Universalism in ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L108-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

1. Form and scope: principles for everybody

One distinctive understanding of universalism in ethics is that ethical principles are principles for everybody. They prescribe obligations for everybody, define rights for everybody, list virtues for everybody. The most minimal version of ethical universalism is a claim about the form of ethical principles or standards. It is the claim that ethical principles hold for all and not merely for some, that is, for everybody without exception.

Those who hold that ethical principles are universal in form often disagree about their scope, that is to say about which beings comprise ‘everybody’. Plato’s character Meno tells Socrates that there are quite different virtues for men and women, for boys and girls, for old men and slaves (Meno 71e). On the other hand, Cicero famously asserted that ‘there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law for all nations and all times’ (De Republica III, 33) (see Cicero, M.T. §2); and St Paul proclaimed that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). One very influential understanding of universalism in ethics, shared by many religions, by the natural law and liberal traditions, and by many others, is the contention that ethical principles are universal in form and cosmopolitan in scope, in that they hold for all humans.

However, any cosmopolitan view of the scope of ethical principles must note that living up to obligations, virtues and even some rights is impossible for human beings who lack mature capacities for action. Neither infants nor small children, neither the retarded nor the senile, can be held accountable for carrying out obligations, living virtuously or exercising certain rights, such as political rights. Yet humans who lack these capacities might have other rights, for example, to care and protection. Those who can suffer but not act can be moral patients but not moral agents, possessing some rights, but not the full range of obligations, virtues or rights. The scope of different sorts of principles of universal form will evidently have to vary (see Moral agents; Responsibility).

Many think that the scope of some ethical principles is more-than-cosmopolitan. Jeremy Bentham famously declared that the criterion of moral standing was ‘not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but Can they suffer?’ (1789: 412, footnote; original emphasis); Hindus and Buddhists too extend moral concern beyond humankind; some environmentalists extend concern not only to nonhuman animals, but to plants, even to species and habitats (see Animals and ethics; Bentham, J. §2; Duty and virtue, Indian conceptions of; Environmental ethics; Moral standing §2–3).

Other advocates of principles of universal form join Meno in holding that their scope is less-than-cosmopolitan. For example, communitarians (who sometimes describe themselves as rejecting universal principles) advocate principles of universal form whose scope is restricted to particular communities (see Community and communitarianism); some virtue ethicists hold similar views (see Virtue ethics §5).

Citing this article:
O'Neill, Onora. Form and scope: principles for everybody. Universalism in ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L108-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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