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In a world of so many interpretations of fundamental human conduct, can there be a universal morality?

LF's picture

Conscience is generally thought of as a sense that allows us to experience feelings of guilt when we act in ways that contradict our innate moral values. We are able to experience moral judgment prior to acting in a certain way because of this conscience. There are many answers as to where this conscience comes from. Some believe in is innate and others believe it is a product of our cultural environment. Our cultural environment includes elements such as parents, friends and religion. A moral code based on religious belief incorporates the suggestion of a divine command and verdict that tends to create an authoritarian type of moral convention.


Cultural morality is a result of perceptions, ideas and values that are agreed upon within a specific population. This creates an outline for morally good and bad behavior, allowing people to judge their actions. People who follow these guide lines are accepted within society and those who do not are deemed socially reprobate. Some believe that following moral guide lines helps one to live a good life. This debate stimulates various questions, many of which come from moral relativists.


Moral relativism is a branch of philosophy that proposes the idea that there is no absolute or universal moral truth and that one must take in to account the social and cultural situation in every personal circumstance. The idea that no universal moral criterion exists makes the idea of conscience and morality a great deal more complex as it becomes based on individual preferences. This is where applied ethics is used and people are able to decide on a moral outcome based on the specifics of the situation.


The New York Times produced an article which explains some of the views of Leon Kass. He was appointed by Bush as the chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. The bioethicist believes that “science has become so dangerous because it is a powerful force, yet one that has been deliberately stripped on moral values by scientists who are trained to pursue the truth objectively.” Kass places value on the natural process of life therefore rejects the practice of euthanasia, stem cell research and even birth control (believing that a woman's vocation is motherhood). Kass believes that technology such as in vitro fertilization opens the door to much more dangerous and life changing technologies such as human cloning. In many of his lectures Kass refers to the bible to give examples for his argument. Kass‘s wrote an essay called "The End of Courtship" concerning issues of morality in terms of marriage. He believes women must be virtuous in order to maintain sexual control and chastity thus creating a better and more fulfilling life for themselves: “Her menstrual cycle, since puberty a regular reminder of her natural maternal destiny, is now anovulatory and directed instead by her will and her medications, serving goals only of pleasure and convenience, enjoyable without apparent risk to personal health and safety.” For Kass, technology has caused people to be less attentive to their health and quality of their lifestyle. He also rejects homosexuality with the same rigor that he does for incest and bestiality and claims that courtship in our world is done as a result of modernity.(1)


   Daniel C. Dennett provides us with some interesting ideas in his book called “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. You are free to preserve or create any religious creed you wish, so long as it does not become a public menace (p.516). Could this be the answer? It is clear that extremists like Kass would not agree with this statement. Kass’ Christian upbringing has clearly consumed him entirely and he believes that his opinion is the best and only way to live a truly fulfilling life. However, other people have been raised with the same extreme influence of religion, yet they are not Christian. They could be Muslim, Jewish or Hindu. Therefore Kass’ argument is incredibly biased and he is setting a universal moral truth regardless of other people’s upbringing. He makes several references to the bible which is pointless considering the variation of religions present in the US as well as the fact that today we have a more liberal view of morality. Kass neglects the fact that the human race is genetically programmed to be extremely curious and therefore desperate to pursue scientific investigation.


It is almost impossible to set a universal moral truth, it is much more sensible to judge each situation as it comes. If a man were to push a woman in to the street and at that same time a pile of bricks fell onto the space where she had been standing, is this good or bad? Right or wrong? If his intention were to kill her by pushing her in front of a bus yet he actually saved her life because the bus missed her and she missed the pile of bricks then the action was wrong but the outcome was good. But the intention to kill is universally wrong, yet by chance she missed the bus.


Daniel C. Dennett asks us “can we prioritize the cacophony?”(509). The cacophony refers to the cries of help we hear every day. It would be impossible as humans to be able to prioritize the problems present in the world. But the technology and research that people like Leon Kass reject so ardently is the only way we will be able to eventually help as many people as possible. When we see someone dying, we pity them and sometimes feel guilt. However it is not our fault that they are dying and it is not a fact that we could help them.


Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, believes that people are born with an innate moral conscience caused by the process of evolution (2). However, even if this is true, there is still no single moral truth and it is clear that morality is dependant on one’s culture. On September 11th 2001 the world trade center was attacked and hundreds of people died as a result. The horror of the attacks became more intense when I learned that the people who committed this crime believed that as a result, they would be sent to heaven. The terrorists thought that the devastation they had caused to completely innocent civilians was the will of God. A female Palestinian suicide bomber was being treated for an illness in Israel. One day decided to strap a bomb to her body and walk in to the same hospital that had been providing the treatment. Thankfully she was caught before it happened. The fact that this woman believed that in destroying the hospital that had been caring for her for the past four years, was carrying out God’s will. She did not see what she was doing as wrong. In her culture, such an act is considered an honor.


It is our obligation to act in accordance with the moral code present in the society we are part of. If someone living in the western world were to take on the views and traditions of someone from an African tribe, that person would be considered socially degenerate. Therefore it is clear that as of now, there seems to be no universal truth or moral code and as long as we continue to live in a world where there are so many different religions, traditions and beliefs, there will never be one.  

   (1)The End of Courtship By Leon R. Kass 

(2)The Evolution of Communication, Wild Minds: What Animals Think, and Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. Marc D. Hauser


(3) Daniel C. Dennett- Darwin’s Dangerous idea


Michael Hughes's picture

Lavinia The presence of


The presence of different visions of the truth does not per se demonstrate there is no absolute moral truth.


Anne Dalke's picture

the impossibility of universal morality


By the time you’ve finished your paper (and are getting to the point of titling it) you have an answer to the question that is your title: so make that claim there, something along the lines of “The Impossibility of Universal Morality.” Then your readers know what you will be arguing, straight off, and can follow the stages of your argument w/ that claim clearly in mind.

You explore the impossibility of a universal morality by using several different examples: the beliefs of moral absolutists like Leon Kass and several Islamic terrorists, the questions of the moral relativist Daniel Dennett, and the thought experiment of an intended murderer actually saving the life of his victim. That’s a great range of possibilities for thinking with….

…which makes me all the more puzzled by the claim w/ which you end: that we are obligated to act in accord with the moral code of the society in which we live. If that code is the code of Nazism, or terrorism, or cheating-on-exams: we are obligated? By what logic? Not, I think, that of the moral relativism with which you have been working throughout. I’m also not sure I understand why you think there will never be a universal truth or moral code, or what you think of the possibility of adjudicating among the many that now exist, both among different cultures and within individuals. How much individual variation does your framework allow for and encourage?

Much to keep thinking and talking and writing about!