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Any time I consider asking a question involving "right" or "wrong", moral values at even the most basic level (like "don't needlessly hurt people"), I stop myself, deciding that the question would be stopped right there:

"What's your definition of right and wrong?"

It seems that perhaps there might be no definition of right and wrong that someone couldn't disagree with. So that's my question:

For the sake of intellectual discussion, outside of the scope of religious laws or cultural rules,1 is there any set of principles that two intelligent2 minds from any place in the universe should be able to agree on as being "right" and "wrong"?

Or is it all purely a matter of opinion, culture, religion, experiences, benefit, etc?


1 not discounting any rules defined by culture or religion, simply ruling out reasoning specific to cultural or religious practices and/or beliefs

2 for the sake of being specific: current era human level of intelligence or higher

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    I pick respecting freedom of the mind and free will. However, I am not aware of reference or citation from world's famous thinkers and philosophers. Perhaps some one can provide more in an answer. – InformedA Dec 28 '14 at 23:01
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    What about empathy, loyalty, friendship...? Aren't they moral "rules" that are universal because they based on emotions we almost all share. – Bob Dec 31 '14 at 20:55
  • @CuriousWebDeveloper - this isn't supposed to be something where you iteratively fix your question especially under conditions that invalidate information written in answers. – virmaior Dec 31 '14 at 23:47
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    I only clarified the meaning of a few words. In a footnote. There's nothing wrong with that. @virmaior – CuriousWebDeveloper Jan 1 '15 at 0:01
  • @InstructedA I can't help feeling that your answer crops up far more often in western democracies than elsewhere. Personal liberty is the primary moral concern of someone who isn't worried about feeding their children. Perhaps not as culture-independent as it initially seems. – AndrewC Jan 1 '15 at 1:15
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There's a few pertinent issues in your question.

First, you haven't really precisely specified "intelligent life", which may lead to some difficulties down the road in talking about this. I think it actually turns out to be very hard to reach a good definition of this term, so I am going to leave that concern aside.

Second, your exclusion of religion and culture does not seem well-justified. Here, I'm not trying to argue religion, politics, or culture with you. Instead, there's an important ambiguity that makes for some pretty disparate cases. Specifically, we need to be careful to distinguish between rules and their justifications.

A religion or culture might both tell you that murder is wrong and give a justification for why murder is wrong. Now, if it tells us that murder is wrong because the flying spaghetti monster told us its wrong, then I would definitely agree that we should skip over the justification which will definitely not prove to be universal. On the other hand, that does not mean that we should per se exclude "murder is wrong" from consideration as a universal law.

The same issue arises with culture. Each culture has taboos and ethical norms. And these norms have behind them somewhat strikingly different stories at times. But if your question is about universal rules, then who cares about the stories?


There's two or three lines that I'm familiar with that think all intelligent life has at least some common rules.

First, there's sociological and cultural accounts. James Rachels for instance provides an article that talks about cultural relativism and leaves him with a few common principles that he thinks are trans-cultural for humans:

  1. Some system of care for the young
  2. Rules about truth-telling
  3. Rules about life-taking
  4. Rules about who we have sex with and when

Anthropologists have some somewhat variant lists, but the gist is that to make a human society that survives it needs certain sustaining practices -- which could be seen as consequences of human intelligence.

Second, there's Kantian and neo-Kantian accounts that take what unifies us as rational beings to be certain capacities which in the case of our sorts of beings enable us to follow moral rules. Christine Korsgaard has a pretty ingenious account where what makes us moral is that we are committed to certain values insofar as we are committed to action.

Third, there are Aristotelian accounts of morality. The key here is that Aristotle thinks that humans and other rational creatures engage in the pursuit of ends. And that there are features of pursuing ends that will require us to behave in ways consistent with what we are and with the achievement of good function for ourselves and the attainment of our ends.

