This module is a resource for lecturers  


Key issues


This Module explores the existence of universal human values. Everyone has a set of values that arise from their family, social, cultural, religious, and political contexts, some of which correspond to more "global" and "universal" frameworks. The Module encourages students to articulate their values and put them into conversation with values from other contexts. The overarching goal is to demonstrate that it is possible to articulate universal values and yet to recognize that such standards are always open to contestation. One of the goals of this Module is to highlight this tension between the universal nature of values, ethics and morality and the particular contexts that create those values, ethics, and morals. Important themes to be addressed include ethics, morality, values, relativism, rights, and responsibilities.

The term "value" means something that an individual or community believes has a worth that merits it being pursued, promoted, or privileged. This can be a thing (money, food, art), a state of mind (peace, security, certainty) or a behaviour that results from those things or states of mind (protecting innocents, telling the truth, being creative).

A value is not the same as a desire. To desire something means wanting a thing without much reflection on it; that is, a desire might come from an instinct, urge, or physical need. A value may originate in a desire or a series of desires, but a value arises after reflection on whether or not the thing I desire is good. Philosophers focus on how we get from our desires to our values often by focusing on the word good. One philosopher, G. E. Moore (1873-1958), argued that the word "good" cannot really be defined because there is no standard against which we can discover what goodness means. He called this inability to define evaluative terms "the naturalistic fallacy" because it assumes that there is something in nature or in reality that evaluative terms can match. He argued that good was a non-naturalistic quality, because it cannot be verified by science (Baldwin, 2010).

Every individual will value certain things, states of minds or behaviours as these relate to his or her upbringing and social context. Every community will privilege certain things, states and behaviours as a result of its geographical location, historical trajectory, or ideational background. To claim that there are universal values, however, means seeking to uncover something that applies across all persons and communities as a result of their very humanity. Such universal values might be derived from scientific investigation, social science testing, or philosophical reflection. They might also arise from more nefarious methods, such as imperial practices, ideological and religious proselytizing, or economic exploitation. To explore universal values, then, requires attention not only to the values themselves but the ways in which they have appeared in the current global order.

Values are the subject of ethical investigation. Sometimes the terms ethics, morality and values are conflated into one subject. In English, it is common to use these terms interchangeably, but philosophers distinguish them in the following way. Values and morals are closely related, though morals and morality, according to most philosphers, result from rationality, while values might arise from social contexts, emotional dispositions, or rationality. As noted above, a value is different from a simple desire, for the former is something that we want after some reflection upon whether it is actually a good thing. Ethics, on the other hand, is the study of morals, including their origins, their uses, their justifications, and their relationships.

There have been efforts to articulate universal human values. Professor Hans Küng, a Catholic theologian who teaches at the University of Tubingen in Germany, helped to create a Parliament of World Religions which issued a Declaration Toward a Global Ethic. The Hindu spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar also issued a Universal Declaration of Human Values. Both of these documents emphasize values, and overlap in many important ways. How can we find universal values? There are many ways to investigate the existence of such values. Those approaches can perhaps be organized into three broad categories: scientific, historical, and dialectic. These categories can be represented by three different philosophers: Aristotle, Mencius, and Jürgen Habermas.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) is considered one of the three great philosophers of Ancient Greece. From Macedonia, he moved to Athens as a young man where he became a student of Plato, another great philosopher (428-348 B.C.), who himself was a student of Socrates (470-399 B.C.), perhaps the greatest Greek philosopher of antiquity. Socrates did not write anything down, but interrogated the people of Athens about what they valued. In those interrogations, he would often raise more questions than answers, pointing out how established traditions do not really reflect what is good for the human person.

Plato, who wrote many dialogues using the person of Socrates as his main character, argued that ethics and values should be understood through the idea of virtues, or the standard of excellence within particular activities as a guide for how to act. For example, being a good captain means ensuring that a ship does not crash, that its goods and people arrive safely at port, and that a ship remains seaworthy. When it comes to universal values, however, we are talking about what it means to be not just a good pilot but a good human being.

Aristotle took Plato's main idea about the virtues and tried to ground it in empirical observations; hence, he took a scientific approach to finding out what is good and what is a universal value. Aristotle did this by comparing people to other non-human animals and comparing different political communities. So, for Aristotle, to understand the virtue of the human person means looking for those activities which the best people do and which make them happy.

