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Integrity@Work: What are the seven moral principles shared by most societies throughout history, and what does this mean for integrity at work?

By Roger Steare

In his next Integrity@Work blog for Thinkers50, Roger Steare shares recent research on human morality published by anthropologists at Oxford University. He then explores how these insights can help us build and lead cultures of high integrity at work

Moral philosophers like to argue a lot about normative and descriptive ethics and how each approach helps us to live good lives – or not!

Normative ethics is the study of how we ought to behave. For example, we agree that it is wrong to hurt someone just because they make us angry. In business, we might say that it is wrong to pay a bribe to get a contract.

On the other hand descriptive ethics, as the adjective suggests, is the observation and study of what people actually think, decide and do to create and sustain viable human communities.

Recently, anthropologists at Oxford University have published descriptive ethics research across 60 different cultures and this has identified seven consistent moral principles that have defined the norms and taboos of humanity for the known historical record of our species.

These seven universal principles are:

Help your family
Be a loving parent, care for frail relatives and pass on property to the next generation

Help your group
Join group activities and events, adopt local customs, promote group harmony, unity and solidarity

Return favours
Forgive people when they apologise, repay debts, fulfil contracts

Divide resources fairly
Divide rewards of collective activity fairly and be willing to negotiate, compromise and come to an agreement

Be brave
Put yourself at risk to help others

Respect elders and leaders
Be respectful, loyal or obedient to those who lead

Respect other people and their property
Do not hurt others, or steal or damage others’ property

Most of us would agree with most of these in our personal lives with family, friends and neighbours. However do these moral principles also apply to our workplace communities? Do we truly care about our colleagues at work? Do we forgive those at work who make mistakes and apologise? Do senior executives only take their fair share of resources?

What about respect for our workplace elders and leaders? Or do we simply fear them because our jobs and careers can be damaged or destroyed if we do not obey them?

Which of these moral principles do you believe in? Do you experience these same principles at work? What would happen to our workplace communities if these seven moral principles became the norm for all?

Compassion is the basis for morality.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Roger Steare is Visiting Professor in the Practice of Organisational Ethics at Cass Business School in London. He also works as The Corporate Philosopher, advising organisations around the world on leadership, culture and ethics.

Twitter: @RogerSteare

LinkedIn: LinkedIn.com/in/RogerSteare

Read more blogs in this series.

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