No, there is no such thing as a universal morality, and it is somewhat surprising that people are still asking this question in the 21st century. Then again, that doesn’t mean that anything goes, a la moral relativism. Of course, much depends on what one means by “universal,” so let’s try to parse things out a bit.

To begin with, if by “universal” we mean that morality is like the laws of physics, or like mathematical theorems, or perhaps like the laws of logic, then forget it. Setting aside interesting discussions on the nature of mathematics and logic and whether even their tenets are truly universal or not, morality isn’t even in the ballpark.

“Morality” comes from the Latin moralis, the word used by Cicero to translate the Greek êthos. The Latin word refers more properly to the habits and customs of a people, while the Greek one is related to the idea of character. So “morality” is concerned with people’s characters and how we interact with each other in society.

 “…ethics has to do with how to arrive at as harmonious social interactions as it is humanly possible.”

Indeed, the modern, especially Western, secular conception of morality as having to do with a universal code of behavior, with Right and Wrong (note the capitalization) is a recent phenomenon, mostly to be traced to the Enlightenment and particularly to the figure of Immanuel Kant. And that’s not a good thing, unfortunately.

Kant wanted to put moral philosophy on the same firm footing that Newton had provided for natural philosophy (what we today call science, though at the time it was mostly physics). And he thought he could do that by sheer force of reason. Rejecting — rightly — any divine inspiration on the matter, Kant arrived at what he thought was a universal logic of morality, his famous categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Kantian deontology (i.e., duty-based ethics) has all sorts of specific problems, well known to philosophers, but the most fundamental one is that moral philosophy is nothing like physics. Or logic.

Rather, the ancient Greeks and Romans were far closer to the mark: ethics has to do with how to arrive at as harmonious social interactions as it is humanly possible, and this can be done in a variety of different ways, which is why Socrates at one point said that what goes in Athens does not go in Sparta, and vice versa.

This begins to sound suspiciously like moral relativism, though, and yet very few of the ancients would fall under that category (except the Sophists, the precursors of both modern lawyers and of radical postmodernists…). What saved ancient ethics from relativism, and what will save us more than two millennia later, if we stop listening to Kant (or John Stuart Mill, or a lot of other modern moral philosophers) is the existence of human nature.

Socrates, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics, and a number of other Greco-Roman schools agreed on one thing: human beings are a particular type of animal, and that particularity lies chiefly in two aspects of what it means to be human: we are highly social, and we are capable of reason.

The first bit means that we are all deeply inter-dependent on other people. Despite the fashionable nonsense, especially in the United States, about “self-made men” (they are usually men), there actually is no such thing. Without social bonds and support our lives would be, as Thomas Hobbes famously put it, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. The second bit, the one about intelligence, does not mean that we always, or even often, act rationally. Only that we have the capability to do so. Ethics, then, especially (but not only) for the Stoics becomes a matter of “living according to nature,” meaning not to endorse whatever is natural (that’s an elementary logical fallacy), but rather to take seriously the two pillars of human nature: sociality and reason. As Marcus Aurelius put it, “Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations, IV.24)

There is something, of course, the ancients did get wrong: they, especially Aristotle, thought that human nature was the result of a teleological process, that everything has a proper function, determined by the very nature of the cosmos. We don’t believe that anymore, not after Copernicus and especially Darwin. But we do know that human beings are indeed a particular product of complex and ongoing evolutionary processes. These processes do not determine a human essence, but they do shape a statistical cluster of characters that define what it means to be human. That cluster, in turn, constrains — without determining — what sort of behaviors are pro-social and lead to human flourishing, and what sort of behaviors don’t. And ethics is the empirically informed philosophical enterprise that attempts to understand and articulate that distinction.

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

Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci is a blogger and author, as well as the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He writes regularly at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. His books include How To Be A Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (Basic Books) and Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism (co-edited with M. Boudry, University of Chicago Press).


Do you think there is a universal morality?


