Past Symposium: Moral Universalism

Past Symposium: Moral Universalism: Empirical Perspectives (March 2015)


If, and in what sense, moral values are universal has been an issue of longstanding debate. This debate is increasingly being enriched with empirical perspectives. For example, recent experimental studies provide insight into the ‘folk-perceptions’ of morality, raising new meta-ethical questions about the alleged objectivity of moral values. Cross-cultural research is shedding light on the similarities and variations of actual moral practices, the normative relevance of which is a topic ongoing philosophical dispute.

During a one-day symposium, questions about the universality of moral values were examined from three distinct perspectives: evolutionary anthropology, psychology, and (meta-)ethics. Four invited speakers discussed these issues from their disciplinary expertise. Each presentation was followed by commentaries from the research members of the NWO-funded project ‘Evolutionary Ethics’.



Members of the NWO-funded research project ‘Evolutionary Ethics’, at the University of Utrecht



Dr. Oliver Scott Curry (Oxford University)

Are there any Universal Moral Values?

Scholars in the humanities and social sciences have debated whether moral values are cross-cultural and universal, as opposed to local and particular, for centuries. But these debates have taken place in an empirical vacuum: there has never been a consensus about what constitutes morality, and there have been no comprehensive cross-cultural surveys of moral values. In this talk I will outline the theory of ‘morality as cooperation’ that identifies seven key moral values (obligations to kin, group loyalty, reciprocity, bravery, respect, fairness, and recognition of property). And I will discuss the preliminary results of a survey investigating the prevalence of these values in the ethnographic record. I suggest that instead of arguing about whether morals vary or not, we should be researching which particular moral values vary and why.


Dr. Katinka Quintelier (University of Amsterdam)

An Empirical Defense of Moral Relativism

Certain moral philosophers and moral psychologists argue that universality is a core feature of morality. For example, in 1955 Hare argued that moral judgments are by definition universalizable, and most defenders of a moral/conventional distinction argue that generalizability is part of the nature of moral judgments. However, according to naturalistic ethicists such as Harman and Wong, relativity is also an important feature of morality.

In this talk, I employ scientific and philosophical theories, and empirical findings, in defense of philosophical moral relativism. More specifically, I argue that in some contexts and for some moral topics, moral judgments should be thought of as relative. I discuss the following arguments and how they support moral relativism. First, psychological theories and empirical findings suggest that people can think of moral judgments as relative. Second, relativistic attitudes towards morality are positively related to other attitudes such as tolerance. Therefore, relativist attitudes sometimes allow us to fulfill certain social goals or functions of morality, more so than universalist attitudes towards morality.

The arguments I present during this talk illustrate how scientific theories can inform philosophical ethics. I conclude with a tentative view of how further scientific findings can help us to answer philosophical questions about ethics.


Dr. Paulo Sousa (Queen’s University Belfast)

Folk Moral Objectivism

The topic of the talk is the folk meta-ethics implicit in moral beliefs, such as the belief that it is wrong to kill an innocent person. Do ordinary people entertain such beliefs as objectively true, like when one has the belief that the Moon is the Earth’s only natural satellite? Or do they entertain such beliefs simply as subjectively true, like when one has the belief that black is the most beautiful color? Traditionally, both psychologists and philosophers have argued that ordinary people adhere to some form of objectivism with respect to their moral beliefs; actually, some form of objectivism has been often taken as the hallmark discriminating moral beliefs from other normative beliefs. However, there have also been some dissenting voices claiming that ordinary people do not associate morality with objectivism, and, more recently, some authors have provided some evidence in support of this alternative view. The aim of the talk is to delineate a version of the traditional view on the topic and provide evidence for it.


Prof. Pauline Kleingeld (University of Groningen)

Kantian Moral Universalism and Evolutionary Explanation

Many believe that the evolutionary genesis of moral codes speaks against ‘a priori’ Kantian moral universalism. Kantians, in turn, tend to downplay the significance of the genealogy of morality as being simply morally irrelevant, because on their account morality is not grounded in empirical facts at all. But surely, even lofty a priori moral universalism must have some evolutionary genesis; moreover, if morality is grounded in human reason, moral universalists must be able to provide an explanation of why there is so much disagreement about even the most basic moral questions. In this paper I show how rationalist moral universalists can account for both.