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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.       
  3. 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.    
  4. 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.

Published On: May 23, 2018

Elliott Sober

Elliott Sober

Elliott Sober teaches philosophy at University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research is in the philosophy of science, especially in the philosophy of evolutionary biology. Sober’s books include The Nature of Selection(1984), Reconstructing the Past — Parsimony, Evolution, and Inference (1988), Philosophy of Biology (1993),Unto Others — The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (1998, coauthored with David Sloan Wilson), Evidence and Evolution – the Logic Behind the Science (2008), Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards? (2011), and Ockham’s Razors – A User’s Manual (2015).



  • Mark Sloan says:


    If the evolutionary function of our moral sense and cultural moral codes is something like “increase the benefits of cooperation”, then couldn’t there be a necessary component of all strategies that accomplish that tricky task? This necessary component of all cooperation strategies relevant to morality would be a universally (uniquely) true moral principle (perhaps even cross species universally true!) based solely in science and independent of moral philosophy.

    Of course, any claims of innate bindingness (what all beings past, and present ‘ought’ to do) would be fully in the domain of moral philosophy. That is, one kind of moral universality may be in the domain of science with innate moral bindingness still in the domain of moral philosophy. Then, universality and innate bindingness would be separable characteristics of morality.

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Lots here to discuss of course. On (1) I’d like to know more about how a question can be philosophical in a way that science is not in a position to answer. I have become accustomed to thinking of philosophers as very similar to scientific theorists, especially philosophers of biology such as Elliott. On (2), I am reminded of Richard Joyce’s book on morality, in which he excludes altruism toward kin as too automatic to be considered moral. For him, morality is all about moral obligation. On (3) ideals that are unachievable (such as Jesus as a moral exemplar or the concept of Nirvana) can be understood as social forces that pull us in their direction. On (4) I’d like to mention Michele Gelfand’s distinction between tight and loose cultures, which concern how strongly norms are asserted and enforced. Even loose cultures are tight about the norm of tolerance, however!

  • Andy Norman says:

    I find this passel of distinctions helpful, and heartily endorse the corollary: that we must clarify the question ‘Is there a universal morality?’ before attempting to answer it. Like David, I think it’s worth pressing a bit on Elliott’s claim that science is not in a position to answer moral/philosophical questions. For it turns out that this claim’s truth is heavily dependent on what we mean by “science.” Not only is that concept elastic, there are intriguing reasons why we *ought* to stretch the concept a bit, so as include certain approaches to addressing (some) moral/philosophical questions. Put differently, our concept of a science is already expanding to include evidence-based studies of what works to promote creaturely wellbeing. My own contribution to this symposium–“Why It’s Unwise to Deny Moral Universals”–drills down on this possibility.

  • Steve Davis says:

    Herbert Marcuse discussed this topic in a framework of universal rights.

    ““The doctrine of the right of resistance has always asserted that appealing to the right of resistance is an appeal to a higher law which has universal validity, that is, which goes beyond the self-defined right and privilege of a particular group… If we appeal to humanity’s right to peace, to humanity’s right to abolish exploitation and oppression, we are not talking about self-defined, special, group interests, but rather and in fact interests demonstrable as universal rights. That is why we can and should lay claim today to the right of resistance as more than a relative right.”

    We can possibly take from this that if a moral code is not based on self-defined special group interests, then yes, a universal morality is possible.

  • I like the way Elliot frames the problem: “questions about universal morality can be posed at multiple levels of organization. ” That’s it in a nutshell. When we talk about human society, what are we referring to? A family? neighbourhood? Ethnic Group? Religion? City? Province? country? Civilization? What works in one of these groups might not work in another. What we are looking for is something that works in every group, that makes a human group possible. This might be more like a common procedure that, post hoc, is reflected in a principle.

  • A strong case can be made for the emergence of a broad new scientific “paradigm” based on holism and something like “the law of the whole”. The scientific and philosophic community is not yet clear on the precise outlines of any such paradigm, but there are strong intuitive (and evolutionary) forces out there pushing in this direction. We have lived throughout history in a world of reductionism and fragments, and the notion of any single universal containing “whole” has seemed a pipe dream of metaphysical Don Quixotes tilting at the impossible. But the globalization of culture drives the universalization of concepts, in ways that may be surprisingly convergent. A highest common denominator may be emerging, as a universally inclusive containing ontology for the diversity of independent scientific and philosophic perspectives. This universal container may well be “the One” envisioned throughout history and described by great minds like Plotinus. Understood in this perspective, all science and philosophy involves an intentional partitioning of this one common space of human experience and cognition. And this one container — holding “every thing and every one” — might then well offer a single universal guiding ethic — what we might call “the law of the whole” — a single guiding principle that supports or optimizes “the wellbeing of the whole” at every point in the infinitely fluent part/whole mereological and fractal and “holonic” cascade that would describe reality seen in these terms. One law, one universal principle, guiding every particular human action, at every level of social organization. Could it be? I suspect this is indeed the still somewhat dimly outlined target of philosophical evolution, as the human community in its teeming cocreative diversity reaches towards principles that can support “a world that works for all”.

    • Just to footnote my comment, my website at http://origin.org goes over many of these issues, ranging from deeply philosophical and mystical levels, to attempts to define these questions in the language of computer science, the fundamentals of algebraic semantics, and the “foundations of mathematics”.

    • Brent Meeker says:

      That doesn’t sufficiently confront the problem of “the whole”. Does it include all human beings? What about dogs? and horses? What about the Neanderthals, was it OK to displace them? Gorilla? Octopuses?

  • Rory Short says:

    As a practicing Quaker since 1963 my experience is that there is an all pervasive benign consciousness [APBC] which is willing to guide our behaviour, both individually and collectively, if we consciously open ourselves to its guidance. From this guidance perspective moral behaviour is not set in stone but is a living response to each situation. Looked at over time one can distil a moral consistency to the behaviour of Quaker collectives, for instance, so it would seem that the source of that behaviour, the APBC, inheres a morality which is universal.

  • Brent Meeker says:

    A more basic distinction which I wish was observed more is between the personal standards of behavior (which I think of as morals) and public standards of behavior (which I think of as ethics). Unfortunately common usage uses morals and ethics as though they are the same thing. But when Sartre wrote, “Getting out of bed in the morning is a moral decision.” he obviously had in mind the distinction I make. And it is a historically important distinction. In the middle ages and in theocracies in general there is no such distinction. The idea of a private domain of morals that is nobodies business but your own is an Enlightenment invention. It made a distinction between sin and crime. It created the separation of church and state. We tend to take it for granted but the boundary between private morals and public ethics is where the culture wars are fought: abortion, homosexuallity, polygamy,…

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.