He argued that there are two activities that differentiate human beings from all other animals: humans think and humans live in political communities. We do know that other animals have some ability for critical reflection, such as other primates and dolphins. And, we know that some other animals live in what look like organized political communities, such as primates, dolphins, and even ants. But no other animals use language, giving humans the ability to reflect critically on what they are thinking and doing. The Greek word logos means both language and reason, and it is that word that provides Aristotle the key to finding the good and value for the human person. Humans are defined by the combination of these two sets of activities. Aristotle concluded that the best possible person is one who engages in two types of activity: critical reflection and political activity. He called the first set of activities the intellectual virtues and the second set of activities the practical virtues.

Aristotle believed that people need to be educated into the virtues. Individuals might desire many things which they believe will make them happy, such as wealth, food, drink, sex, or power. Each of these is important, according to Aristotle, but all of them, on reflection, need to be enjoyed in moderation in order to become truly valued. Only by using our rationality for thinking and creating a community in which thinking is encouraged, and in which education is valued, can universal values flourish (Shields, 2016).

A second approach to discovering universal values is to focus on history and tradition. The Chinese philosopher Mencius (372-289 B.C.) lived at roughly the same time as Aristotle. Just as Aristotle was a student of Plato who studied under Socrates, so Mencius was a disciple of the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius (551- 479 B.C.). Some believe that Mencius studied under the grandson of Confucius, though this is disputed. Mencius is sometimes called the "second great Confucian scholar", as he developed and improved upon the ideas of Confucius in important ways.

Confucius, perhaps the most famous Chinese philosopher, argued for a moral theory based on virtues. One virtue in particular was the most important; ren, or benevolence to others. But this compassion was not directed at all people, but rather to those within certain social systems, beginning with the family. This means that being a good person means understanding one's place in society and understanding the traditions and rules that arise from that place. A central principle of Confucius is respect for one's elders, a respect that would then radiate outward to respect for the leaders of a society. These relationships are the focus of Confucian ethical and political thought.

Like Aristotle's Greece, the culture in which Mencius lived had well-developed social, cultural and political structures. Ancient China was a flourishing political system, though not without its problems. Indeed, Mencius lived during what is sometimes called the "warring states" period in Chinese history when dynastic and political conflict was rife. Like Aristotle, Mencius was born in one place (modern day Zhoucheng, a city in eastern China) and moved about, serving for a time as a government official in Qi. In this role, he advised the government on their invasion of another province, Yan, which they undertook, though Mencius resigned from his role because the ruler would not implement changes he advocated.

Mencius adapted the teachings of Confucius, proposing four virtues: benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. Together, these virtues expand upon Confucius' central one of benevolence, resulting in a fuller and more comprehensive moral theory. But, like Confucius, Mencius believed that the family and the society provide the basis for these virtues. To find these virtues, one needs to understand one's place in a society and one's respect for tradition. Mencius argued that benevolence was most important, but he also believed that cultivating wisdom to know just how to orient that benevolence was important as well. Because of this, he placed a great deal of emphasis on education, as did Aristotle (Van Norden, 2017).

There are some parallels with Aristotle in terms of what counts as values but also some important differences. Both Aristotle and Mencius see critical reflection on human life to be central; for Aristotle this translates into the intellectual virtues, and for Mencius this translates into the virtue of wisdom. They differ, however, in how they see the importance of politics. For Aristotle, the practical virtues mean cultivating a life in which one can participate directly in politics; this perhaps arises from the fact that Aristotle lived in Ancient Greece which was a democracy. Mencius does not place as much emphasis on all humans being political actors, though he himself certainly participated in politics. Rather, because of the social and political contexts of his world, Mencius, like Confucius, placed more emphasis on respecting one's elders and rulers and recognizing one's place in society and the family. Both, though, believed that the human person flourishes when educated.

Comparing these two philosophers, we can see how we might come to the same conclusions about universal values (the value of education and wisdom) and yet disagree about others (the value of participating directly in politics or being ruled by wise rulers). We can also see how the methods of the two philosophers differ in coming to their conclusions; Aristotle sought to observe the natural world to come to his conclusions while Mencius observed the social context to come to his conclusions. There are other philosophers from different cultures who come to similar conclusions. For instance, the Arab philosopher, al-Farabi (872-951) came to similar conclusions as Aristotle concerning the relationship of the natural world to ethics

In today's interconnected world, there is another way of seeking to find universal values, which we might call the dialectic. This method involves engaging in debate and dialogue with others who come from different perspectives in order to come to some consensus about what we all agree upon. One modern day philosopher who advocates for this approach is the German Jürgen Habermas (1929-). In his early life, Habermas was a Marxist thinker, but he moved away from strict Marxism to embrace a more nuanced critical theory. His association with a group of philosphers living in Frankfurt led him to be associated with the Frankfurt School, which sought to combine critical reflection on social and economic matters with an appreciation for democratic principles.