  • Mark Sloan says:

    I am delighted you could participate and have enjoyed reading your work for years.
    Your statement “…ethics has to do with how to arrive at as harmonious social interactions as it is humanly possible” is at least close to being consistent with modern science’s and Protagoras’ (in Plato’s dialog of the same name) claims that the function of morality (the primary reason it exists) is morality enables us to live in cooperative societies.
    Do you agree with modern science and Protagoras on morality’s function? If so, then it seems at least possible there is a necessary, and thus universally moral, component of strategies that fulfil this complicated function. That is, universally moral because it is a necessary component of cooperation strategies relevant to morality, rather than universally moral because it is somehow universally binding.
    I understand virtue ethics to be an answer to the broad, important question “How should I live?” rather than just about social interactions. Couldn’t morality as cooperation (which is limited to social interactions) and virtue ethics be complimentary?
    Then whether we look to morality as cooperation or virtue ethics for guidance for refining cultural moral codes (about interactions with others) could be a question of which choice can be expected to best meet our needs and preferences. Or perhaps which best follows “nature and reason” as I have read virtue ethics is intended to do.

    • Emmanuel Hernandez says:

      An example would be in order to repudiate your position. When communist China decided to become a hybrid of communism and capitalism during Deng Ciao Ping’s time (I don’t care what the color of the cat is as long as it catches the rat.), a chasm between the West and the CCP widened. The West defined the rule of law a la capitalism. The CCP on the other hand decided that they need not follow the Western rule because they are communist and not capitalist. China has the biggest population on earth. They run the country the way they do in the military organization. The Party therefore has the most efficient organization in terms of decision making because the brain functions based on what the Party’s agenda dictates. The CCP knows what is good for the people. There is no cooperational strategy between the Party and the people. And yet the nation’s economic growth had become unmatched in the 21st Century. Could it be that morality is based on size in whatever form or concepts?

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Massimo–Your commentary is elegant, as usual. Even though it has been placed in the “No” category, it also could have been placed in the “Yes” category based on your pull quote: “Ethics has to do with how to arrive at as harmonious social interactions as it is humanly possible.”

    I love your point about systematizers such as Kant being on the wrong track by emulating Newton. It’s interesting that neoclassical economics is on the same wrong track by trying to create a “physics of social behavior”. That’s why the shift to an evolutionary perspective is such a paradigmatic change. But here is a question for you: Were not the ancient Greek philosophers also systematizers? Why are their philosophical systems closer to a modern Darwinian view than the philosophers of the 18th and 19th century?

    Now that I think about it, your statement “we are highly social, and we are capable of reason” might indicate something that the ancient philosophers got wrong. In his wonderful book “Orality and Literacy”, Walter Ong suggests that the advent of writing was transformational for human thought, allowing for ways of systematic thinking that were impossible when everything known had to be stored in human heads. This means that the moral systems of oral societies might certainly qualify as “highly social” but not so much “capable of reason”. It also means that large elements of modern moral systems might not require much reason. I look forward to developing this line of thought…

    I also love your point that a universal morality does not mean “the same behavior performed in all cultures”. What goes in Athens does not go in Sparta. What’s universal is the rule “do what it takes to construct a harmonious society”. Following that rule will result in moral systems that are diverse in their particulars, for both adaptive and historical reasons. I made this point in my own commentary and my comments on some of the other commentaries.

  • Per what I’ve said on Massimo’s blog, Cicero himself reinforces the cultural basis of morality.

    Cicero derived “moralis” from “mos,” the Latin word for “custom,” probably best known from Cicero’s own bon mot “O tempora, o mores.”


    To D.S. Wilson — the existence of human culture, and general ideas of human cultural evolution, per the likes of Laland, are universal. No individual human culture, nor anything outside the idea of “do not kill,” which itself is vague and from early human cultural evolution, disputed as to its details and its application, has a major ethical idea that is itself universal.