  • It should be a question of utility. What works and what does not? Curtail what does not work. Meetings traditionally end with a question like: "Is there any other business for the good of the whole?" The good of the whole (which includes the good of each individual), is what can be measured and optimized. Not through rules, but through simple observation and response. President Harry Truman once said, “We're going to try X, and if that doesn't work, we'll try something else." It is the Juggernaut called the Scientific Method. – user16869 Apr 22 '16 at 3:07
  • What is "it" and what qualifies as utility ("working")? I'm not really grasping how your comment addresses anything in my answer. – virmaior Apr 22 '16 at 4:32
  • Sorry to poke a sleeping dog, I just found this question and thought it was interesting... To me "It" refers to any question which seems to require an answer based on morality. "It" does not. Your explanations of various views (such as Aristotle's) line up with mine. Realistically, it is too bad that we can't simply invoke the FSM and get everyone to agree, because there cannot be any debate about an authority that does not exist! So, to answer your question, we can focus on something that does not exist (morals) or on something that does: results. Long-term viability trumps all else. – user16869 Apr 22 '16 at 16:03
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There are a whole bunch of moral rules that humans nearly-universally agree with (at least unless they're specifically trained to think otherwise. There's a whole field of studying this sort of innate morality, including studies in babies or animals.

If intelligent life is a result of evolutionary processes, there are a weaker set of constraints: harming your own babies would be "wrong" under most circumstances (assuming that intelligent creatures have a very small number of very metabolically and temporally expensive progeny, which matches what we see on Earth, save for octopuses). It might be possible to escape even this if somehow the intelligent creatures have no control over what happens to their progeny or whether they have any.

However, Kant notwithstanding, there is little reason to believe there are such constraints for completely general intelligences. The reason is that for any particular moral prohibition ("it is wrong to torture intelligent beings"), the general intelligence could be imbued with as its highest goal doing or promoting exactly that. One can attempt to generate paradoxes ("if you are being tortured you can't torture others"), but those needn't have any more force than some of the paradoxes or unfulfillable goals we have (e.g. we almost all value life extremely highly but we also all die). Even if the mind is rational, this just means that fulfilling its goal is fraught with compromises.

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Morals which have clean derivations from a tautology have a good chance of spanning cultural, even species gaps.

For example, if a species has a concept of a "purpose of life," then one can start with a tautology of "there is a purpose to life or there isn't." If there is a purpose, then it is not a hard argument to argue that there is likely good in searching for it. If there is no purpose, then there is no harm in searching for it, because there was no purpose, thus nothing to lose. Thus "Searching for a purpose of life" would be easy to declare "not wrong." (there's a Hedonism counter argument, but its a tricky one to make without accidentally declaring the purpose of life being self gratification).

After that, the next question is how the intelligent creature defines "itself." This has been an open ended philosophical debate for centuries, "What is the 'Self?'" If, in any of the species philosophies, it extends any portion of its Self-hood to you, then your search for the purpose of life also becomes not-wrong. This creates the effect of a "basic moral rule," whether you actually call it "moral" or not.

Whether it is possible to be intelligent and not feel some extension of yourself to others in a transitive relationship would be up for debate, but I like to believe it cannot occur in imperfect beings for a long duration.

  • I feel that there is no purpose to life, and so to pursue a search for one is harmful because it wastes time and effort on a wrong goal. There are proper goals to pursue, such as understanding the correct nature of reality, and helping others to see it. This means undoing ego-centric views, not extending everyone liberty to bolster them. Allowing people to persist in superstition and error is not loving. – user16869 Apr 22 '16 at 3:18
  • @nocomprende It sounds to me like you see several purposes to life =) – Cort Ammon Apr 22 '16 at 4:49
  • My thought is that searching for ideals is not really effective. If we could "discover" the supposed purposes and morals and so on, we would have by now, and they would be as indisputable as gravity or mathematics. Since they are not, enough time and blood have been wasted so let's get on with what we can agree on. Buddhism expresses a lot of this well: "Here is how to be better off, but there is no great picture behind it, it is simply more effective to live this way." I can like things or care about people without that somehow being part of the "design" of the universe. I am free. – user16869 Apr 22 '16 at 15:47
  • @nocomprende I believe the differences in our positions is one of linguistics, not content. It would be trivial for me to phrase what you describe as a purpose, and it would be trivial for you to phrase what I described as not needing to know whether one is a part of a design for the universe or not. – Cort Ammon Apr 22 '16 at 17:20
  • @alampert22 I'll keep your definition of "philosophical" in mind for future answers, thanks. – Cort Ammon May 9 '16 at 16:29
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Of course ...provided only that you define intelligence as agreeing with a particular set of moral laws!

The problem is that there are many intelligent people alive today in the world who disagree vehemently around various judgments of morality. If human beings can't even agree among themselves, the possibility of further agreement with a wholly alien mind becomes a matter of wishful thinking.

A better question would be whether there is some general standard of morality that theoretically rules all things, regardless of intelligence. I would personally argue in the affirmative, but that's far from an universal or uncontroversial opinion.

