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.

Download your free copy of “This View of Morality” by clicking on the image!

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’.

Are large-scale societies outliers when it comes to core elements of moral judgment? by Chris von Rueden

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.



  1. Bowles, , Gintis, H. (2011). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton University Press.
  2. Curry, O. S. (2016). Morality as Cooperation: A problem-­centred approach. In T. K. Shackelford & R. D. Hansen (Eds.), The Evolution of Morality.
  3. Fu, F., et a (2012). Evolution of in-­group favoritism. Scientific Reports 2, Article number: 460. doi:10.1038/srep00460
  4. Gowans, Chris, “Moral Relativism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <­ relativism/>.
  5. Hare, John, “Religion and Morality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),­morality/.
  6. McElreath, , Boyd, R., Richerson, P. (2003). Shared Norms and the Evolution of Ethnic Markers. Current Anthropology, Vol. 44, No. 1. pp. 122-­130
  7. 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
  8. 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.

Published On: May 23, 2018

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .

Mark Sloan

Mark Sloan

Mark Sloan is TVOL Morality Topic Associate Editor. He is a retired aerospace engineer with degrees in physics and engineering. His main interest is how insights from the science of morality might be made culturally useful. This effort necessarily spans relevant science and moral philosophy. In particular, he is interested in morality’s ultimate source, morality’s strange bindingness quality, and why and how societies might choose to apply insights from science to refine their moral codes to better meet human needs and preferences. His blog is

Michael Price

Michael Price

Michael E. Price is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, and co-Director of the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology, at Brunel University London. He has a BA from Duke University and a PhD from the UC Santa Barbara Center for Evolutionary Psychology, and he has conducted studies among both Westerners and indigenous Amazonians. His research focuses mainly on the evolutionary origins of moral beliefs, especially those related to cooperation, punishment, egalitarianism, leadership, and sexual behavior.


Do you think there is a universal morality?


  • Anja Claus says:

    If the ability of employing moral judgment to govern human behavior is a result of evolution, then the capacity for morality is humanly universal, in that it represents a range of species-typical behavior. Each culture normalizes and moralizes a somewhat different set of behavioral possibilities from within that universal range; each society fills its ethical toolkit in somewhat different ways, but against a universal background. We humans all evolved with the ability to respond and take action in regards to the Other via our sensory, emotional, and intellectual adaptations. All animals and plants have done this, but their adaptations have been varied. In human beings, the rational thought tool supported the development of complex language, giving us the ability to gather and organize an immense amount of information with which to assess which behaviors are acceptable within a certain community and which are not.

    In another sense, human morality is relative (to place and time) in that each cultural or social group has the freedom to apply these adaptations—which have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and have become amazingly intricate and complex—to organize and reorganize their specific cultural oughts and ought nots.

    • Mark Sloan says:

      Hi Anja,

      I enjoyed reading your essay “An ethical journey into deep time” over on the The Center for Humans and Nature website.

      Based on your essay, perhaps the essays in this collection that would be most relevant to your journey are the two “morality as cooperation” essays by Oliver Curry and myself. I see Oliver’s and my essays as mutually supportive perspectives on the same phenomena.

      My ethical journey seeks to answer the broad question “How ought we live?”. However, “morality as cooperation” is only a partially answer. Morality as cooperation is only about interactions with others, just a part of the bigger “How ought we live?” question.

      My journey’s status can be summarized, as of now anyway, as morality as cooperation for interactions with others and, conceptually at least, stoicism, as a matter of preference, for answers to remaining questions about ethics.

      My focus and interest though is in understanding morality as cooperation. Specifically, and as I support in my essay, what morality ‘is’ as an integral aspect of our physical reality independent of the existence of biology. That is, what morality cross-species universally ‘is’ for all biology and other thinking creatures as a matter of science.

      Best regards

  • John Kubie says:

    I feel that most of these miss the mark. My view closely parallels Peter Singer’s — at least I think it does. First, a critical point in my mind, is, for the minute, ignore moral rules and consider moral values. Rules are habits; they may facilitate moral behavior, but are not the core. The core is a set of values, which guide the formation of rules. The core value (again, as I see it) is concern for the welfare and happiness of others. (there are hints of this in 2 essays above; “do no harm” and Kurban and DiSosi’s)

    Two evolutionary considerations. First, is the work summarized in many places by Pat Churchland, on pro-social behavior in a variety of animals. She makes no statement on morality; indeed, much pro-social behavior may be unconscious, instinctual and hard wired (bees, for example). Churchland terms these pro-social behaviors and drives as a biological “platform” for morality; I think that’s a good way of thinking of it. Oxytocin may make it easier to exhibit moral behaviors, but has nothing to do with moral values.

    Second is the evolutionary argument summarized by Peter Singer. Morality is not selected for; in itself, has no survival value. Rather, it is a spandrel; something the exists because of the co-occurence of other things. In the case of morality, the three legs are: 1. Theory of mind. Recognition that you have a mind, and that others have similar minds. 2. Reason, the ability to make logical arguments and logical deductions; 3. Recognition you value personal states of happiness (or flourishing or fulfillment). Combining these, leads to value the happiness (flourishing) of others. Thus, the core moral value is maximizing happiness for yourself and others. Very utilitarian.

    Clearly, there are flaws in simple utilitarian morality. the biggest problem is that many of our biologically driven values conflict with this. To implement moral behavior based on moral values is difficult, but not impossible.

    • Mark Sloan says:

      Hi John,

      There is certainly room for Singer’s and your view on the universal morality question.

      However, I would like to explore an idea with you. Could claims that it is universally moral (for morality as the product of evolutionary processes) to “do no harm” or to “maximize happiness for yourself and others” be simply different perspectives on a more fundamental truth about what morality ‘is’?

      For example, these two values are goals. What if they, all other common goals for morality, and everything else we know about morality, can be explained as secondary products of a more fundamental perspective on morality?

      Could having these values encoded in our moral sense and cultural moral codes be elements of cooperation strategies? “Do no harm” and “valuing the flourishing of others” are certainly good heuristics (usually reliable, but fallible, simple rules of thumb) for maintaining and increasing cooperation.

      Singer’s concept of moral progress as “expanding the moral circle” wonderfully describes the cooperation strategy of increasing the size of the favored in-group of people who are not to be exploited.

      Also, the common moral rule “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is an incredibly effective heuristic for initiating indirect reciprocity, perhaps the most powerful cooperation strategy known.

      Further, the common definition of “moral” as “right and wrong behavior” (meaning judged worthy of praise or censure, or even punishment, by our moral sense) is identifiable by game theory as a critical element for maintaining all cooperation strategies. That is, punishment of exploitation is motivated by our moral sense and advocated by cultural moralities because such motivations are necessary for maintaining cooperation.

      Finally, the idea of “morality as a spandrel” becomes unnecessary once one understands how incredibly powerful the benefits of cooperation are as selection forces for both biology in the form of our moral sense and for cultural norms in the form of cultural moral codes. What is at the core of what has made humans the incredibly successful social species we are is our remarkably ability to cooperate (see the book Supercooperators by Martin Nowak), not our ability to think rationally.

      So moral heuristics and what is universally moral (always moral) could perhaps be defined by something we can call “morality as cooperation strategies”.

      Do you think your perspective might fit in as a view of this claimed more fundamental perspective?

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