For simplicity, let us define morality as a set of rules on what actions are good and bad, desirable and undesirable. These allow us to make normative statements about the world.

Regarding its form and origin, many people argue that the two options that we face are either external values (e.g. a god), which can be universal to all humans, or internal values (i.e. man-made), which are, however, relative and can be anything you make them.

In some arguments for the former, the latter, moral relativism, is presented in the most horrifying way and external values are the way out of this misery.

I believe that there is another way and that in recent human history, morality has started undergoing an interesting transition.

1 Prelude: What is the origin of morality?

Looking at different human societies across space and time, we would find similar moral rules. Killing, stealing, raping or causing damage to others will likely be considered unfavourable (except in certain circumstances, e. g. human sacrifice, death penalty). Honour, love, kindness or strength would be favourable. Since it is unlikely that this similarity would be by pure coincidence, it requires an explanation.

We have observed a correlation and now we are looking for a common cause. A religious explanation would invoke a morality given by god, be it in a revelation or encoded into human nature. However, I believe that there is a simpler way of explaining this correlation and by Occam’s razor, we should go for it. All we have to do is to find factors that are common among all people around the world and that could be a source of this common morality.

All people are humans (as in Homo sapiens) and they all live in roughly similar conditions. I believe that these are entirely sufficient to explain the commonality of morality. Let me elaborate.

Being human means that we all (apart from certain rare conditions) experience the main motivators of pleasure and pain. In addition, we are biologically predisposed to get pleasure and pain from the same things. We get pleasure from eating, sleeping, defecating, having sex, being with our friends and family, having respect of our community, etc. We feel pain and discomfort when our bodies are physically harmed, when we cannot breathe, when we are lonely, when others hurt our feelings, etc. It can be easily seen why these motivators would be selected by evolution. 1

By living in similar conditions, I mean that all humans live on the surface of our planet, they have to obtain food and shelter, they need to find a mating partner to reproduce (if they did not, they would die out), etc.2

With this combination of being human and living in similar conditions, we would expect any successful societies to roughly abide by the same morality. People deviating from these rules would probably be punished by their society to provide incentive for others to follow them. These rules would not be set in stone (like external rules might be) and would to some extent depend on the specific society, but by no means would they be completely arbitrary. This is exactly what we observe.

This line of reasoning merely shows that a common core morality is at least theoretically possible across human cultures that do not communicate. I have not presented a proof that the similarities in the morality of different cultures are purely due to the reasons outlined above. However, the burden of proof for an external source of morality lies on those who claim that it exists. Or at least, they first have to show that this explanation is not sufficient.

While this is the route that my reasoning followed, I find that the description of the old and new morality does not actually rest on where morality comes from. Therefore, the rest of the essay may be useful even for those who disagree with me. At the same time, I would like to point out that the discussion below is orthogonal to the discussion between moral imperative and utilitarianism, which (at least in my view) are mainly concerned with the moral character of compound actions.

2 The old morality, i. e. universal by subject

A more direct manifestation of the common human morality is what I call the old morality. The best way to demonstrate this morality is by considering stories, especially ancient archetypal stories, but contemporary as well. Think of the stereotypical protagonist: Honest, brave, fair, sticks to his word, protects his family, friends and community, strong, a leader. Think of all the heroes battling the forces of evil, the terrible enemies who threaten their land.

In a normal story, 3the audience needs to emotionally identify with the protagonist to enjoy it. To some extent they may also identify with the antagonist, possibly in the fallen angel sense.4 But overall, we tend to have the “good guys” and the “bad guys”. The good guys are painted in bright colours, the bad guys in dim light. In many stories, be they ancient legends or modern action stories, the protagonist kills a lot of people. However, killing the bad guys just does not bother the audience. Just for a moment imagine a World War II themed film, where after a successful mission of the allies you see the mourning families of Nazi soldiers. Where you see that German soldiers were actually good people, loyal to their country, who loved their families. It is not a pleasant thought. Equally, you can take any of the fiction action movies, and you will feel emotionally bonded to the protagonists and avoid emotional connections to their enemies.5

Now that I have, hopefully, evoked a notion of what old morality is, let me try to define it more precisely.