  • Put them in a room and say, "You have 12 hours to write a document of your agreements and all sign it. If you do not, you all die." I think some basic principles would be forthcoming. We don't realize that we are in this room already. We are too busy fighting to the death. – user16869 Apr 22 '16 at 3:21
  • Not a philosophically grounded answer. – PV22 May 9 '16 at 15:14
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Personally, I work under the moral principle of No Hubris: My views are not a priori better or worse than any other person (which is highly contingent on the lack of some dictating deity, which I reject). If everyone were to work under this principle, you would at least have a base framework for coming to some sort of consensus on moral axioms. Without it, there will always be some person who wants to privilege their view over all others (which is the essence of hubris). I'm not certain everyone would agree to this, but I would claim they ought to agree to this.

Put another way, if you are trying to find some universal morality, there cannot be any appeal to authority. The morality must somehow be "intrinsic", and so you need as wide a range of opinions on this intrinsic morality as possible. Hubris is a strong claim of authority: my opinion (not my idea!) is more "worthy" than yours. This has to be eliminated.

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    Isn't this a little self-contradictory? The view that you're asserting over all others is the view that you oughtn't assert your your views over all others. It's a little like "the only rule is that there are no rules" or "there are zero absolutes". I agree with respecting others, but I reserve the right to tell someone that, for example, their baby-eating tolerance is a terrible viewpoint. The absence of agreement does not make all viewpoints equally valid. – AndrewC Jan 1 '15 at 0:54
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    I edited my entry a bit. The point is that my views are not better for the reason that I am making them. I'm no more or less important than anyone else. Lots of arguments come from claims of a priori privilege, which I think we need to reject. The ideas are what matter, not the person suggesting them. So good comment, hope it led to decent clarification. – user2170 Jan 1 '15 at 1:08
  • I think I get you: In a search for a culturally-neutral and religion-neutral morality, you're pointing out it's particularly important to be wary of the opinions of people in positions of authority and exclude religiously-motivated arguments, since a deity is the ultimate authority figure, and of course you're likely to fail at religiously-neutral test if you allow religious leaders to dominate the debate. Instead moral arguments should be evaluated on their merits. – AndrewC Jan 1 '15 at 1:48
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    @AndrewC: Yes, but it's even more radical than that. If we cannot appeal to authority, we must essentially resort to radical democracy. It ultimately has to be the mass of overall opinion that prevails. By the way, that means that if the majority seems "immoral" to you, we may have to let that burn itself out. I think my position basically results in a utilitarian view, but my point is that we need to let all the other arguments be vented. – user2170 Jan 1 '15 at 2:02
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    Meritocratic is on the basis of the strength of the idea - you would decide this by discussing a lot. Appeal to authority is based on the source of the idea, you would not discuss the idea itself. Democracy is based on the popularity of the idea - no need for discussion, just list and vote immediately. – AndrewC Jan 1 '15 at 9:46
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Referring to the work of Thomas Hobbs (b. 1588 - d. 1679), John Locke (b. 1632 - d. 1704), and Francis Bacon (b. 1561 - d. 1662), the innate concepts of right and wrong boil down to "Might equals Right". This is the rule while living in the "State of Nature". To move out of the "State of Nature" (i.e. To form a society) people must collectively form a social contract that replaces the "Might equals Right" concept with what ever social order the community is founded on. However, even the truth of "Might equals Right" remains, except we forfeit some of our individual freedom and strength over to the "Sovereign" who is now the apex of "Might" in society.

It can be argued that Charles Darwin (b. 1809 - d. 1882) proposed additional insight into the regular behavioral incentives exhibited in nature; survival in order to reproduce. However, his theories were not exclusive to "intelligent" creatures. In fact he argues that it is the environment that dictates much of the "rules" we come to abide by to survive and procreate.

Lastly, you may want to consider the topic of Utilitarianism, starting with John Stuart Mills (b. 1806 - d. 1873). In Utilitarianism, we abandon the qualitative evaluations of good versus bad. You instead quantify them in terms of increased utility (which provides parameters on how to distinguish and calculate good). This is not a universally excepted definition, but in quantifying utility you demonstrate your reasoning, rather than arguing based on the subjective qualitative features.

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Yes, it would be possible for a group of individuals to agree on any number of "rules," but without consequences, or the means to enforce the rules, they could become useless.

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