Universalism in ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L108-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 22, 2024, from

2. Content: formal principles or uniform requirements?

A second conception of universalism in ethics emphasizes the content as well as the form and scope of principles. Principles which hold for everybody will prescribe or recommend the same for everybody (same obligations, same rights, same virtues and so on). Advocates of universal principles see this as a merit: they see equality of requirement and entitlement as ethically important (see Equality §3). For example, discussions of universal human rights emphasize not only that all humans have rights, but that they all have the same rights.

Two objections are commonly raised. The first is that principles which prescribe the same for all will be abstract and general, so provide too little guidance. The second is that they will be too demanding and specific, prescribing with senseless and heartless uniformity for differing cases and situations. On this account, universal principles are either too formal and minimal or else too uniformly demanding. Evidently the two criticisms cannot both be true of one and the same universal principle. If a principle is so abstract that it provides no practical guidance, then it will not prescribe rigid uniformity of action; conversely, if it prescribes with rigid uniformity it will not fail to guide action.

The charge that ethical principles which prescribe the same for all abstract from differences between cases is true, but not damaging. No principle of action – whether of universal or non-universal form, whether of cosmopolitan or lesser scope – can prescribe with total specificity; even very explicit principles abstract from many circumstances. It follows that principles of action can always be satisfied in varied ways. A principle such as ‘Tell the truth’ does not prescribe what we must say to whom or when; a principle such as ‘Pay your debts’ does not determine the means or manner of repayment. Principles of action, including ethical principles, constrain action or entitlements, rather than picking out a single, wholly determinate line of action. Abstract principles can therefore guide action yet allow for flexible interpretation or application that takes account of differences between cases. So an ethics of universal principles can readily avoid both barren formalism and doctrinaire rigorism.

Citing this article:
O'Neill, Onora. Content: formal principles or uniform requirements?. Universalism in ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L108-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

Related Articles