    And, is “creating a harmonious society” a matter of ethics? If it is, many would argue that harmony based on Bentham’s Panopticon or ideas from Huxley’s “Brave New World” are immoral. I think that it’s a-moral in the proper sense that, unless specific moral issues are involved, societal harmony is not itself a moral issue.

    • Katy says:

      I agree, it would be a contradiction to say that there’s no universal morality and then to say that creating a harmonious society would be a value shared by every society. If the people of the society don’t agree that they want a harmonious society then they wouldn’t choose to chase it. It’s just that most people do want some kind of harmonious society and a disharmonious society wouldn’t last as long as the ones that are harmonious so we also end up with some survivor bias. But that’s not to say that we never intentionally choose disharmony for our society in real life either. Even though almost all people want harmony as an abstract value, as you mentioned it has to be weighed against other things that we value. Harmony vs self-interest/self-actualization is basically just another way to say collectivist vs individualist, and we clearly have societies that lean more one way or the other, and there are people, many of them good-hearted and empathetic people, who lean so far towards valuing individualism that they wish to effectively dismantle society. They are called anarchists and they believe that the restrictions created by even a relatively individualist society like in the West are still too burdensome to be ethical. Clearly they are at the extreme end but different people and cultures draw that line in different places.

  • Steve Davis says:

    Massimo’s statement – “So “morality” is concerned with people’s characters and how we interact with each other in society” – is too nebulous to be of value.

    Peter Kropotkin examined these issues at length in his great work “Ethics”, which seems to have been ignored by philosophers while the flawed mutterings of Thomas Hobbes are seen as profound.

    Kropotkin found that moral standards are developed to protect the group or the society from disintegration, as in proscribing murder, rape, adultery, theft etc.

    As such, moral standards have evolutionary significance to the extent that they protect the group from selective pressures. If the moral standards are deficient, the group may fail.

  • Truth Hurts says:

    Falsehood. Human beings are entangled with their egos, instead of serving authentic values. Morality must be universal and objective to be meaningful and valid – applying to everyone at all times. Otherwise genocides, honor killings, female mutilation, etc can go on in the name of someone else’s morality.

    There is universal law and there is universal morality. For example: love your family, return favors, be fair, respect other’s property, etc. Any meaningful kind of morality must be universal. If everyone is free to follow their own rules, then there are effectively no rules at all.

    • Katy says:

      It says in the article that not everyone is free to follow their own rules, did you read it?

      “X must exist because if it didn’t it would be bad”, is not actually evidence that X exists. Nothing in your list is an example of universal morality, they’re examples of common points of agreement on morality and even if they were universal points, what we “need” is not a set of universal points but a complete universal moral framework. We don’t have one of those. We have several half-baked attempts that conflict with each other and that we know on a gut level, based on common points of morality, have cases where they’re completely broken and don’t work. Kant lets the Nazis in to take the Jews from his attic, and the utilitarians sleep soundly in Omelas.

      You do not have to love your family if they abused and abandoned you (though many do anyway). You do not have to return favors if it would come at a great cost to yourself or a third party; in fact, returning favors in the wrong context is typically called things like “cronyism”, “bribery”, and “corruption”. “Be fair” is a meaningless one since you would have to determine what that means as it’s basically just another way to say “be ethical”; does fairness mean equality of opportunity, or equity? There is a picture floating around the internet about this one and it’s widely debated because people can’t agree whether the fairest thing to do is to give everyone the same height box to peek over the fence even though it only allows the tallest person to actually see, or to give the shortest person a taller box so they can all see over the fence, or to replace the fence wholesale with one made of chain-links so nobody needs any boxes at all. You also don’t have to respect other people’s property if it was come by unethically enough, otherwise the Underground Railroad and the French Revolution would both have been unethical, which most people wouldn’t agree with.

