Philosophy:Moral universalism

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Short description: Meta-ethical position that a system of ethics applies to all

Moral universalism (also called moral objectivism) is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is, for "all similarly situated individuals",[1] regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other distinguishing feature.[2] Moral universalism is opposed to moral nihilism and moral relativism. However, not all forms of moral universalism are absolutist, nor are they necessarily value monist; many forms of universalism, such as utilitarianism, are non-absolutist, and some forms, such as that of Isaiah Berlin, may be value pluralist.

In addition to the theories of moral realism, moral universalism includes other cognitivist moral theories, such as the subjectivist ideal observer theory and divine command theory, and also the non-cognitivist moral theory of universal prescriptivism.[3][4]


According to philosophy professor R. W. Hepburn: "To move towards the objectivist pole is to argue that moral judgements can be rationally defensible, true or false, that there are rational procedural tests for identifying morally impermissible actions, or that moral values exist independently of the feeling-states of individuals at particular times."[5]

Linguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky states:

"if we adopt the principle of universality: if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others—more stringent ones, in fact—plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil."[6]


An early example of moral universalism can be found in Judaism: the Seven Laws of Noah (Hebrew: שבע מצוות בני נח‎, Sheva Mitzvot B'nei Noach),[7][8][9][10] a set of imperatives which, according to the Talmud, were given by God as a binding set of universal moral laws for the "sons of Noah" – that is, all of humanity.[7][8][9][10][11][12][13] The Seven Laws of Noah include prohibitions against worshipping idols, cursing God, murder, adultery, bestiality, sexual immorality, theft, eating flesh torn from a living animal, as well as the obligation to establish courts of justice.[7][9][10][11][12][14][15] The Jewish sages expanded the concept of universal morality within the Seven Laws of Noah and added several other laws beyond the seven listed in the Talmud and Tosefta,[7][8][10][11] such as prohibitions against committing incest, cruelty to animals, pairing animals of different species, grafting trees of different kinds, castration, emasculation, homosexuality, pederasty, and sorcery among others,[7][8][10][11][16][17] with some of the sages going so far as to make a list of 30 laws.[7][8][10] The Talmud expands the scope of the Seven Laws of Noah to cover about 100 of the 613 Jewish commandments.[18]

The United Nations ' Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be read as assuming characteristics and attributes akin to moral universalism. The drafting committee of the Universal Declaration did assume, or at least aspired to, a "universal" approach to articulating international human rights. Although the Declaration has undeniably come to be accepted throughout the world as a cornerstone of the international system for the protection of human rights, a belief among some that the Universal Declaration does not adequately reflect certain important worldviews has given rise to more than one supplementary declaration, such as the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam and the Bangkok Declaration.[19]

Global environmental treaties may also assume and present a moral universalism. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is founded upon the "common heritage of mankind". Protecting this heritage is presented in the treaty as a shared moral duty requiring protective actions based on "common but differentiated responsibilities". This has been criticised as anthropocentric and state-centric but it does assert universal goals.[20]

Attempts to define a universal morality

In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Immanuel Kant attempts to derive a supreme principle of morality that binds all rational agents.

Similarly, divine command theory presents a form of universalism, by way of the unconditional morality of God's commandments. It revolves around the idea that morality is synonymous with following God's commands. While various religions may have Gods that endorse different beliefs and behaviors, divine command theory encompasses all instances of a deity dictating a society's morals. Plato's "Euthyphro dilemma" is a dialogue written to point out the inconsistencies of this philosophy.[21]

Modern Studies

Anthropologists at the University of Oxford published a study in 2019 examining 60 different cultures and their principles. This study was conducted by reviewing ethnographic content from each culture. Seven fundamentals were identified beforehand, and historic writings were analyzed to search for either positive or negative moral valence of each one. It was found that 99.9% of the time, these seven behaviors were considered “moral”: helping kin, helping group, reciprocating, being brave, respecting superiors, dividing resources, and respecting property.[22] These principles appeared across all cultures studied, and only one counterexample was found: an instance of the “respecting property” value clashing with “being brave.”

The Moral Foundations theory, developed by Jonathan Haidt and colleagues, proposes that there are “intuitive ethics,” or morals that individuals subscribe to within cultures. There are five foundations that a person's behaviors tend to adhere to: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Haidt argues that these morals are cross-cultural, and alignment with them is present at birth.[23] Of note, the Moral Foundations Theory does not assert that every culture has the same morals, but rather each has developed their own set of acceptable behaviors, and there tends to be overlaps in the aforementioned areas listed earlier.

