Before you say whether there is a universal morality, you need to decide what you mean by that phrase. Here is a passel of distinctions that are relevant to deciding. There are lots of choices, so there are lots of questions, and there is nothing wrong with some researchers addressing some while others address others.
The question of whether there is a universal morality requires clarification.
- Uniquely Believed v Uniquely True. Social scientists and evolutionary biologists will tend to focus on whether there is a single morality that all human beings, present and past, have embraced. It is obvious that people differ in their moral views. Their question is whether there are underlying commonalities. Philosophers, on the other hand, tend to focus on whether there is a single uniquely true morality – a morality that all human beings, past and present, ought to embrace. Philosophers differ in how they answer this question. I note that this is a philosophical question, not a question that science is in a position to answer.
- Morality v Altruistic Motivation. Whether people sometimes care about the welfare of others, as an end in itself, and not just as a means to self-benefit, is a different question from whether they embrace a morality. Moralities involve principles, and having a morality involves formulating and endorsing a set of principles. This is a very sophisticated cognitive achievement. It goes well beyond parents wanting their children to thrive.
- Slogans v Principles. Societies and individuals mouth short phrases about right and wrong, but it is often a mistake to think that these slogans accurately capture the principles that individuals and societies really endorse. I don’t mean that people are insincere. They often are, but my point is that our moral convictions are often far more subtle than most of us are able to fully articulate. They are like the grammars of the languages we speak.
- Societies v Groups v Individuals. A society promotes moral principles by framing laws and encouraging customs, but this does not mean that each individual in that society is fully on board. And in between the whole society and the individuals one by one, there are groups. This means that questions about universal morality can be posed at multiple levels of organization.
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.