Are there moral universals? At first glance, this looks like a question of fact. To answer it, we’d have to nominate some candidates for universal moral truth, and check to see whether everyone accepts them. We could ask all 7.6 billion people, for example, whether they think recreational cruelty is wrong. Given human perversity, there’s a good chance that some will answer “no.” In that sense, there are probably no moral universals.

But that’s not the question we really mean to ask, is it? What we want to know is whether any moral strictures are binding on us all. So clarified, the answer flips: Of course there are moral universals. “Recreational cruelty is wrong” is an incontestable example of the type in question. Yes, some nut job might assert otherwise, but why should we listen to him? Either he doesn’t understand the question, or he’s being needlessly perverse. More important, he’s obligated to avoid recreational cruelty whether he knows it or not.

Invariably, clever people come up with counterexamples. ‘What about sadomasochists and the organizers of ultra-marathons: don’t they facilitate recreational cruelty?’ Such counterexamples miss the point. I could just as well have nominated “It’s wrong to visit recreational cruelty on the unconsenting.” Or “Pointless suffering is a bad thing.” Remember, one instance of a moral universal suffices to prove the existence claim.

A single instance, though, doesn’t tell us what we really want to know. We want to know whether anything like a well-functioning value system has universal validity.

You don’t need much in the way of normative assumptions to convert facts into values. Consider the assertion: "All else being equal, more wellbeing is better than less." Who could object? It’s all but definitionally true.

For much of the twentieth century, the politically correct answer was ‘No: universally valid value systems don’t exist.’ People worried that an affirmative answer would license political or cultural imperialism: people could get the idea that things really are right and wrong, and this might lead them to impose their values on others. In this way, it became trendy to deny moral universals.

Trendy, but wrong-headed. For one thing, there’s a big gap between “Moral universals exist” and “I have all the answers.” Recognizing moral universals needn’t render one arrogant and ready to impose. Second, our tendency to deny moral universals subverts the search for common moral ground. (Why engage in value inquiry if moral truths don’t exist?) Third, denying that there are common moral truths doesn’t just humble cultural imperialists; it also humbles the compassionate and the tolerant, robbing them of conviction. Cultural relativism robs us of moral courage.

Fortunately, the moral sciences are starting to change all of this. Moral and social psychology, game theory, ethology, primatology, evolutionary psychology: all of these shed light on the origins and functioning of moral sensibilities (also moral intuitions, norms, and rules). We now know that morality evolved to serve a “pro-social” function: in the past, it promoted cooperation and survival. Yes, the first nervous systems prioritized self-care, giving the creatures that bore them a survival advantage, but natural selection has repurposed our nervous systems to also care for kin, friends, and tribesmen. Our brains now deliver a mix of self and other-regarding intuitions.

On the whole, our instincts are more selfish, short-sighted and tribal than is warranted. To properly promote shared wellbeing, we must deliberately discount some moral intuitions, and deliberately amplify others. Here, moral norms prove useful. Prohibitions against lying, cheating, and stealing, for example. “Be nice” is a good rule of thumb, as is “Respect basic rights.” “Treat others the way you like to be treated” is pretty nifty, too. It’s not hard to extend the list.

Notice that exhortations like these are more than merely subjective. Our preference for kindness over cruelty, for example, isn’t arbitrary. Why? Well, kindness is objectively more conducive to shared wellbeing than cruelty is. The same goes for fairness over unfairness, and honesty over deceit. Given basic facts about animal nervous systems, some things really are better than others.

You don’t need much in the way of normative assumptions to convert these facts into moral principles. Consider the assertion: “All else being equal, more wellbeing is better than less.” Who could object? Anyone worth taking seriously? Surely not: it’s all but definitionally true. This simple idea is an excellent place to begin building ethical common ground.

It’s like a seed crystal: add this idea to a solution of facts, and all kinds of moral truths precipitate out. And the truths you get—such as “Best not to harm conscious critters”— have a strong claim to universal validity. So why not assert the existence of moral universals? By so doing, we affirm our commitment to behaviors that tend to improve our collective lot.

Image: Ron Mader ; Flickr

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.