See also


  1. Kemerling, Garth (12 November 2011). "A Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Names". Philosophy Pages. "According to Immanuel Kant and Richard Mervyn Hare...moral imperatives must be regarded as equally binding on everyone." 
  2. Gowans, Chris (9 December 2008). "Moral Relativism". in Edward N. Zalta. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition). "Let us say that moral objectivism maintains that moral judgments are ordinarily true or false in an absolute or universal sense, that some of them are true, and that people sometimes are justified in accepting true moral judgments (and rejecting false ones) on the basis of evidence available to any reasonable and well-informed person.". 
  3. Non-cognitivism: A meta-ethical theory according to which moral issues are not subject to rational determination. Dealing with values, not facts, moral assertions are neither true nor false, but merely express attitudes, feelings, desires, or demands.Philosophy Pages
  4. Prescriptivism: R. M. Hare's contention that the use of moral language conveys an implicit commitment to act accordingly. Thus, for example, saying that "Murder is wrong" not only entails acceptance of a universalizable obligation not to kill, but also leads to avoidance of the act of killing.Philosophy Pages
  5. Hepburn, RW (January 2005). "Ethical objectivism and subjectivism". The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2nd ed.). pp. 667 ff. ISBN 9780199264797. 
  6. Chomsky, Noam (2 July 2002). "Terror and Just Response". 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 "Noahide Laws". Encyclopædia Britannica. Edinburgh: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.. 14 January 2008. Retrieved 10 November 2020. "Noahide Laws, also called Noachian Laws, a Jewish Talmudic designation for seven biblical laws given to Adam and to Noah before the revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai and consequently binding on all mankind. Beginning with Genesis 2:16, the Babylonian Talmud listed the first six commandments as prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, and robbery and the positive command to establish courts of justice (with all that this implies). After the Flood a seventh commandment, given to Noah, forbade the eating of flesh cut from a living animal (Genesis 9:4). Though the number of laws was later increased to 30 with the addition of prohibitions against castration, sorcery, and other practices, the “seven laws,” with minor variations, retained their original status as authoritative commandments and as the source of other laws. As basic statutes safeguarding monotheism and guaranteeing proper ethical conduct in society, these laws provided a legal framework for alien residents in Jewish territory. Maimonides thus regarded anyone who observed these laws as one “assured of a portion in the world to come.”". 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Vana, Liliane (May 2013). Trigano, Shmuel. ed. "Les lois noaẖides: Une mini-Torah pré-sinaïtique pour l'humanité et pour Israël" (in fr). Pardés: Études et culture juives (Paris: Éditions In Press) 52 (2): 211–236. doi:10.3917/parde.052.0211. ISBN 978-2-84835-260-2. ISSN 0295-5652. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Spitzer, Jeffrey (2018). "The Noahide Laws". 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 Singer, Isidore; Greenstone, Julius H. (1906). "Noachian Laws". Jewish Encyclopedia. Kopelman Foundation. Retrieved 7 November 2020. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Berlin, Meyer; Zevin, Shlomo Yosef, eds (1992). "BEN NOAH". Encyclopedia Talmudica: A Digest of Halachic Literature and Jewish Law from the Tannaitic Period to the Present Time, Alphabetically Arranged. IV. Jerusalem: Yad Harav Herzog (Emet). pp. 360–380. ISBN 0873067142. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 Feldman, Rachel Z. (8 October 2017). "The Bnei Noah (Children of Noah)". 
  13. Compare Genesis 9:4–6.
  14. Laursen, John Christian; Nederman, Cary J., eds (2011). "Ha-Me'iri's Theory of Religious Toleration". Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration Before the Enlightenment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 86–87. doi:10.9783/9780812205862.71. ISBN 978-0-8122-0586-2. 
  15. Hayes, Christine, ed (2017). "Approaches to Foreign Law in Biblical Israel and Classical Judaism through the Medieval Period". The Cambridge Companion to Judaism and Law. New York City: Cambridge University Press. pp. 147–149. ISBN 978-1-107-03615-4. 
  16. Goodman, Martin (2007). "Identity and Authority in Ancient Judaism". Judaism in the Roman World: Collected Essays. Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity. 66. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 30–32. doi:10.1163/ej.9789004153097.i-275.7. ISBN 978-90-04-15309-7. 
  17. Sanhedrin 56a/b , quoting Tosefta, Avodah Zarah 9:4; see also Rashi on Genesis 9:4.
  18. Grishaver, Joel Lurie; Kelman, Stuart, eds (1996). Learn Torah With 1994-1995 Torah Annual: A Collection of the Year's Best Torah. Torah Aura Productions. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-881283-13-3. 
  19. "Article 29, Section 3". The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations General Assembly. 10 December 1948. 
  20. Rai, Jasdev Singh; Thorheim, Celia; Dorjderem, Amarbayasgalan; Macer, Darryl (2010). Universalism and ethical values for the environment. Thailand: UNESCO Office Bangkok and Regional Bureau for Education in Asia and the Pacific. ISBN 978-92-9223-301-3. Retrieved 24 April 2018. 
  21. Euthyphro. Oxford University Press. 1924-01-01. doi:10.1093/oseo/instance.00254375. ISBN 978-0-19-814015-3. Retrieved 2021-08-21. 
  22. Curry, Oliver Scott; Mullins, Daniel Austin; Whitehouse, Harvey (2019-02-02). "Is It Good to Cooperate? Testing the Theory of Morality-as-Cooperation in 60 Societies". Current Anthropology 60 (1): 47–69. doi:10.1086/701478. ISSN 0011-3204. 
  23. Jonathan., Haidt (2012). Righteous Mind : Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.. Random House US. ISBN 978-0-307-37790-6. OCLC 1031966889.