing men, by itself and that men have little self-control. One other idea is that women are inferior to men .

These ideas are not belonging to the morality, per se. But in some societies they were seen as such and were given legal weight.

The consequence is that women must hide their bodies. This idea gave birth to the idea that the women must hide their bodies. It became a rule as soon as in 1795-1750 B.C., in the code of Hammurabi.

From there, for the women, had to cover their hairs as a mark of submission, cf. Paul, 1 Corinthians.

The Muslim prophet did not invent anything, and his successors or some of them went to the extremes.

Hindus are a good example and most (not all) are in India. Some in India are Muslims, but the vast majority in certain areas of India are Hindu. Most are vegetarians, especially the Jains, a sub-sect of Hinduism.

Not really. Hindus don’t eat cows (though many are vegetarians, some aren’t) and Muslims don’t eat pig. Yet, in some areas of India, especially Mumbai, formerly Bombay, Hindus and Muslims co-exist, though not very well, since Muslims want to force conversion.

So that theory expects everyone to have the same beliefs and values in one culture? Please see the U.S. This theory you propose doesn’t hold up. Let’s take the topic of abortion. Many anti-lifers (AKA anti-abortion people) are religious and many Pro-choice people are religion, but some are not. Neither can agree, but yet, the anti-lifers often do what they accuse the Pro-choice people of doing- murdering, via bombing abortion clinics or Women’s health Centers. This leads us to society making murder illegal, yet the anti-lifers feel/believe they are correct in bombing women’s clinics thereby murdering people. Then there are the gun nutters, who believe it’s an infringement of their rights to create gun laws. This leads to feeling they have a right to AK-47s and alike, with some murdering great numbers of people. IF these people had their way, a lot of people would die, yet not everyone agrees with gun culture or even anti-lifers. The anti-lifers use “thou shalt not kill” as an excuse to attempt to ban abortion, yet they kill (back to their lame ass bombings).

It is in India. Oh and let’s not forget the Buddhists, where they are predominant in some countries. The U.S. is majority Xian, but even there is disagreements as to what should be legal by law and what shouldn’t be, as well as what is Xian and what is not. Please check your various societies and their predominant religions before making blanket statements. Episcopalians don’t all agree concerning homosexuality and women priests. Catholics and Assembly of God are extremely far apart. Even Episcopalians and Lutherans disagree and there is disagreements among Lutherans. Even an Xian society isn’t uniform with morals.


Countries are commonly mixed cultures. There is no assumption that there is cultural uniformity. You misread.
Marker strategies can be either 1) markers of commitment to a more moral subgroup of better cooperators, or in mixed culture societies, 2) markers of simple membership in a subgroup such as Hindus, Sikhs, born-again Christians, or whoever.

I’m not sure it necessarily means those are markers of more cooperativeness. Could mean that they are more submissive or maybe agreeable, but not necessarily coopertiveness.

What ethical beliefs are not commonly thought to deserve punishment if violated?

 1.  Do violations of individual, not culturally shared, ethical beliefs such as an individual’s ethical vegetarianism deserve punishment?

Yes. If the individual violates their own moral code (such as by eating meat) then the individual will commonly feel guilt and shame. (Guilt and shame are self-punishment emotions selected for in our ancestors based on the increased benefits of cooperation they could access.) The individual may not feel that non-vegetarians deserve punishment, but, YES, they will feel that they themselves have acted immorally and therefore deserve the guilt and shame (the punishment) felt.

 2.  Does not sharing ethical beliefs about the goals of cooperation such as eudemonia or well-being (such as forms of utilitarianism and virtue ethics) deserve punishment?

No. Imagine someone who is a reliable cooperator for specific shared goals (which describes most people) but who does not share an ultimate goal of maximizing the well-being of all people (a utilitarianism ethical claim). Will utilitarian philosophers commonly think they deserve punishment? No. Not sharing ethical beliefs about ultimate goals is not, by itself, commonly thought to deserve punishment.

The above is just what we should expect from science because it is the cooperation strategies that need a punishment component to be sustainable. Goals of that cooperation, such as eudemonia, could be sustainable without a punishment component.

To forgive yourself is the hardest thing to do. Most of us carry the burden of guilt with us into the grave. That’s why mourners always recite the good things a person was known for, to leave a positive legacy.

I understand there is a Buddhist teaching on guilt that says something like: “It is immoral to be so occupied with guilt that you don’t do the good you could be doing in the world”.

This view is supported by the science of morality. The “moral” reaction to guilt is to use it to motivate not repeating what you did wrong.
You would be acting immorally if you allowed your guilt to consume you so that you are no longer helping others and treating them fairly and thereby doing good in the world.

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That is a true statement, but that does not make it moral. Most often it is the others that are accusing you of being guilty of something,
Most religions and all cults maintain power that way.

Unless one, the oddball, has been so accustomed to peer pressure that they decide they will not succumb to it.