Is Morality Universal?

Can moral principles be equally valid in different cultures? Do such principles need the citizens/inhabitants to allow it to shape their behavior? Or is Morality an absolute set of laws that exists independently of cultures and nations? Can Morality – our sense of Right and Wrong – be a regional or local concept? These haphazard questions form the premise for my scatterbrained post tonight.

Let me try an example. A Facebook friend is donating money to an animal charity, to enable them to buy food, shelter and medicines. Many are commenting on her updates, hailing her actions as noble and admirable.

Now I live in the center of the metropolis of Dhaka – where high-rise corporate offices overshadow vast shanty-towns and people off to the Bellagio for their $100 dinners roll up their car-windows so the smell of sweat from rickshaw-pullers doesn’t waft in. Airplanes carrying coughing men and limping women fly over the many urban slums where essential immunization doesn’t reach children. Suffice it to say, rural areas are uniformly poor.

Dhaka apartments raise their heads over shanties in the dusk light (photo: Adnan)
Dhaka apartments raise their heads over shanties/slums in the dusk light (photo: Adnan)

In this reality, I can’t help thinking that my friend might have spent the money on half-fed street children or on the many charities trying to take basic healthcare into the slums. I feel like it’s a higher level of moral behavior than giving medicines to canines. So, you ask, why must the two be mutually-exclusive? Why can’t this friend do both? Well – because our resources are finite. If I spend it on ice-cream, I don’t have anything left for charity. And vice versa.

But isn’t that like saying we should all stop buying stuff and send the savings to kids in (say) Africa or Syria? Almost. Not quite. My scenario deals with two readily accessible, means of charity within one’s community. Whereas sending money / relief to Africa / Syria is a difficult undertaking beyond one’s own community.

Given this situation, is it okay to conclude that the act of giving to an animal shelter is subject to a different set of moral principles in Dhaka than it would’ve been in Tokyo or New York? Can the same act be absolutely moral in one region – but of dubious moral value somewhere else? If yes, does it apply to prostitution, gambling or abortions?


Just thought of another example. In Bangladesh, we don’t have a lot of ‘original’ books. What I mean is that most books I read – in university or at home – were pirated and reproduced locally. And I was left with no choice but to study from those. While choosing to educate myself (to whatever extent) was a moral choice (the alternative being an unproductive citizen) – it was immoral (and also illegal) to have bought pirated material.

Nilkhet is the university student's best friend (photo: Daily Sun)
Nilkhet is the university student’s best friend (photo: Daily Sun)

Now does the fact that people in my position have no other option but to opt for piracy – somehow alter the (im)morality of my actions? Seeing there was no practical alternative, is the act of piracy in a developing nation somehow a necessary evil? If not for pirated books – the nation would be illiterate (much more than it currently is i.e.).


Two of my perplexing questions are whether a lack of resources/options can alter the paradigm of Morality and whether Morality has geographical boundaries. We know that varying intentions of the same act can alter the morality of it. For example, hunting for game and hunting for food have unequal moral values; Shooting for self preservation (defense) and shooting just to kill are judged differently. Prostitution for pocket-money and prostitution to feed a child can’t be measured by the same standards either. Thus it can be established that when there a only a few alternatives – the morality of a particular act may vary (based on intention).

Consider this, is it moral for people to download movie torrents when they can pay a perfectly reasonable price to catch it at the theater? Where there are no theaters? Can anti-government protests in one stable and another highly-volatile country be judged in the same light? So, if people in a particular region / country / neighborhood face limited alternatives – can different criteria for morality apply to them too?


  1. I’m a big fan of Kant but have never been able to swallow the notion of moral absolutism or universalism.

    Morality doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s part of the warp and woof of the community in which it is exercised. It’s no more appropriate for Westerners to tell Muslim women to take off their burqas than it is for Muslims to tell Western women to cover up.

    The closest thing I have to a universal moral compass is my empathy. But my empathy is limited by my imagination and my imagination by my understanding of someone else’s situation.

    I don’t even understand my own culture particularly well, so I know I’m in no position to judge the morality of those from cultures I know little or nothing about.

    All humans have some things in common of course, so there are probably grounds for believing there are universal moral principles (It’s hard to imagine a society where it would be appropriate to tear a baby from its mother’s arms and kill it, for example). But given the massive variability of human beings I doubt there would be many of them.

    The best approach to morality, IMO, is to judge yourself against your own standards.
    You don’t measure yourself against others or others against you.

    • Thanks Cabrogal – that was one of the most level-headed, thoughtful replies on the topic. I know exactly what you mean – that moderation in the concept of moral absolutism could be the most rational way forward. There are big, staunch moral signboards that exist across cultures. But many smaller ones actually carry varying moral points in different places (and time).