Habermas proposed what he called "an ideal speech situation" as a way to capture how ethical and political dialogue took place. This is an imagined approach to dialoguing about complex issues in which all persons are equally able to discuss and debate their positions. The goal of such a situation is to find some consensus by which the community can advance its ideas and values. Habermas has written about how modern democracies can capture this approach through combining the roles of legislators and judges; the legislatures provide a space to debate making laws while judiciaries provide a space for debate about legal disagreement. He has also argued that the European Union provides an example of how an international order might be designed that will lead states and their peoples to peacefully interact in order to advance certain values.

This method differs from both the scientific and the historical. Rather than relying on abstract scientific observation or respect for historical traditions, the dialectic approach points to the creation of spaces in which disagremeents and differing political views can be aired in order to reach some consensus. Underlying it is the presumption that universal values do exist, but that they can only come about through finding the space to debate differences. Furthermore, there is the need to continually recreate those spaces to ensure that future disagreements can be resolved (Bohman and Reig, 2017).

One example of how the consensus model might work can be found in the way in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was created. Rights are not the same as values, for they express a particular normative ideal that arose out of liberalism. Underlying the UDHR, however, are important values, such as the values of human security, free speech, and equality. These values could be expressed in language other than rights, but they do represent something close to a body of universal values.

More importantly, the process by which the UDHR came into existence mirrors the consensus model described above. The UDHR was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948. The idea for such a document was proposed in the General Assembly in 1946. The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), one of the six main organs of the United Nations established by the United Nations Charter in 1946, was tasked with developing the document, and to do this it created a drafting committee chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt. The drafting committee included individuals from around the world, representing very different political, religious and ideological beliefs. The drafting efforts were aided by an international commission organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which published a book compiling 20 essays on whether or not there existed any shared rights authored by intellectual leaders from around the world. The book included contributions from some of the most famous religious and philosophical figures of the day, including Mahatma Gandhi. As one of the contributors, the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, said about the deliberations of the Commission:

It is related that at one of the meetings of a UNESCO National Commission where Human Rights were being discussed, someone expressed astonishment that certain champions of violently opposed ideologies had agreed on a list of those rights. Yes, they said, we agree about the rights, but on condition that no one asks us why. That "why" is where the argument begins. (Ackerly, 2017, p.135)

The UDHR is not a long document, with a preamble and 30 articles. The Declaration is not legally binding, though it did inform the language of the two binding covenants on human rights which came into existence in the 1960s and have been signed by almost every country in the world. The Declaration focuses on rights but it also emphasizes the importance of dignity and the value of the individual person. Today, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has made the promotion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights a central element of its work (see the video here).   

Again, rights are not the same as values. But what this shows us is that it is possible to find some consensus on broad human values, in this case expressed in terms of rights.

The Module will require students to consider the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in relation to their own experiences, while also giving them the context of the document, its applications today, and its relationship to wider issues concerning universal values. The Module will also encourage students to critique the UDHR in the way it gives rights greater importance than responsibilities, leaves out important questions of sexuality and the environment, and may not reflect the lived experiences of all people around the world. In addition, by focusing on the drafting of the UDHR, and the role of individuals from around the world, students can identify, assess and put into practice universal values that transcend their particular national, cultural, and religious traditions.

The Module will enable students to see the relationship between universal human values and concrete social and political realities. Debates about such values often take place without considering how they apply in real life decision making. While theoretical analysis and understanding is good as a starting point, it can prevent students from appreciating how they can engage in practices that promote values. Students will have a chance to understand how coming to agreement about values requires engaging in deliberation and compromise, an activity that some would regard as a fundamentally political exercise. There is a two way street here, in which practice informs values and values inform practices. Using the UDHR as a way to think about this intersection of practice and value creation provides students with a more hands-on understanding of universal values as the result of particular contexts.

The Module will begin with the lecturer defining some of the terms that will be used throughout the discussion.

Based on this theoretical discussion, students then undertake a simulation, this one a more fictional one in which they are asked to create a Universal Declaration of Human Values. In this simulation, they act as representatives of different traditions and seek to create a document like the UDHR. In so doing, they should also think about how values differ from rights (something discussed in the lecture and discussion prior to this).

The final section of the Module sums up what was learned and connects it to the wider issue of values.



  • Ackerly, Brooke (2017). Interpreting the political theory in the practice of human rights. Law and Philosophy vol. 36, No. 2.
  • Baldwin, Tom (2010). George Edward Moore. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.
  • Bohman, James and William Reig (2017). Jürgen Habermas. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.
  • Shields, Christopher (2016). Aristotle. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.
  • Van Norden, Bryan (2017). Mencius. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta, ed.
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