What are the basis of all or a majority of moral systems? By basis, I intend to say "core principles" of all or a majority of moral systems. After analyzing moral systems, I found that most of them are highly dependent on the values of a society and tend to be anthropocentric in nature, what are the core principles in those moral systems that lead to these features. Have philosophers analyzed why that might be?

  • "After analyzing moral systems" which moral systems are you referring to?
    – E...
    Aug 19, 2019 at 17:32
  • There is no common "basis of all or a majority" of just about anything in philosophy. Cultural relativism about morality is quite common and already analyzed at length in online encyclopedias, SEP and IEP. Could you formulate a more specific question?
    – Conifold
    Aug 20, 2019 at 0:37
  • 'goodness'? but that's trivial right
    – user38026
    Aug 20, 2019 at 16:25
  • i don't think (?) this should be closed, merely cos it's generated so many answers.
    – user38026
    Aug 20, 2019 at 19:50
  • 1
    Moral systems are about promoting survival/reproduction of members of a group.
    – Cdn_Dev
    Aug 20, 2019 at 23:43

12 Answers 12


Ethics is a complicated subject, but if you are looking for "core", that is universally accepted principles, you are going to bump against metaphysical issues, like selecting an acceptable ontology to encompass all being. What constitutes morality will differ widely among philosophers depending on their school of thought. In fact, some philosophers may argue no "core principles" exist at all.

I have heard many learned men and women speak of the Golden Rule as the universal human characteristic endemic to morality, and perhaps a scientific examination of the evolution of the human mind might substantiate this. Frans de Waal, the noted primatologist has raised a number of questions and asserted widely that morality has its roots in our mammalian, particularly our hominid ancestry.

In the volume Primates and Philosophers, de Waal, Peter Singer, Christine Koorsgard, and others debate the evolution of morality. As such, before you come to your own conclusions if there are "core principles" and determine what those core principles are, it would behoove you to study the evolutionary perspective of the origins of moral behavior (presuming you accept science and evolution as fact, which certainly not everyone does).

According to the perspectives of the aforementioned work, it has been argued that the behavioral component common to us and our closest relatives is not just reciprocal altruism, but psychological altruism, which is defined much more narrowly than the more general notion of biological altruism, concepts advocated by sociobiologists.

One possible philosophical extension of the Golden Rule is Kant's interpretation of morality from The Critique of Pure Reason, whereby one takes one's desire and formulates a maxim, which is the recognition that the exercise of agency for an end must be tested against the Categorical Imperative. Doing so elevates a desire from mere desire, to justified choice, a process that represents the deepest intentionality possible in agency, making one a moral agent.

Ultimately, if a foundation for morality is found to encompass one or more "core principles", it is likely to be promoted by an empirical camp of thinking, such as evolutionary psychology which seeks to track down universals in human decision making within the context of human evolution.


Many philosophies say that the origin of all creatures is from a primordial thing or something called God or like that. No matter if God is something external or not, there must be a connecting thread for all these creations. And morality works because of this common thread. And it is the basis of all or a majority of moral systems. When we are with morality we feel we are 'closer' or 'moving closer' to that common thread or the immutable or love or eternal peace or the Truth. When we do any immoral activity we feel that we are moving away from peace or truth or in other words, from the common thread.

  • That's a neat answer. Mine is along the same lines (I think!)
    – Rushi
    Aug 20, 2019 at 14:50
  • human perception and or intuition.
    – user38026
    Aug 20, 2019 at 16:35

Sonofthought has made a good answer.

This one is much the same but stated in more modern language.

Moral systems can be from a sacred or secular source.

The sacred ones:

  • Moses gave the Law that God gave him
  • Jesus spoke with the authority of God
  • Krishna spoke 'in God mode'
  • etc

In all these cases the word 'God' is really a placeholder. The modern term would be 'objective'. When Jesus, Krishna etc say 'This is good this is not' there is the clear underlying implication : They have no benefit; they speak the truth (or Truth) because they are at its source.

Because of the minor problem that these different systems uttered at different times to different people(s) seem incompatible, irreconcilable, people have given up and made secular systems.

Unfortunately this is throwing the baby with the bathwater because then the systems then inexorably become unobjective and arbitrary. .


There's two questions here.

  1. Why be moral: rather than practical moral skepticism?

  2. A more general skepticism about moral truth, or moral knowledge, etc.

Why be moral is I think the more puzzling one. But the burden of proof is definitely on anyone to show that morality is not rational. A better question is whether immorality is ever rational, and what that, particular, sort of 'rationality' would say about your ownmost self.

So much for the 1st question.

We can be moral without moral truth or knowledge. See e.g. Popper and science: "truth" is slippery and philosophical. If we admit of moral knowledge, then I plump for moral foundationalism, especially intuitionism.

Whether, or not, that's the right approach to 'moral knowledge' (and everyone should agree that some people are moral because of their beliefs), everyone should I think agree that morality proper is a matter of judgment -- not habitual surrender (cf, say, Meister Eckhart).


