Ethical Universalism Essay

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An enduring debate within ethics concerns the extent to which ethical principles should apply to everyone, without exception. Ethical universalism represents the view that they should.

Universality of Ethical Principles

At its simplest, ethical universalism establishes the view that when individuals make an ethical statement, they are putting forward a proposition that has implications for everyone within a society. Within a globalized context this should also apply across societies. This is the minimalist claim of ethical universalism. It focuses on the normative characteristics of ethical statements to suggest that for a principle to be considered ethical, it must establish obligations and compliance from all individuals. This minimalist understanding of ethical universalism does not prescribe  any  particular ethical  principles.  It merely establishes that ethical principles should be prescribed universally.

This is the least contentious way of understanding ethical universalism but it is not without its critics. It is argued, for example, that culture, tradition, and social context are important factors in shaping ethics within a community. This criticism is the basis of ethical relativism. It suggests individuals should anticipate ethical differences across societies that make it impossible to establish principles that can span time and place in ways demanded by universalism. What is applicable and acceptable in one place might be totally unsuitable in another. Adultery, for example, is considered a crime in some jurisdictions but not others; in those states where it is a crime, punishments can range from a fine to the death penalty.

Alternatively, individuals might expect higher ethical standards from certain segments of society, such as police officers, lawyers, and judges. Furthermore, individuals might set ethical standards as aspirations rather  than  as obligations and, as such, acknowledge some degree of flexibility when assessing how ethical principles should be applied and to whom. In particular, not allowing for exceptions is a key feature of ethical universalism that some find difficult, although not allowing exceptions is both the strength and weakness of universalism.

It is the strength of universalism because it does not permit authorities to allow nonethical considerations to override the obligations that have been established  through ethical principles.  So, for example, state authorities cannot renege on an ethical commitment to refrain from torture on the grounds that they have captured an individual with information that could prevent a serious act of terrorism. Consider  here ticking time bomb scenarios imagined within moral debates about torture. It is easy to commit to ethical principles during relative periods of peace and order. The difficulty is in maintaining them during times of conflict and disorder. The universality of ethical principles ensures that exceptions  do not arise when difficult times arrive.

This was the reasoning that led to the signing of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It is no coincidence that this occurred in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II and, in particular, the excessive barbarity inflicted by the Nazi regime. The universalism of the declaration was a deliberate attempt to ensure that perpetrators of such atrocities could not defend the abuse of minorities and citizens on the grounds that it was permissible within the legal and moral culture of the jurisdiction within which the abuses occurred.

The weakness of allowing no exceptions is that there is a danger of ethical principles becoming irrelevant. If there are too many occasions when the ethical principles are seen to prevent authorities from taking the necessary measures to protect society, then people might start to associate “doing right” with “being ineffective.” People become frustrated when ethical principles are perceived to be curtailing the effectiveness of the police to catch criminals, or the courts to find felons guilty and punish  them appropriately. Popular  sentiments fuelled by sections of the media can lead to dangerous levels of public dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system. This in turn can lead to demoralized criminal justice practitioners who either lower their level of motivation and learn to live with their ineffectiveness (real or perceived), or find ways of working  around the system. Noble cause corruption is a classic expression of a police officer experiencing procedural justice as a barrier to “real” justice. The public might also turn to vigilantism when criminal justice failings are extreme. Vigilantism is, among other things, a manifest rejection of ethical universalism.

Content of Ethical Universalism

The content of ethical universalism is understandably a more contentious aspect of this viewpoint than its form. It is in a discussion of the content of this philosophy that one can start to establish the precise obligations that are to be applied universally, without exception.

