The notion of a universal morality may not exist, as it’s likely that moral judgment — as well as the importance of intention behind actions — varies significantly across different cultures, according to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

For the study, researchers focused on two features of moral assessment: intent and mitigating circumstances. They’re measured by whether a person’s motivations and circumstances are taken into account when they’re being morally judged for an action or behavior. For example, if a person fails to purchase a birthday present on time because they don’t make enough money, there would be less moral judgment against them because “it’s the thought that counts.”

Intent and mitigating circumstances were once considered to be universal across cultures, but most studies on the psychology of morality have been carried out in Western societies and don’t provide much insight into the rest of the world.

“To date… the vast majority of studies on the moral intent hypothesis have been carried out in so-called Western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies, and none have been carried out in small-scale non-Western societies,” the authors wrote. It’s important to examine moral intent in smaller, non-Western societies because they “provide a critical test of potential universality under conditions very distinct from those of modern WEIRD societies,” and they more “closely approximate the conditions under which the putative universals of moral judgment might have evolved.”

The researchers focused on 10 varied societies across six continents. Two of the societies were Western societies — one was a traditional, rural society, and the other was an urban, industrialized society. The other eight were small-scale, traditional societies, such as the rural-agriculturist village of Storozhnitsa in Ukraine, the hunter-gatherer indigenous group of Hadza in Tanzania, and others in South America, Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia.

The researchers presented the 322 participants with stories that portrayed a moral situation in some way or another. The stories, or vignettes, were meant to allow the participant to make moral judgements about the character based on the character’s intents. They involved cases in which the character participated in potential wrongdoing, like striking another person, stealing, or violating a food taboo, and in some cases there were mitigating factors like insanity or self-defense. Other intent factors included whether the action was intentional or accidental; or motivated or not. Each participant heard four vignettes (intentional, accidental, motivated, and antimotivated); and they were asked to judge the severity of the action, punishment deserved, how the action would affect the character’s reputation, how much the character’s intention played into the action, the outcome, as well as the reaction of the victim.

Contrary to popular belief that moral judgments involving intent and mitigating factors are universal, the study showed that “intentions and reasons for action play in moral judgment are not universal across cultures, but rather, variable.” The intentions and mitigating factors play some role in moral psychology across all cultures, but it’s different for each society.

The authors concluded: “Not only does this kind of comparative work across diverse societies allow us to amend conclusions about human nature based solely on Western samples, it also allows us to produce more nuanced and detailed descriptions of the specific dimensions along which human psychology varies, and does not, across the globe.”

Source: Barrett H, Bolyanatz A, Crittenden A, Fessler D, Fitzpatrick S, Gurven M. Small-scale societies exhibit fundamental variation in the role of intentions in moral judgment. PNAS. 2016.