I've heard this from somewhere, so I might as well share it.

Moral codes in general refer to what is thought to be "good" or "evil" by a higher force, or an entity, such as God. God as you may know is referred to by many different names, in all the dozens of religions out there.

Some variants of that superior being offer different definitions of "good" and "evil", hence why the moral compass for that specific belief/religion differs from another such belief/religion.

In an essence, if there is no God, if there is no belief in something superior than yourself, if you are the one defining good and evil - no moral compass exists. It's just what YOU believe to be correct, or wrong (which is subjective). Morally correct, or morally wrong would always fall under the beliefs of something greater than ourselves.

  • One needn't believe in a superior being or something superior to exhibit morality. Morality is a behavior with evolutionary roots. psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hot-thought/201311/…
    – J D
    Aug 22, 2019 at 13:41
  • given your set of metaphysical presumptions that is true, but given mine it is not. I, like Gilbert Ryle, consider Cartesian Duality a category mistake. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category_mistake
    – J D
    Aug 22, 2019 at 13:53
  • as a scientific antifoundationalist, I appreciate the lack of true truths, but a lack of true truths doesn't mean facts don't exist and reality is arbitrary. Cartesian Duality is still a category mistake, and a mistake that can be demonstrated empirically. I do salute your attempts, however, to avoid fact by dwelling exclusively in the land of rationality. ;)
    – J D
    Aug 22, 2019 at 14:11
  • @JD We all have different understandings/definitions for what morality is. My answer above is one such understanding. Furthermore, the resource you linked shouldn't be digested as a fact, because it isn't. My answer is as credible as the source you linked.
    – SpiritBob
    Aug 22, 2019 at 15:10
  • :D It all depends on your ontological commitment and choice of epistemology. Non-scientists certainly have a different take on credulity, so you're likely right that your answer is as credible to most people. But then you seem to think belief and knowledge are interchangeable. They are not.
    – J D
    Aug 22, 2019 at 17:19

The core of every moral/ethical theory is the escape from narcissism: the gradual awakening of the idea that others are selves in the same way the we are selves, and that this 'self-ness' calls for different kinds of actions than we might normally be inclined to take. Every immoral act is (practically by definition) an act which reduces some other being to a 'thing' which can be used, damaged, discarded, or destroyed without consideration or reflection; every moral act (practically by definition) implies raising a being to the status of a cared-for equal. This is the reason why children are rarely if ever accused of being immoral. We all recognize that children are stuck in a narcissistic state — they do not have the cognitive development needed to properly assess the self-ness of others — so when they behave badly we take it as a moment to teach them about the self-ness of others, not to condemn them for not seeing it.

This is a cultural invariant, not a relative claim, with the caveat that certain cultural contexts intrinsically objectify certain classes of beings as 'things' so that the immorality of their acts are masked by cultural norms. Slave-owning societies, frat-boy misogyny, Trumpism: what all these contexts have in common is the internalized belief that certain classes of people do not actually count as 'people', and as such can be used, damaged, discarded, or destroyed without compunction. They always consider their own actions moral, but that's only because they deny moral standing to the people who suffer from their acts.


Using G. E. M. Anscombe's paper Modern Moral Philosophy as a guide one can divide moral systems into three parts. These would be her description of the basis of moral systems available today.

  1. Divine command theory requires obedience to the divine command. However, one would need belief in some divine Commander to whom one is obligated for this to work. As Anscombe puts it:

To have a law conception of ethics is to hold that what is needed for conformity with the virtues failure in which is the mark of being bad qua man (and not merely, say, qua craftsman or logician) - that what is needed for this, is required by divine law. Naturally it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law-giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians.

  1. Modern rational moral philosophy throws the divine out and tries to let reason come up with the commands. In the process all of these, according to her, condone injustice and hence "are only harmful". These are the ones that best fit the OP's description as being "highly dependent on the values of a society and tend to be anthropocentric in nature". As examples she offers the moral systems of Kant, Mill, Moore and Sidgwick.

Consider this quote from the first page of her paper:

The second is that the concepts of obligation, and duty - moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say - and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of "ought", out to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives from survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it.

  1. Virtue ethics do not give moral commands but use reason to show people how to live a virtuous life. She provides Aristotelian ethics as an example which she recommends.

Although Anscombe recommends the third alternative to those attracted to the second alternative, since she is a Catholic it seems clear she prefers the first alternative that grounds morality on divine command.

To address the OP's title question:

What are the basis of all or a majority of moral systems?

Moral systems are based on three approaches to moral obligation.

  • Obey divine commands, or
  • use reason to come up with one's own commands, or
  • provide no moral commands but offer advice on how to live a good life.

Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958). Modern moral philosophy. Philosophy, 33(124), 1-19.


