central african republic goran tomasevic
There has been a civil war in the Central African Republic between the Séléka rebel coalition and government forces since 2012Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

People relax their moral standards when atrocities take place far away, a long time ago or are sanctioned by a person of influence – and this is true across multiple societies, a study has found.

Theories of the evolution of morality go along two paths. One suggests a universal morality - where if an action is immoral, it ought to be immoral at all times and all places. Another, called parochialism, suggests moral condemnation of an event will be more severe when it takes place recently and locally and when authority figures condemn it. Likewise, it will be seen as less objectionable when it is far away, long ago or deemed acceptable by authorities.

In a study in the Royal Society journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, UCLA's Daniel Fessler said that despite these patterns, no study has yet investigated moral judgments across a diverse set of societies to see if they hold true.

Fessler and colleagues looked at seven societies – two large scale and five small scale. The five smaller economies included two in Bolivia and Ecuador (Tsimane' and Shuar), one in Fiji (Yasawa), one in Indonesia (Karo Batak) and another in Papua New Guinea (Sursurunga). In contrast, the larger societies were Storozhnitsa, a village in western Ukraine, and Santa Monica in California, USA.

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Rohingya and Bangleshi migrants wait onboard the boat before being transported to shore off the coast of Julok, in Aceh province, IndonesiaSyifa/Antara Foto/Reuters

To test the moral judgments, the scientists produced a series of scenarios where harm was caused – for example, a man battering his wife without provocation or a man cheating a stranger in a market transaction.

Participants were then asked to evaluate the action in terms of how good or bad it was, then they were asked to evaluate it in the event that it happened far away, that an authority figure said it was OK, or that the action took place a long time ago.

Findings showed an "overarching pattern" among all societies, where "moral condemnation reflects a concern with immediate local considerations, a pattern consistent with a variety of evolutionary accounts of moral judgment".

The found that although participants differed in their opinions as to a given transgressions wrongness, there was a clear pattern showing a leaning towards parochialism, rather than a universal morality.

"Although participants from the various societies differ in their opinion as to whether a given transgression's wrongness is reduced by spatial or temporal distance or the opinions of authorities, for each society sampled, the overarching pattern across transgressions is clear: there is no evidence of a robust insistence that moral rules are judged to apply equally strongly across such contexts.

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People gather around the body of a man shot dead in Burundi, where tensions have remained since the end of the civil war in 2005. Carl de Souza/AFP

"While moral parochialism was evident in each of the societies sampled, nowhere was it absolute — evaluating transgressions that occurred long ago, far away, or were approved of by authority figures generally led participants to view the acts as less bad, but not as perfectly acceptable."

Fessler said it appears the evolved mental mechanisms that lead to moral outrage were designed by natural selection for local settings – there are few benefits for expressing anger at events that have few local implications in a hunter-gatherer society, for example.

"By the same token, in small-scale communities like those in which all humans once lived, prestigious individuals can often strongly influence the interpretation or application of rules," he told IBTimes UK. "Accordingly, if the mechanisms responsible for moral judgment evolved to enhance individual welfare in the context of local communities, then people should be sensitive to the opinions of authority figures, hence an action should seem less immoral if an authority figure says it is OK."

Juba refugee camp
Thousands have been killed in South Sudan's civil war with more than two million displaced by the conflictNicole Sobecki/AFP

Concluding, the authors say the findings could help explain why we turn a blind eye to atrocities taking place far away, and that it could be used to better understand our own morality to prevent this happening in the future.

"History reveals that, together, dependence on the pronouncements of authorities and conformism can undergird genocide and similar horrors, while moral parochialism can undergird indifference to their occurrence elsewhere," they wrote. "Progress in alleviating human suffering may therefore best be achieved by a fuller understanding of the nature and origins of moral judgment."

Fessler added: "The solution, it appears, is to send the message that, in the 21st century, when technology both allows for communication over vast distances and creates the potential for actions [such as climate change, nuclear war, etc] to affect us all, we are all one community. The mindset of our hunter-gatherer ancestors will not serve us well, and communication technology allows us to feel connected - we need to harness that for good."