Many major religions have within their respective sacred texts golden rules that provide prescriptions for how people ought to live. Modern ethical universalism is an attempt to provide something that surpasses golden rule-based morality by providing a reasoned account that sets out principles by which individuals should live. Perhaps the most impressive and long-standing attempt to achieve this end is provided within the work of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Kant’s ethics are established through reason. His claim is that all rational beings can recognize the virtue and rightness within his conclusions. Kant is explicitly universal in his approach and famously states that individuals should only establish a principle as ethical if they believe it should be adopted and applied universally without exception. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals he says: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.” This is reinforced by Kant’s commitment to seeing all human beings as ends in themselves and never as a means to other ends. Taken together, these two aspects of Kant’s work are referred to as his categorical imperatives, the fundamental basis upon which all moral reasoning should be founded. His focus on duty is also important, and from this his ethical approach is referred to as deontology (deon is the Greek word for duty). Deontological ethics establish the “duty to do the right thing” as an underlying principle that should shape all ethical considerations. It is often presented in opposition to consequentialist ethics, in which the results or consequences of individuals’ ethical decisions are taken as the primary measure. Deontological ethics are therefore also referred to as nonconsequential ethics.

Ethical universalism can also be seen as ethical absolutism, especially given the extent to which it is stressed that there can be no exceptions to the applicability of ethical principles that have been established through reason. Absolutism in ethics can be seen as a form of universalism, but they are not the same thing. For example, consequential reasoning based upon a principle of utility or welfare is also a form of ethical universalism but it is not absolutist. Likewise, ethical universalism can be premised upon objective ethical principles that are seen to have intrinsic value. Where this is the case it is also a form of ethical objectivism. However, ethical universalism is not necessarily the same as ethical objectivism because universal principles do not need to be intrinsic values, at least not in this sense.

Human Rights as a Form of Ethical Universalism

Within debates about criminal justice ethics the most significant and dominant form of ethical universalism is provided by human rights. In the United States human rights are enshrined within the U.S. Constitution and the amendments found within the Bill of Rights. In Europe, there is the European Convention of Human Rights and internationally rights are established within the United Nations declaration. Human rights feature prominently in the constitutions of most nation states.

Human rights establish ethical principles that are at the heart of criminal justice systems the world over and have had a significant impact on ensuring that individual rights are not violated within procedures of justice. These measures can be presented  sometimes  as hurdles  that  make it more difficult for criminal justice officials to protect society effectively. However, at the same time human rights establish duties and obligations on those in authority that empower  the police and the courts to protect the most vulnerable in society.

A difficulty in articulating human rights as universal ethical principles is that they can be seen as either too indeterminate or arbitrary. The indeterminate criticism is that in order to make principles have meaning across different cultures, they become trivial, vague, and empty. This establishes principles that are acceptable to all because they fail to articulate what is or is not permissible. However, this criticism applies to all principles irrespective of whether they are universal or not. It is a feature of all ethical principles, even the most precise variants, that they provide guidance rather than definitively prescribed activities. Nonetheless, ethical  particularism is presented as an alternative to ethical universalism in stating that ethics should be premised upon reasoning rather than principles. Within the context of human rights this is an important consideration in making sure that human rights do not simply become legal rules that prescribe or prohibit particular activities in an unthinking way. Instead, they should act to ensure that individuals think critically and compassionately about the ethical dimensions of each and every different context.

The arbitrary argument against ethical universalism can also be illustrated with reference to human rights. It is argued that formal expressions of human rights express not universal values but rather Western, liberal, enlightenment ideals. In other words, they are particular to a geopolitical order that has existed within a specific time frame, one that many feel has ended, or is at least coming to an end. It might be necessary, if this perspective is correct, for ethical universalism to be given a new or revised expression as the 21st century progresses. At the very least, it requires further consideration of different traditions and expressions of ethical universalism.


  1. Browning, Don, ed. Universalism vs. Relativism: Making Moral Judgments in a Changing, Pluralistic, and Threatening World. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
  2. Ignatieff, Michael. Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  3. Jayyusi, Salma K. Human Rights in Arab Thought: A Reader. London: I. B. Tauris, 2009.
  4. Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. 1785. Translated and edited by Mary Gregor and Jens Timmerman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012

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