Are There Universal Values?

Traveling through the dark I found a deer

dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.

It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:

that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car

and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;

she had stiffened already, almost cold.

I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—

her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,

alive, still, never to be born.

Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;

under the hood purred the steady engine.

I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;

around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,

then pushed her over the edge into the river.”

This William Stafford poem narrated the episode about a traveler who stop his car during his journey to remove the body of a dead animal from the road to not cause any accident. But by pushing the animal away he realizes it is pregnant. He lives a dilemma between getting rid of the body and maybe avoid another accident or trying to save the fawn. Discussing this poem Rushworth Kidder inquires What is our obligation before besides the law?”. The following text will discuss some Kidder findings regarding values that can be found at his book “How good people make tough choices – Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living”.

The traveler episode in the poem concerns a moral imperative. The situation installed calls the persona to take responsibility for the surroundings even if he doesn’t have an obligation to do it. That may happen in harmony with a set of internal and apparently powerful principles. The traveler stopped because of his values.

According to the Oxford Dictionary values ​​are something that deserves esteem for itself, which has intrinsic merit. For example, “honesty”, “integrity” and “fairness” are values because they esteem for themselves. Therefore “dedication” it is not a value. It is a mean because it is necessary to respond for what or whom the dedication is direct by.

If values are something good by his own, Kidder asks: Is there any set of moral values ​​so widely shared by humanity that it could constitute a universal code?”. The author answer based in scientific research starting with Edwards Westermarck (1906). The late scholar found common ethical standards such as “prohibition of murder, “prohibition of intercourse between immediate family members” and the encouragement of kindness, sympathy and hospitality. These seminal findings were confirmed by Brandt’s (1959) research. Even the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of year 1948 use universal structures and central principles common to all cultures. Other scholars such as Bernard Gert (1966) and Hans Kung (1996) also proposed fundamental rules of morality.

In order to contributed to this investigation Kidder (2009) interviewed 24 persons who are reference in ethical thought in 16 different countries. He asked them “If you could formulate a global code of ethics for the twenty-first century, what would you suggest?”. The responders deliver an almost identical lists. “Love”, “truth”, “justice”, “freedom”, “unity”, “tolerance”, “responsibility” and “respect for life” were values strongly found. The author concludes that there is a well-argued basis for a universal code.

Other may argue against this conclusion. The position of moral relativism is that all ethics are relative, situational, subjective, negotiable and can be changed by those who wish to establish the definitions. However, even those who theoretically claim there is no ultimate truth believes that they position are truth. Kidder’s warns us to not abandon the whole structure shared values simply because of some exception such as we don’t abandon the Newton’s laws of motion and gravity because of quantum physics exceptions.

In continue, Kidder expose that relativism can undermine ethical teaching, moral codes, civic life and even foreign diplomacy. He argues that if all things are relative, so everything requires debate and decision, and it might be impossible. For example, sports judges typically require clear lines delimiting the courts and athletic fields, rather than just a shirt marking each corner. Without limits and references, it might be impossible to debate.

Recognition of our shared values ​​makes us more responsible and well prepared to address the most difficult choices that individuals face, such as the traveler in William Stafford poem. As Kidder concludes there are few things that worth more than being able to look in the mirror every morning and say: “Yes, I did the right thing”.


BRANDT, Richard B. Ethical theory. 1959.

DICTIONARY, Oxford English. Oxford english dictionary. Simpson, JA & Weiner, ESC, 1989.

GERT, Bernard. The moral rules: a new foundation for morality. Harper & Row, 1966.

KIDDER, R. M. Como tomar decisões difíceis: Como escolher na vida entre o certo e o certo. São Paulo: Gente, 2007. Cap. 4.

KUNG, Hans. Explanatory Remarks Concerning a ‘Declaration of the Religions for a Global Ethic’. 1996.

STAFFORD, William. Traveling through the Dark. Harper & Row, 1962.

WESTERMARCK, Edward. The origin and development of the moral ideas: in two volumes. Macmillan, 1906.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the AdmEthics Group

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