The old morality is a morality that is universal by subject. We should all strive for these virtues. You respect even your enemies, when they follow a similar moral code. However, the second important characteristic is that old morality does not treat all people the same from the point of view of the person whose actions we are judging, i. e. it is not universal with respect to the object of actions. Just consider these examples of intentional killings:

  • killing a member of an enemy tribe in a battle
  • killing a member of an enemy tribe, but not in a battle
  • killing a child member of an enemy tribe, not in a battle
  • killing someone from your own tribe in a fair fight
  • killing someone from your own tribe
  • killing your friend
  • killing someone from your own family
  • killing your mother/father/brother/sister/spouse/daughter/son

Even though in each case, it is an intentional killing of one person, it simply does not feel equally reprehensible to kill someone in a battle as it does to kill them in their sleep. Also, it is less reprehensible to kill a stranger than it is to kill your friend or even a sibling. It is worse to kill a child than it is to kill an adult.

The application of old morality formed thousands of years of human conflicts into familiar patterns. We are a tribe. We honour our ancestors. We love our families. We mourn our dead. We despise our enemies. We lead wars to advance our interests. Killing enemies is not wrong, especially in a battle to advance our interests. After the war, we celebrate our heroes, those who killed most enemies. To some extent we also respect our enemies, especially if they are strong, but mainly if they also honour their ancestors, love their families, mourn their dead.

Fast forward thousands of years. The last of the empires, the British empire, rules over a half of the world. At home, the birthplace of modern democracy and human rights. Abroad, colonies are means of advancing the interests of British people. Atrocities and abuse are a common “nuisance” to keep colonies in line. At first sight it may seem inconsistent, but in the light of old morality it makes complete sense. Subjugating your own people is bad. Subjugating other people for the benefit of your own people is different and can be even commendable.

Problems of the old morality

While the old morality is useful for life within communities and makes it more peaceful and pleasant, there are great problems with it. Old morality does not prevent you, or possibly even encourages you to treat people from outside of your community badly if it helps your community. As expected, a history full of wars and genocides followed. The greatest, most admired leaders in history tend to be those, who have managed to subjugate most other communities for the benefit of their own one. The perpetrators always find a way to justify their actions and are usually treated as heroes in their motherland.

However, at some point in history a new moral trend has emerged without a clear origin.

3 The new morality, i. e. universal by subject and object

There is no clear transition from the old morality to the new morality. It is gradual and even today not nearly complete. And it will probably never be complete.

The clearest statement of new morality are fundamental human rights, the main one being the right to live. This opposes old morality and claims that it is wrong to kill even enemies. While old morality could be described as selfish, new morality is selfless. The good of you or your community is not more important than that of others.

Fundamental human rights are connected with the age of enlightenment, but ideas of this sort can be found much earlier, e. g. in Buddhism or Christianity.6

Often, old and new morality are aligned. Then, things are easy and everybody is happy to do what is right. If you help others, they will be better off and, if others are better off, you will also be better off. An example could be eradication of diseases. Rich countries help poor countries to vaccinate their population, because without that, even the rich countries would be in danger. Some people will justify this action as simply the right thing to do, others will point out that it is also good for us to vaccinate them.

The world overall is not a zero sum game and thus, you can very often help yourself by helping others and vice versa. The point of new morality is that you should help others even if it does not help you, even if it costs you resources. This is related to the notion of marginal utility. If you have one meal a day, an additional meal benefits you greatly. If you already have four meals a day, another one benefits you little. Just like the first half of your income is much more important to you than the second half. Therefore, if someone better off helps someone worse off, the worse off person gains more than the other person loses.

Thus with rising ideas of new morality, slavery, empires and colonies were rejected. Genocides are (at least in theory) judged and punished by the international community. The number of wars and their casualties have declined considerably.

Problems of new morality

The main problem of new morality is that it is impossible to adhere to. If you give no preference to yourself and your family, you should basically bring your family down to around the poverty line7 and all the excess you should use to improve the life of others. The wealthy countries should selflessly help bring the poor countries up, even if it means slowing or even stopping their own development. How can you justify building a new sports stadium while elsewhere people do not even have electricity and drinking water?