      Of course, judging against our own standards – if instilled – poses the problem of making Morality entirely subjective. And I feel the world needs a uniform, shared moral code to make do, especially as civilizations/cultures increasingly bump into each other. It’s probably best when – to continue your example – we make the effort to understand what makes ‘covering up’ the moral thing to do in one place and oppressive, in another. And vice versa.

      Thanks for reading and posting your intriguing comment. Btw – really enjoyed your Burqa Avenger post.

      • Of course, judging against our own standards – if instilled – poses the problem of making Morality entirely subjective.

        There is certainly that danger – especially as societies become more fragmented and compartmentalised – but it seems to me that there only two sources for morality – intrinsic human empathy and the cultural mileiu (I would include religious and scholarly ethics in the second category).

        It seems to me those two anchors would limit the drift potential of subjectivity.

        To be honest, my ideal morality would be situational nihilism. You don’t adopt a code that you must refer to when a moral dilemma arises but rather you constantly cultivate moral sensitivity so that you will react in an ethical manner automatically. Of course you would also need to eliminate bias and prejudice so I am definitely speaking of an ideal here.

        Or as Aleister Crowley put it “Love and do as you will” (Yeah, I know the guy was a nutjob, but I think he was right on that point, as long as your ‘love’ is universalist).

      • Wow – I’m still trying to wrap my head around ‘situational nihilism’. You write with the flair of someone who has studied philosophy / ethics / logic academically 😀 I also have no idea who Aleister Crowley is. My examination of morality is based only on personal (layman’s) experience.

        I like your two-anchor Morality model. Human empathy seems to me like the stronger pillar of Morality – catering to broad moral choices (murder, rape, violence). What you’ve called ‘cultural milieu’ – will probably be subject to change over time and space. In fact, it may well be the latter that drifts and tugs at the pillars of basic empathy/decency – causing us to reexamine and redefine Empathy. So the line between right and wrong keep shifting continuously as we include yesterday’s Wrong in today’s Right – and vice versa. Hence the changing acceptance levels of slavery, abortion and homosexuality. I wonder if the same applies to geographical spaces as it does to time-periods.

        I really hope I get down to reading more!

    • Hey Silvia – had kept religion out of it – but I’ll give it a shot. In my religion (Islam), Morality is relative …it changes depending on the circumstances. So while alcohol is forbidden, it’s allowed as medicine. While abortion is decidedly bad – it’s allowed if it jeopardizes the mother’s health. Applied to my two questions – responsibility to neighbors/community is highly emphasized in Islam – so helping people in the community would come first. As for piracy, Islam tells us not to violate laws of the land – so it would be bad. Now, tell me – what would you do in these two scenarios?

  2. I’ve always wondered about the difference between conscience and morality. I think a child becomes aware of the need to follow rules of authority instead of his own wild impulses. Beyond childhood, the individual becomes aware of the need to refrain from acting on whim in order to align his actions with the demands of the society. And a judgment can get clouded by passion, unawareness, or by tradition. Different societies have different views of what constitutes right and wrong. For example, euthanasia can be morally right for one individual while from the perspective of most others, it is considered to be morally wrong. What resulted in that individual having an erroneous conscience?
    If parents teach their young child that theft or deceit is right then his judgments of conscience concerning these acts will be mistaken, and he cannot be held responsible.
    I may have digressed – I apologize – I tend to ramble a lot.
    Ps: it is totally moral to download movie torrents. Save money when you can 😉

    • Hello Mashal – thanks for reading and commenting. I’m sorry to be replying after such a long time. But the topic, thankfully, isn’t likely to lose its charm any time soon.
      In your examples of children and adults following rules – a crucial factor may be ‘enforcement’. I hold that moral behavior must be capable of manifesting itself without enforcement by parents, law-enforcers or other authorities. Morality, like Integrity, is about doing the right thing when no one is looking.
      But what really intrigues me in your comment is the question of accountability. You’re proposing that Morality is learnt. Exclusively. And that we have no innate sense of Right and Wrong. – I tend to agree with that view. A child may bite you because she doesn’t know any better. The criteria of Right and Wrong need to be taught – before we can practice it.
      Now …let me take you back to my original question: these things, these differences that we’re supposed to teach our children – are they uniform across the planet? Should every parent teach his/her child that Euthanasia is wrong? That piracy is wrong? That homosexuality or abortion is wrong? Is it right to universally apply personal judgments of Right and Wrong?
      P.S. I tend to ramble too. I think its fun.

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