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Moral Universalism

Introduction | Criticisms of Moral Absolutism
Introduction Back to Top

Moral Universalism is the meta-ethical position that there is a universal ethic which applies to all people, regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality or other distinguishing feature, and all the time. A universal ethic is a moral system that applies universally to all of humanity, and thus transcends culture and personal whim. The source or justification of this system is variously claimed to be human nature, a shared vulnerability to suffering, the demands of universal reason, common themes among existing moral codes, or the mandates of religion.

It is the opposite of Moral Relativism, the position that moral propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances. It is related to, but not the same as, Moral Realism (the position that certain acts are objectively right or wrong, independent of human opinion), and to Moral Absolutism (the belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of the context of the act). To some extent, (particularly if the universal ethic is considered to be derived or inferred from what is common among existing moral codes), it can be seen as a compromise between Moral Absolutism and Moral Realism.

The ancient Greek philosophers Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics believed in a kind of Universalism, opposing the Moral Relativism of the Sophists, as did Immanuel Kant (especially in his theory of the Categorical Imperative), John Locke, John Stuart Mill and Ayn Rand (1905 - 1982).

Many religions, including Christianity and Islam, have morally universalist positions, and regard their system of morality as having been set by a deity, and therefore absolute, universal, perfect and unchangeable. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations can be seen as an example of global efforts to bring a universalist, equal and common moral justice to all people, and Moral Universalism is, at least in part, the basis for modern human rights, and an integral part of any Humanist philosophy.

Criticisms of Moral Universalism Back to Top

Criticisms of Moral Universalism are similar to those of Moral Absolutism:

  • How do we come to know what the universal morals are? For morals to be truly universal and absolute, they would have to have a universally unquestioned source, interpretation and authority, which critics claim is an impossibility.
  • The sheer diversity of moral opinions which exists between societies (and even within societies) in the world today suggests that there cannot be a single universal morality.

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