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Not to be confused with Moral absolutism.

Moral universalism (also called moral objectivism or universal morality) is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is, for "all similarly situated individuals",[1] regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality, or any other distinguishing feature.[2] Moral universalism is opposed to moral nihilism and moral relativism. However, not all forms of moral universalism are absolutist, nor are they necessarily value monist; many forms of universalism, such as utilitarianism, are non-absolutist, and some forms, such as that of Isaiah Berlin, may be value pluralist.

In addition to the theories of moral realism, moral universalism includes other cognitivist moral theories such as the subjectivist theories Ideal observer theory and the Divine command theory, and also the non-cognitivist moral theory of universal prescriptivism.[3][4]


According to R. W Hepburn:[5]

"To move towards the objectivist pole is to argue that moral judgements can be rationally defensible, true or false, that there are rational procedural tests for identifying morally impermissible actions, or that moral values exist independently of the feeling-states of individuals at particular times."

Linguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky states:[6]

"…if we adopt the principle of universality: if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others—more stringent ones, in fact—plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil."

This is a formulation of the golden rule. The source or justification of a universal ethic may be thought to be, for instance, human nature, shared vulnerability to suffering, the demands of universal reason, what is common among existing moral codes, or the common mandates of religion (although it can be said that the latter is not in fact moral universalism because it may distinguish between gods and mortals). As such, models of moral universalism may be atheistic or agnostic, deistic (in the case of several Enlightenment philosophers), monotheistic (in the case of the Abrahamic religions), or polytheistic (in the case of Hinduism). Various systems of moral universalism may differ in various ways on the meta-ethical question of the nature of the morality, as well as in their substantial normative content, but all agree on its universality.


An enormous range of traditions and thinkers have supported one form or another of moral universalism, from the ancient Platonists and Stoics, through Christians and Muslims, to modern Kantian, Objectivist, natural rights, human rights and utilitarian thinkers. The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be read as assuming a kind of moral universalism. The drafting committee of the Universal Declaration did assume, or at least aspired to, a "universal" approach to articulating international human rights. Although the Declaration has undeniably come to be accepted throughout the world as a cornerstone of the international system for the protection of human rights, a belief among some that the Universal Declaration does not adequately reflect certain important worldviews has given rise to more than one supplementary declaration, such as the Cairo Declaration and the Bangkok Declaration. It has been suggested that the Article 29, Section 3, which provides that the rights and freedoms set forth in the Declaration "may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations"[7] undermines the supposed universality of the Universal Declaration by elevating the United Nations, or the United Nations Charter, above the Universal Declaration; however, the legislative history of the drafting committee shows that this section is simply a rule of construction intended to guide the interpretation of the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Garth Kemerling (November 12, 2011). "universalizability". Philosophy Pages. "According to Immanuel Kant and Richard Mervyn Hare...moral imperatives must be regarded as equally binding on everyone." 
  2. ^ Chris Gowans (Dec 9, 2008). "Moral Relativism". In Edward N. Zalta, ed. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition). "Let us say that moral objectivism maintains that moral judgments are ordinarily true or false in an absolute or universal sense, that some of them are true, and that people sometimes are justified in accepting true moral judgments (and rejecting false ones) on the basis of evidence available to any reasonable and well-informed person." 
  3. ^ Noncognativism: A meta-ethical theory according to which moral issues are not subject to rational determination. Dealing with values, not facts, moral assertions are neither true nor false, but merely express attitudes, feelings, desires, or demands.Philosophy Pages
  4. ^ Prescriptivism: R. M. Hare's contention that the use of moral language conveys an implicit commitment to act accordingly. Thus, for example, saying that "Murder is wrong" not only entails acceptance of a universalizable obligation not to kill, but also leads to avoidance of the act of killing.Philosophy Pages
  5. ^ RW Hepburn (January 2005). "Ethical objectivism and subjectivism". The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (2nd ed.). pp. 667 ff. ISBN 9780199264797. 
  6. ^ Noam Chomsky (July 2, 2002). "Terror and Just Response". ZNet. 
  7. ^ "Article 29, Section 3". The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations General Assembly. December 10, 1948. 

External links[edit]

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