As part of an academic project, I've been asked to respond to the question “Is there a universal morality?” I've decided to interpret this question in both a conventional and unconventional manner.
First, briefly, a conventional interpretation leads me to respond “yes and no.” There is an evolved human nature, so the same behavioral patterns tend to crop up repeatedly across cultures (not to mention across species), including behaviors we’d categorize as "moral" (e.g., reciprocal altruism, free-rider punishment, kin altruism, incest avoidance). Even though these behaviors can be considered universal, however, the psychological adaptations that regulate them may be facultatively evoked and prioritized in some environments more than others. We should, therefore, expect cross-cultural variation in the extent to which these behaviors are expressed (e.g., regarding incest avoidance, marriage between first cousins is taboo in some cultures but encouraged in others). In addition, we should expect fairly arbitrary variance in how moral virtue is signaled within specific cultures (e.g., abstinence from pork), even if the general practice of moral signaling is universal.
Now for a more unconventional interpretation. Could morality be "universal" in the sense that there is some transcendent moral purpose to human existence itself? The conventional interpretation offered above assumes that morality emanates ultimately from human nature, which itself exists ultimately to enable survival and reproduction. But could morality have some larger purpose, that transcends and subsumes biologically-evolved human interests?
This is a tricky question because natural selection is the only process known to science that can ultimately engineer "purpose" (moral or otherwise). It does so by generating "function," which is essentially synonymous with "purpose" (e.g., the function/purpose of an eye is to see). And if selection is the only natural source of purpose, it is hard to see how morality could ultimately serve any larger kind of purpose. Conventional religions sidestep this problem, of course, by positing a supernatural purpose provider. But that’s an unsatisfactory solution, if you wish to maintain a naturalistic worldview.
It seems to me that since selection is the only natural source of purpose, then transcendent moral purpose could exist only if selection were operating at some level more fundamental than the biological. Specifically, transcendent purpose would require a process of cosmological natural selection, with universes being selected from a multiverse based on their reproductive ability, and intelligence emerging (from a subroutine of cosmological evolution) as a higher-level adaptation for universe reproduction. From this perspective, intelligent life (including its moral systems) would have a transcendent purpose: to eventually develop the technical expertise that would enable it to create new universes. This creation process would enable universe reproduction, because these new universes would need to be governed by the same physical laws and parameters as the original universe, in order for intelligent life to be able to exist in them.
Importantly, this idea of "cosmological natural selection with intelligence" (1-6) does not suggest that morality cannot ultimately be explained in terms of biological evolution alone. It suggests, rather, that biological evolution is itself a subroutine of a larger evolutionary process.
These ideas are highly speculative and may seem strange, especially if you haven’t heard them before. But notions of cosmological natural selection, and of life as a mechanism of universe reproduction, are not really so new or radical. They have been under development for decades now (1-9), and are reasonably consilient with existing bodies of scientific knowledge.
At any rate, my goal here is not to argue that these ideas are likely to be true, nor that they are likely to be false. I simply want to point out that if they're false, then it seems like it must also be false—from a naturalistic perspective, at least—that morality could have any transcendent purpose.
A version of this article will be published in This View of Life.
1. Crane, L. (1994/2010). Possible implications of the quantum theory of gravity: an introduction to the meduso-anthropic principle. arXiv:hep-th/9402104v1. Reprinted in Crane, L. (2010). Foundations of Science 15: 369-373.
2. Gardner, J. N. (2000). The selfish biocosm. Complexity 5: 34-45.
3. Smart, J. M. (2009). Evo devo universe? A framework for speculations on cosmic culture. In Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context, S. J. Dick and M. L. Lupisella, Eds., pp. 201–295, Government Printing Office, NASA SP-2009-4802, Washington, DC.
4. Vidal, C. (2014). The Beginning and the End: The Meaning of Life in a Cosmological Perspective. Springer.
6. Price, M.E. (Under review). Cosmological natural selection and the function of life. In Evolution, Development and Complexity: Multiscale Evolutionary Models of Complex Adaptive Systems, edited by G. Georgiev, C. L. F. Martinez, M. E. Price, & J. Smart. Springer.
7. Smolin, L. (1992). Did the universe evolve? Classical and Quantum Gravity 9: 173–191.
8. Smolin, L. (1997). The Life of the Cosmos. New York: Oxford University Press.
9. Gardner, A. & Conlon, J. P. (2013). Cosmological natural selection and the purpose of the universe. Complexity 18: 48–56.