[Deeply Thought Fundamental Moral "Theory"]:

I would say that (scientifically, + empirical solipsism) there's only one fundamental moral entity:

fundamental subjectivity

(if you haven't heard about this, then yes, it's sort of my own finding through https://noncontradictingpolitics.blogspot.com, https://noncontradictingphilosophy.blogspot.com,

particularly: March 20, 2019 NON-SUBJECTIVE VALUE JUDGEMENT IS IMPOSSIBLE (PHILOSOPHY OF VALUE) https://noncontradictingpolitics.blogspot.com/2019/03/non-subjective-value-judgement-is.html)

I demonstrate this briefly:

By default we only have a subject: you, me, him (and their "beliefs", whatever they are).

How do other than subjective (non-subjective) moral rules exist?

Answer: someone must express them and one must (but doesn't have to) socialize into them.

But if one doesn't need to socialize into morals expressed by other people, then can other than subjective moral rules exist consistently?

No they cannot.

Therefore all moral is "usually" subjective. If it's other than subjective, then it's coincidence.

Side note:

State moral (i.e. by government laws) mixes this "simple" notion, because state moral setters (lawmakers) believe that they hold "general morality ideas", even though I just demonstrated that these are epistemologically "near impossible" and fundamentally inconsistent.

Utilitarianism or whatever -ism. None of those are guaranteed to exist anywhere. They are theories, but unless one and one's surroundings subscribe to them, they don't exist.

Second note:

fundamental subjectivity does not mean nihilism. It can be nihilism like it can be anything else. But it can also be any other form. It's just that moral by physical reality starts as a subjective idea.


The answer to your question is: null. The thing you are asking for dont exist.

Each moral system has a different base. For example, abrahamic religions say you are obliged by God, atheists base ethics on the "golden principle: do to others what you want to be done to you", hindus dont want to be reborned as a pig or dog etc.

Since each moral system has a different base there is no base that covers all or cover majority, except if "Dont let bad things happen to you" is a valid base for a moral system.


The bases for all moral systems are the fundamental desires of the entities creating said system.

Moral systems are sets of rules concerning what is "benevolent" or "evil". "Benevolence" and "evil" are just deliberate actions that are "beneficial" or "bad". (I avoid the word "good" here because it has two independent meanings.) But what is "beneficial" depends on the goal. And the goal depends on what is desired. What is desired is simply a function of how an entity is programmed to behave.

Entities that have evolved through biological evolution will naturally have fundamental desires related to survival, defense, and reproduction. Some entities will have strongly self-serving desires, while others will have more group-oriented desires, depending on that entity's ancestry and what happened to be selected for in previous generations.

Entities with neural networks capable of learning will self-program based on a more fundamental set of fitness functions, eventually behaving in a way not strictly defined by genetics.

Some entities will be broken, such as by accident or injury, and may then stop functioning according to genetic or learned programming. The new behavior has no limitations other than what is physically possible given the neural specifications of the entity.

Entities that exist outside biological evolution have no reasonable limitations on what they might or might not desire. This could include robots, bio-engineered entities, or entities that exist by random chance. It could also include biologically-evolved entities that have been forcibly reprogrammed by another entity, though current techniques for such programming have limited success (and due to, *ahem*, moral constraints, limited viable testing).

I think most intelligent entities are likely those which have evolved to work sociallycitation needed, which means most intelligent entities would have desires related to empathy, group awareness, protecting the pack/hive/collective, and so forth. Of course, this doesn't apply to synthetic intelligent entities, such as the paperclip optimizer, leading to the possibility of orthogonal moral systems completely alien to ours.

When an entity comes up with a moral system, it is based on their beliefs of the best logical method of achieving a certain goal, which is in turn based on their underlying desires. These desires are necessarily a function of circumstance and genetics.

Of course, we can always come up with arbitrary moral systems that have no bearing on any goal except to create a meaningless moral system, but even that ultimately stems from a basic desire to accomplish such a thing.

Because humans tend to have fairly similar circumstances and genetics, most human moral systems will be based on similar desires, such as maximizing the efficiency of a society, and will tend to converge on similar solutions to the problem of achieving these similar desires. But not all humans base their moral systems on these common desires. And non-humans, especially non-evolved entities, have no particular likelihood of creating moral systems with similar foundations, as there's no reason to presume they have human-like desires.


Intention leads to action leads to consequence

Intention is dealt with by areatic moral arguments (good people have good motives)

Action is the domain of deontological moral arguments (intrinsic moral features of actions; to Kant one was universalizability (the categorical imperative)

Consequence is the field of consequentialist moral arguments (the greatest happiness principle - maximum happiness for the maximum number)

Intention, action, and consequence come together in virtue ethics (what would a virtuous person intend? how would a virtuos person act? What kinda consequences would a virtuous person aim for?)


The moral system exist because we need reliable way to ensure security and wellbeing inside a social entitie. The core principale that lead to the principe you describe (values of society) are history of said social entities, economicals advantages, skills and knowledges.

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