Moral Universals

“In his great philosophical work An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume speculated on the universal nature of human morality: “The notion of morals implies some sentiment common to all mankind, which recommends the same object to general approbation, and makes every man, or most men, agree in the same opinion or decision concerning it” Is there a moral sentiment common to all humans? Are there moral universals?

In anthropology, human universals “comprise those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exceptions to their existence in all ethnographically or historically recorded human societies.” Common and well-known universals include tools, myths and legends, sex roles, social groups, aggression, gestures, grammar, and emotions. There are general universals, such as social status and emotional expressions, and specific universals within broader universals, such as kinship statuses and facial expressions like the smile, frown, or eyebrow flash. Since cultures vary dramatically, the supposition made about “universals” is that there is an evolutionary and biological basis behind them (or, at the very least, that they are not strictly culturally determined). As such, we can presume that there is a genetic predisposition for these traits to be expressed within their respective cultures, and that these cultures, despite their considerable diversity, nurture these genetically predisposed natures in a consistent fashion.

For an analysis of universals we turn to anthropology, because it is this science that documents the diversity of ways that humans live and illuminates so clearly which traits are universal and which traits are not. Universals exist, they are numerous, and they engage matters unquestionably of anthropological concern,” explains anthropologist Donald E. Brown, who has arguably done more work on human universals than anyone in his field. “Universals can be explained, and their ramified effects on human affairs can be traced. But universals comprise a heterogenous set—cultural, social, linguistic, individual, unrestricted, implicational, etc.—a set that may defy any single overarching explanation. If, however, a single source for universals had to be sought, human nature would be the place to look.”

Culture matters, of course, but not in some token fashion tossed off by sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists to display proper political correctness, rather as wholly integrated and fully interdigitated with nature such that you cannot speak of one without the other. This interactionism is the only reasonable position to take on the so-called (and artificial) nature-nurture debate, despite the limitations most anthropologists have set on understanding this interaction. As Brown notes in castigating his fellow anthropologists: “these interactions can only be properly explored if there are ways to distinguish nature from culture, and I submit that there is little if anything in the way of an established and valid method in anthropology for doing this. Typically, anthropologists simply do not concern themselves with this problem, because they assume (in accordance with other propositions) that what humans do, unless it is ‘obviously’ natural, is essentially cultural.”

In his comprehensive study of human universals, Brown compiled a list of 373. From these I count 202 (54 percent) moral and religious universals, which I list in appendix 2 along with parenthetical notes explaining what I think the relationship is between the universal trait and morality or religion. (I include religious universals because in my theory on the origins of morality, religion and morality were inseparable in their coevolution.) Although some traits are more obviously related to morality and religion than others, in general it is strikingly clear just how much of what we do has some bearing on our state of being as social organisms in interaction with others of our kind. We are moral animals, and these moral universals belong to the species and are thus transcendent of the individual members of that species.

The expression of human moral behavior is a product of internal psychological traits related to morality, and external social states related to moral behavioral control. Going through the list of moral and religious universals in appendix 2, the sheer number is indicative of their undeniable role in human biological and cultural evolution. Some moral psychological traits (or sentiments) include: affection expressed and felt (necessary for altruism and cooperation to be reinforced); attachment (necessary for bonding, friendship, pro-social behavior); coyness display (courtship, moral manipulation); crying (sometimes expression of grief, moral pain); emotions (necessary for moral sense); empathy (necessary for moral sense); envy (moral trait); fears (generate much religious and moral behavior); generosity admired (reward for cooperative and altruistic behavior); incest between mother and son unthinkable or tabooed (obvious evolutionary moral trait); judging others (foundation of moral approval/disapproval); mourning (expression of grief, part of symbolic moral reasoning); pride (a moral sense); self-control (moral assessment and judgment); sexual jealousy (foundation of major moral relations and tensions); sexual modesty (foundation of major moral relations and tensions); and shame (moral sense), to name just a few.

Going through the list again, this time picking out moral behavioral control mechanisms universal to human cultures, we are again awed by their numbers and importance. Some moral behavioral control mechanisms include: age statuses (vital element in social hierarchy, dominance, respect for elder’s wisdom); coalitions (foundation of social and group morality); collective identities (basis of xenophobia, group selection); conflict, consultation to deal with (resolution of moral problems); conflict, means of dealing with (resolution of moral problems); conflict, mediation of (foundation of much of moral behavior); corporate (perpetual) statuses (moral ranking of groups); customary greetings (part of conflict prevention and resolution); dominancelsubmission (foundation of hierarchical social primate species); etiquette (enhances social relations); family (or household) (the most basic social and moral unit); food sharing (form of cooperation and altruism); gift giving (reward for cooperative and altruistic behavior); government (social morality); group living (social morality); groups that are not based on family (necessary for higher moral reasoning and blind altruism); inheritance rules (reduces conflict within families and communities); institutions (organized coactivities) (religion); kin groups (foundation of kin selection/altruism and basic social group); law (rights and obligations) (foundation of social harmony); law (rules of membership) (foundation of social harmony); males engage in more coalitional violence (gender differences in moral behavior); marriage (moral rules of foundational relationship); murder proscribed (moral judgment necessary in communities); oligarchy (de facto) (group social control); property (foundation of moral reasoning and judgment); reciprocal exchanges (of labor, goods, or services) (reciprocal altruism); redress of wrongs (moral conflict resolution); sanctions (social moral control); sanctions for crimes against the collectivity (social moral control); sanctions include removal from the social unit (social moral control); taboos (moral and social control); tabooed foods (element in moral and social control); tabooed utterances (communication of moral and social control); and violence, some forms of proscribed (moral and social control), to name just a few.

Finally, we began this chapter with the Golden Rule, a moral guideline found in all cultures that represents the very foundation of universal morality. Of the list of human moral universals, here are the traits that contribute to a behavioral expression of the Golden Rule: cooperation (part of altruism); cooperative labor (part of kin, reciprocal, and blind altruism); customary greetings (part of conflict prevention and resolution); empathy (necessary for moral sense); fairness (equity); food sharing (form of cooperation and altruism); generosity admired (reward for cooperative and altruistic behavior); gestures (signs of recognition of others, conciliatory behavior); gift giving (reward for cooperative and altruistic behavior); good and bad distinguished (necessary for moral judgment); hospitality (enhances social relations); inheritance rules (reduces conflict within families and communities); insulting (communication of moral approval/disapproval); intention (part of moral reasoning and judgment); interpolation (part of moral reasoning and judgment); interpreting behavior (necessary for moral judgment); judging others (foundation of moral approval/disapproval); making comparisons (necessary for moral judgments); moral sentiments (the foundation of all morality); moral sentiments, limited effective range of (parameters of moral foundation); planning for future (foundation for moral judgment); pride (a moral sense); promise (moral relations); reciprocal exchanges (of labor, goods, or services) (reciprocal altruism); reciprocity, negative (revenge, retaliation) (reduces reciprocal altruism); reciprocity, positive (enhances reciprocal altruism); redress of wrongs (moral conflict resolution); shame (moral sense); turn taking (conflict prevention).

Michael Shermer. “Science of Good and Evil”.


Moral Universals by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Leave a Reply