If individuals, communities or even countries decided to completely follow new morality, they would probably immediately collapse. You can justify some self-care by transaction costs.8 However, this is very little. So little that even people that we consider very generous and selfless are way beyond this line.

The next problem that new morality faces is the problem of human motivation. This is the same problem that makes socialism impossible. While in capitalism managers, directors and owners of businesses reward themselves as much as possible and they depend on the fate of the company, in socialism it is recognised that they do not necessarily work harder, nor are they necessarily more qualified than their employees. The main difference is that the nature of their position gives them powers to make decisions with great consequences. Thus in socialist countries, these jobs’ salaries were just a little more than those of the bottom-line employees. Unfortunately, this removed much of the motivation to do their jobs well or even to aspire to these jobs due to the responsibility they carry with them. Thus, the productivity of socialist companies was much lower than that of their capitalist counterparts.

4 Practical solutions to morality

While the ideas of the new morality have been around for millennia, they have gained much more traction since World War II than ever before. It has led to great projects like the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, the Red Cross, the International Court of Justice, and it has greatly improved the life of many on our planet .

However, it also created tension and a heated discussion, especially in the developed countries. A typical example is migration.

Countries have always been restricting migration. Still, most developed countries are far from over-populated and have much better infrastructure than developing countries. Naturally, people from developing countries will search for a better future in the developed countries. As before, to some extent the developed countries benefit from immigration, and at that level there is a clear consensus. When migration increases sufficiently, it may become unfavourable to the developed country, while on the whole, there is no doubt that in general more people would be better off. This is despite the fact that some people in the developed country will be not as well off as they would have been with less migration. At that point the old and new morality diverge and problems emerge.

On one side, we have a morality which seems philosophically superior, but is unattainable. On the other side we have a morality that is a part of human nature, that has been used throughout history and that is sustainable. You could even view new morality as this luxury that people and countries that are sufficiently well off can do as their pastime. With the overall development of human civilisation, we would expect more and more of this luxury.

If we accept that there can never be a society based on new morality only, the remaining question is, what degree of new morality is moral. I do not have an answer to that and I do not think there can be one correct answer. It will definitely vary with countries and individuals and also across different kinds of actions. And it will depend on the moral compass of the individual judge.

I would like to thank Ondřej Zbytek and Yeha Lee, for their thorough review of this article and helpful comments.


  1. Note that there are some things triggering pleasure and pain, which are not so obviously an evolutionary advantage. Why do we get pleasure from listening to bird songs or looking at the night sky? The easiest, even though perhaps not satisfying explanation, would be that these are just byproducts of the standard and more useful motivators. (e.g. to find human voice pleasing, it is difficult to set things up such that the person does not also like bird songs) 

  2. You might ask, what would count as different conditions, if “similar” is so broad. We will have to enter the realm of philosophical sci-fi to do that. Imagine that a newborn baby is hooked up to virtual reality, not unlike in the Matrix films. Then you could imagine scenarios like: Living completely alone without any other humans on the planet. Having pain and pleasure swapped. Living in a society, which is built only around pleasing an omnipotent despotic tyrant. Or more absurdly, living without any attachment to a physical body, only as a mind wandering throughout a universe that does not even have to look like ours. Then, we would expect a very different moral compass in such beings. 

  3. By normal I exclude stories that intentionally expose the audience to a moral dilemma or to question their values. 

  4. Originally a good person turned bad by circumstances. Alternatively, someone bad, who deep down is actually good. 

  5. Luke Skywalker has destroyed the Death Star. Hooray. He has just killed over a million imperial troopers and support staff. I am sure their families appreciate his fight against the Empire. 

  6. Love your enemy. 

  7. As long as there are people below the poverty line. 

  8. I am in a better position to help myself than to help others. If I help myself, others do not have to help me. Since helping yourself is more efficient, you should help yourself to the extent to which you relieve others from helping you. Due to improving technology, these transaction costs get lower, which decreases the space for being selfish. In the middle ages, sending food from Europe to Yemen would be impossible or prohibitively expensive. Today, you (in a developed country) eating a supermarket meal instead of going to a restaurant could easily provide for many meals in Yemen.