      So if there’s a universal moral framework, we haven’t found it yet, and it’s the kind of thing humans would have made up even if it didn’t really exist, because it’s useful the social order if we believe in it, much like God or a consensual social contract. 🙂

      • Jacob says:

        The examples given may have holes, I agree. Nevertheless, I would still contest that a universal morality does exist. Take murder for example. You could argue that different cultures have different views of killing another human being. After all, the Aztecs made human sacrifices and nations go to war with each other all the time. However, these examples do not glorify murder, quite the opposite. The deaths in any given killing are viewed by the killer as a necessary evil, because humans have a tendency not to differ on the rightness or wrongness of murder itself, but rather make excuses and exceptions to the rule of murder being wrong.
        Additional examples include peace, which is an ideal we wish to uphold but violate out of what we feel is necessity, and honesty, where lying is looked down upon but is still done in the name of some greater goal.
        You make universal morality out to be a straw man by saying that exceptions or gray areas in universal moral ideals make those moral ideals not universal. No individual set of morals has ever come without exceptions, and it would stand to reason that those exceptions to the examples given by “Truth Hurts” could actually be a part of that moral code in some cases.
        (As a final note, saying that we know something “on a gut level” is a bit presumptuous, don’t you think? Clearly we don’t all believe that universal moral codes are broken, or this issue wouldn’t ever have needed to be discussed.)

  • Not so fast Massimo Piglucci. There are plenty of other social animals. And other animals appear to act rationally, in the sense of using efficient means to achieve their ends, plus most animals avoid harming themselves. There are many competing philosophical versions of morality as there are competing religious versions of morality, but nothing that all people at all times accept, nothing definitive. Why not bypass philosophy and religion and look at the unique biology, especially the ethology of humans. Perhaps that is where we will find something common to all humans. Let’s ask ourselves this question: Why can’t humans live without a moral system and animals can? Animals thrive without morality but amoral humans often end up destroying themselves and sometimes their entire society. Psychopathic apes are not a problem in ape society they are the alpha dominants. When a new alpha male gorilla takes over he kills his rival’s infants. Humans have more children, and human children have longer childhoods, with longer periods of neuroplasticity because they are protected by moral systems. Humans flourish and have more advanced cooperation because they live in a moral system. All moral systems are constraints on dominance and ways of excluding bullies and cheaters from social life. The social virtues and moral principles can thrive and develop because a moral system is already in place.

    • Katy says:

      I don’t see how the human and ape cases are any different here, since psychopathic human apes make up much of the dominant alphas too! The easiest places to find psychopaths and people with other kinds of amoral personality disorders like sociopathy are at the very top echelons of society and at the very bottom. The ones with low IQs are unable to put their amorality to self-serving use and end up in prison; the ones with high IQs are very well represented in high-ranking corporate, military, and governmental positions. So if you’re suggesting that nonhuman animals treat their psychopaths differently, you would also have to show that there’s a lack of nonhuman animals at the bottom of their society, or that all nonhuman social animals are psychopaths, and I don’t think either are true. For example, you suggest that all animals are amoral but then that the amoral animals become the alphas, but they can’t all be alphas. And there are many examples of altruism in animals. Whether or not animals have a sense of morality is hotly debated and would vary by species, but there is evidence that many higher-intelligence social animals act in ways that we would call something like empathy or morals if we saw it in a human. If you put two rhesus monkeys in separate enclosures within sight of each other and wire up one so that it gets shocked every time the other pushes a button to dispense food, the second monkey swill starve itself for days once it figures out that the food button is also shocking the other monkey. This is despite the fact that taking the food comes at no personal cost and only a benefit. That does not sound like a psychopath to me. (In fact, if anything the psychopath here might be the researcher who came up with that experiment!)

