Our moral sense makes involuntary, near instantaneous judgements of good and evil about other’s actions as well as our own. Integral to these involuntary judgements is the feeling that they are binding on all. Yet, when we look across cultures, moral codes are diverse, contradictory, and even (for outsiders) bizarre. Eating shrimp is a moral abomination? See Leviticus for this and many other entertainingly strange examples of enforced moral norms.
Observations like these have led some philosophers to argue that there is no universal morality and what is considered morally binding depends upon the society we live in4. Others have advocated versions of utilitarianism, Kantianism, virtue ethics, or theistic morality5, but no universal morality has become generally accepted.
Might this state of affairs be ready to be updated in light of results from science?
There is a growing consensus that the neurobiology underlying our moral sense and the moral norms of any given culture were genetically and culturally selected for the benefits of cooperation they produced1,2,7. That is, behaviors motivated by our moral sense and enforced by cultural moral norms are elements of cooperation strategies, notably reciprocity strategies, that solve social problems arising from unbridled selfinterest. Many of the contradictions and bizarreness of cultural moral norms can be explained by differences in who one ought to cooperate with3, who one can ignore or even exploit8, and markers of membership6 in these ingroups and out-groups (markers such as food and sex taboos, circumcision, hair and dress styles, sacred objects and ideas, and sacred authorities).No matter how flawed and contradictory, our morally sanctioned behaviors have been adequate to make us the incredibly successful social species we are. Might recognition and conscious application of a universal morality at the heart of these cooperation strategies bring even greater benefits?
There are at least two categories of possible moral universals.
The first is a moral universal that prescribes what everyone ‘ought’ to do across all cultures, a morality that is universally binding. This is a common understanding of “moral universal” in philosophy.
The second is what all moral systems can be shown to have in common as cooperation strategies (what is common to all cooperation strategies relevant to morality), without these empirical universals being somehow innately binding. A society might advocate for and enforce such a moral universal as best for meeting their shared needs and preferences.
TVOL is pleased to explore the question “Is there a universal morality?” with the help of philosophers and scientists at the forefront of studying morality in light of “this view of life”. We begin with collected short commentaries to sketch a large canvas, which will then be filled in with in-depth articles and interviews.
The writing assignment for each commentator was “Is there anything that can be said to be universally moral, either descriptively or normatively? Why should the average person care about your answer?”
Overview of Responses
Our fifteen essayists provided a surprising diversity of answers to the question “Is there a universal morality?” Such diversity of opinion on such a culturally important issue suggests that this is a productive topic for discussion.
We’ve categorized all essays into three broad response categories: “Maybe”, “No”, and “Yes”. This structure presents some risk of oversimplification, but also provides useful guidance about the general tone of essays, which we thought justified the risk.
It would be easy to talk about how essays disagreed, but focusing on potential commonalities may be more productive.
Consider important questions such as “What is morality’s function, and what is its ultimate goal?” and “What behaviors are immoral, and who deserves equal moral regard?” Participants were not asked these questions directly, but most touched on them in passing in responding to “Is there a universal morality?”
Regardless of whether responses fell in the “Maybe”, “No”, or “Yes” categories, there was considerable space for agreement. Specifically, many essayists seemed to agree that morality’s function is to increase the benefits of living in cooperative societies; that morality’s ultimate goal is increased well-being or flourishing; that exploitation or “harm” (that decreases the benefits of living in cooperative societies) is immoral; and that everyone deserves equal moral regard.
Putting aside the question of whether such conclusions are better-justified by science or by moral philosophy, a consensus in support of them could have important cultural implications. These conclusions imply, for example, that morality is best understood not so much as a burden but as guidance for living a good life. And common moral norms such as the Golden Rule, and rules against theft, killing, and lying, are not moral absolutes but heuristics (usually reliable, but fallible, rules of thumb) for increasing the benefits of living in cooperative societies. Further, ‘moral’ norms that exploit or harm out-groups, such as “women should submit to men”, and “homosexuality is sinful”, are based on the idea that some people are more worthy of moral regard than others.
Could focusing on points of consensus, rather than on the best justification of that consensus (and perhaps there are multiple justifications), be a way forward for both the science and philosophy of morality?
We want to express our gratitude to all our participants for taking the time to record their thoughts about whether there is a universal morality. Perhaps this project will play a small part in advancing the cultural utility of research on the origins, and future, of morality.
