The world is increasingly embracing diversity — religious, cultural, and political diversity, for example.  Embracing diversity means being more tolerant of differences between individuals and groups, both large and small.  This surge of tolerance is accompanied by an increasing moral relativism, especially among young people.  Moral relativism is thought to naturally accompany tolerance. 

Consider the burka, an enveloping outer garment some Muslim traditions require their women to wear.   Burqas cover the woman’s body and often, her face.  Many thoughtful non-Muslim people, especially in the west, while rejecting, or not accepting, burqas for women in general because, e.g., they seem sexist, do accept, or do not object to, the practice of wearing burqas where it is practiced.  This is because wearing burqas is an integral part of an ongoing, robust culture.  A westerner might say: “I reject burqas as sexist, but this is just my personal view; others have different views, and theirs are just as legitimate as mine.”  This is relativism: the view that different moral norms are equally moral and are therefore to be tolerated.

Relativism, even if part of the story of human morality, cannot be the whole story.  There is a need for clear, definite moral lines that cannot be crossed without (near) universal, robust condemnation: racial and gender discrimination, sexual harassment, terrorism, and ignoring global warming are often thought of as objectively morally wrong.  But this moral objectivity seems to be accepted only for such big issues as those just listed.  Relativism appears to hold sway over much of our daily conversations and judgments.

“… morality (or most of it, anyway) is just as objectively true as science and mathematics. The key ingredient is the notion of harm.” 

There is, however, a clear path to a universal and powerful moral objectivity, the view that morality (or most of it, anyway) is just as objectively true as science and mathematics. The key ingredient is the notion of harm

Every living animal with a nervous system can and does experience harm (it may be that every living thing experiences harm, but that is an issue for another time).  Harm is marked by pain, fear, hunger, thirst, sadness, frustration, . . . any negative emotion.  We live in a universe that randomly dishes out harm — consider the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, as just one example.  But we can check both intentional harm, which is under our control, and other types of unintentional harm, e.g., environmental damage caused by development. 

The question now is “Why ought we to check (or mitigate) such harm.”  The answer is because it is harm.  Harm is bad by definition.  Morality requires us to avoid doing bad things, again, by definition.  Hence we all have a moral duty not to harm other living things.  This moral duty exists objectively because harm exists objectively.  Just as 1 + 1 = 2 is objectively true, so “we should not harm other living things” is objectively true.  This truth is based simply on the fact that harming exists and should be checked.

Of course, implementing this moral truth is quite complex.  But that is a story also for another day.

This article is from TVOL’s project titled “This View of Morality: Can an Evolutionary Perspective Reveal a Universal Morality?” You can download a PDF of the project [here], comment on this article below, or comment on the project as a whole in the Summary and Overview.

Published On: May 17, 2018

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich is professor of philosophy at Binghamton University and the founding editor and current editor in chief of the Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence. He is the author of numerous papers and several books focusing on cognitive science, consciousness, artificial intelligence, metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind.



  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    I agree that morality is axiomatically about the welfare of others and society as a whole, within a defined moral circle. What takes place outside the moral circle is governed by a different set of rules. This is true not only for people who are outside the moral circle, but also animals in all but a few moral systems.

    For me, one of the main assets of the evolutionary perspective is that it allows lots of room for relativism while avoiding absurd “anything goes” forms of relativism. We can appreciate each cultural system as uniquely adapted to its environment without rejecting the concept of objective truth. We can also identify features of a cultural system as qualify as objectively immoral, if they disrupt cooperation within the moral circle.

    However, I’m not sure that “harm” can be used as an all-purpose metric, or that it can be extended to non-human species. If by harm we mean causing pain, then this is problematic because pain is just a proximate mechanism. If we should not be doing the actions that cause pain in species that evolved pain receptors, then we should not be doing the same actions in species that didn’t evolve pain receptors, such as plants. I look forward to continuing this conversation.

  • Mark Sloan says:


    I am interested in your concept of harm. Perhaps it can shed needed light on what I am calling “exploitation”. In common conversation, these are different categories of things, but in the domain of morality they may be closely related.

    For example, “Do not lie, steal, or kill” and “People have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are moral norms whose enforcement can be expected to increase the benefits of cooperation in a society. But the cooperation these norms advocate can be “exploited” by a member of the group who accepts the benefits from others obeying them but does not reciprocate. He thus “exploits” others who are cooperating with him, or, as you might express it, “harms” them.

    My claim for a universal moral principle is some version of “Increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others” which is purely science based. But how “exploitation” should be interpreted in terms of human morality is not completely clear to me.

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