Good to Coöperate: Property

I happened upon an entry in Current Anthropology: Is It Good to Cooperate? [PDF] (Volume 60, Number 1, February 2019), wherein the authors claim there are 7 universal moral codes. The universality is suspect insomuch as they found a preponderance of observations, so unanimity was not always found. I am also concerned with the specificity of the definition of property.

The group studied ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies, across over 600 sources. The universal rules of morality are:

  1. Help your family
  2. Help your group
  3. Return favours
  4. Be brave
  5. Defer to superiors
  6. Divide resources fairly
  7. Respect others’ property

It’s well past my bedtime, and I should be sleeping, so I just want to pick out one of these universals: property rights.

La propriété, c’est le vol!


Property can mean several things: In the description of methodology, it appears that these authors are referring to property rather than possession, as a key identifier is the ability to transfer property intergenerationally. What is the scope of the definition of property. There is a difference between passing along a family home and passing along vacant property a world away. Is rent-seeking property ownership universal? Would all societies subscribe to the notion held by Western Capitalism, wherein one can own property that, theoretically, one may never have seen? In the United States, they have concepts like intellectual property, which is at best a subversion of the notion.

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There may be a problem with reading (or at least posting) at 2AM—and property is a hot button item for me. I may have been hyper-focused on the intergenerational wealth transfer. I’d like to read more about how other societies view this as well as which ones do and don’t. Of course, I’d like to understand how the interviewers couched the questions.

In the end, the summary was about possession and not property:

Private property, in some form or other, appears to be a cross-cultural universal (Herskovits 1952). Morality-as-cooperation leads us to expect that this type of cooperative behavior—deferring to prior possession—will be regarded as morally good .

Op. cit.

As an anti-Capitalist, I notice that no claims are being made into the morality of competition. I may may a few posts on my observations of the remaining 6 list items.