All of the articles can be downloaded as a single PDF or directly accessed individually below, which provides an opportunity for you to comment.
Table of Contents
Morality Project Introduction and Overview of Responses by David Sloan Wilson, Mark Sloan, and Michael Price
Is There a Universal Morality? “Maybe”
Universal Morality – A Passel of Distinctions by Elliott Sober
The question of whether there is a universal morality requires clarification.
Do universal moral intuitions shape and constrain culturally prevalent moral norms? by Harvey Whitehouse and Ryan McKay
Universal moral intuitions are like anchors, invisible from the surface but immovably secured to the seabed, whereas culturally prevalent moral norms are like buoys on the surface of the water, available to direct observation.
On Morals, Rituals, and Obligations by Richard Sosis
… breach of obligation may be ‘one of the few, if not, indeed, the only act that is always and everywhere held to be immoral’.
Most comparative studies of human moral judgment have been restricted to large-scale, industrialized populations, but critical tests of putative universals must include small-scale societies.
Universal morality is obscured by evolved morality by Diana Fleischman
… evolved morality not only obscures universal morality, but also creates aversion to improvements to humans that would align our intuitions with actions that promote sentient well-being.
Could morality have a transcendent, naturalistic purpose? by Michael Price
There is one way in which transcendent, naturalistic moral purpose could, in fact, exist
Moral Universals, Moral Particulars and Tinbergen’s Four Questions by David Sloan Wilson
Tinbergen’s four questions apply to any variation-and-selection process, including but not restricted to genetic evolution. Accordingly, they can be insightful for the study of moral universals and particulars as products of human genetic and cultural evolution.
Is There a Universal Morality? “No”
Moral Disagreement is Universal by Robert Kurzban and Peter DeScioli
We can find a path to moral consensus by focusing on our shared concerns for people’s welfare, rather than contentious and divisive moral principles.
Our Modern Moral Predicament by Russell Blackford
The outer limits of moral possibility are established by the emotional tendencies that prepare us to be morality-making beings.
Is there a universal morality? By Massimo Pigliucci
…ethics has to do with how to arrive at as harmonious social interactions as it is humanly possible.
Is There a Universal Morality? “Yes”
Morality is Objective by Eric Dietrich
… morality (or most of it, anyway) is just as objectively true as science and mathematics. The key ingredient is the notion of harm.
Harmful Intentions Are Always Seen As Bad by Gordon Ingram
…it makes evolutionary sense that people would be hyper-vigilant about harmful intent, reading people’s morally relevant actions for clues of possible intentions to harm the values and structures that their own group holds dear.
Why It’s Unwise to Deny Moral Universals by Andrew Norman
You don’t need much in the way of normative assumptions to convert facts into values. Consider the assertion: ‘All else being equal, more wellbeing is better than less.’ Who could object? It’s all but definitionally true.
Seven Moral Rules Found All Around the World by Oliver Scott Curry
Morality is always and everywhere a cooperative phenomenon.
A Universal Principle Within Morality’s Ultimate Source by Mark Sloan
… properly understood, morality is not a burden; it is an effective means for increasing the benefits of cooperation, especially emotional well-being resulting from sustained cooperation with family, friends, and community.
- Bowles, , Gintis, H. (2011). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton University Press.
- Curry, O. S. (2016). Morality as Cooperation: A problem-centred approach. In T. K. Shackelford & R. D. Hansen (Eds.), The Evolution of Morality.
- Fu, F., et a (2012). Evolution of in-group favoritism. Scientific Reports 2, Article number: 460. doi:10.1038/srep00460
- Gowans, Chris, “Moral Relativism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/moral- relativism/>.
- Hare, John, “Religion and Morality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/religion-morality/.
- McElreath, , Boyd, R., Richerson, P. (2003). Shared Norms and the Evolution of Ethnic Markers. Current Anthropology, Vol. 44, No. 1. pp. 122-130
- Tomasello, M., & Vaish, A. (2013). Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 231-255. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143812
- Tooby, J., and Cosmides, L. (2010). Groups in Mind: The Coalitional Roots of War and Morality, from Human Morality & Sociality: Evolutionary & Comparative Perspectives, Henrik Høgh-Olesen (Ed.), Palgrave MacMillan, New York, pp. 91-234.