  • Katy says:

    This is a wonderful article that solidified some ideas I’ve been knocking around in my head for awhile. My only problem is this — once you’ve figured out that there’s no such thing as universal morality, how does a society go about picking a set of ethics and how do you as an individual decide how to live? How do we resolve the fuzzy moral conflicts that haven’t been spelled out and how do we know how we should evolve our morals over time? Especially in the west, where individualism means that in many cases we simply don’t share a common ethical framework anymore. Not that I am or would ever wish to go back to the “good old days” but if you sat down on a random big-city bus you could easily wind up between a far-right Christian fundamentalist who eats factory-farmed meat, and a dreadlocked vegan environmentalist who wants to de-civ. So if you want to live in a harmonious society, what on earth do you do? Do you just pick the sandbox that has the kids you think you’d like to play with and go with their rules, or do you change your own ethical rules as you move through different social contexts? On a gut level, doing the latter feels wrong but it seems pretty close to “when in Athens”. “Live and let live” is the farthest I’ve seemed to have gotten with this, but it also feels like I have some responsibility to lend a helping hand to those who aren’t being allowed to live by others (such as slaves) and where do you draw the lines? To some extent, there is an opportunity cost to even the most basic ascetic existence. If I am justified in causing the death and suffering of other animals to secure basic food and housing, am I justified in causing a little more to get slightly better food or housing, or entertainment, or things that I don’t strictly need to survive? I know there’s no “correct” answer but the only rational consistent answers seem to be suicide or full-bore psychopathy, neither of which are appealing. So do we just pick an arbitrary rung in between? Pretty legitimately upsetting stuff to think about if you are someone who is interested in being “good”.

  • Lois says:

    This is just something to think about when talking about morality.
    You say “morality” is concerned with people’s characters and how we interact with each other in society.
    I think thats partly true, but just read the following quote. It makes me wonder where morality really comes from, what is its ORIGIN?

    C.S. Lewis writes: “For example, some people write to me saying, “Isn’t what you
    call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn’t it been
    developed just like all our other instincts?” Now I don’t deny
    that we may have a herd instinct: but that isn’t what I mean by
    the Moral Law. We all know what it feels like to be prompted
    by instinct—by mother love, or sexual instinct, or the
    instinct for food. It means you feel a strong want or desire to
    act in a certain way. And, of course, we sometimes do feel just
    that sort of desire to help another person: and no doubt that
    desire is due to the herd instinct. But feeling a desire to help is
    quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you
    want to or not. Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in
    danger. You will probably feel two desires—one a desire to
    give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep
    out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you
    will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third
    thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to
    help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that
    judges between two instincts, that decides which should be
    encouraged, can’t itself be either of them. You might as well say
    that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to
    play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the
    notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law is, so to speak, the tune
    we’ve got to play: our instincts are merely the keys.”

  • Mark Sloan says:

    Hi Lois,

    The ultimate source of morality’s mysterious “oughtness” (that CS Lewis calls the “third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away”) has long puzzled philosophers.

    However, insights from modern game theory help confirm that this third thing (which we can identify as our conscience) is the product of evolutionary processes just as sympathy for others and self-preservation are. Our predecessors who had diminished ability to experience shame and guilt (and thus had no conscience) tended to be poorer cooperators and, lacking access to the many benefits of cooperation, tended to die out.

    The ultimate origin of human morality is in solutions to cooperation problems. Further, all species with highly cooperative societies must solve these same cooperation problems. So all intelligent species with highly cooperative societies will necessarily have a version of “morality as cooperation” that shares the same ultimate origin as human morality and we would thus recognize as morality.


    • Lois says:

      But still it is peculiar that this Moral Law chooses the weaker instinct. That doesnt seem to fit into the “survival of the fittest” concept either. I mean, why did we develop this third thing if it doesn’t aid our survival and reproduction? I should say that The Moral Law or “oughtness” is not conscience though. The Moral Law is the thing that “feeds” your conscience. Without it, your conscience wouldn’t know what was right or wrong.

      • Mark Sloan says:

        Human morality and the unselfishness it motivates toward other group members increases reproductive fitness of the group (and therefore the biology underlying our moral sense), but sometimes not the individual’s reproductive ftness relative to others in the group.

        And Darwin described the function of morality as cooperation in 1871:
        “…an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another. A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes”

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