Moral universe

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In literature, a moral universe is the moral nature of the universe as a whole in relation to human life, or a specific moral code.

A moral universe[edit]

A moral universe implies that we live in a basically spiritual universe that is somehow ordered by a higher power, by invisible feelings of good and bad, a 'cosmic order' reminiscent of the early Greeks [1] that underpins and motivates our actions. Or a 'moral force' that means our actions must have definite effects which we carry with us. In this respect its meaning comes close to the Hindu concept of Karma.

Those who reject this idea tend to believe that the universe is just physical, has no spiritual component at all, that events are random and have no deeper meaning or purpose, and that there can be no consequences of any kind to our actions and thus that we live in an amoral or nihilistic universe,[2] as in Nietzsche's "God is dead," aphorism.[3] Such might be the position of "anti-moral free spirits-nihilists."[4]

It is in Dostoyevsky's oft-quoted saying, "if God does not exist, then everything is permitted,"[5] that the notion of an amoral universe, and its implications, are explored. Similarly, some atheists, pagans and most Buddhists believe that we live in a moral universe (see Buddhist morality), but without the God aspect. The concept of a moral universe also implies that the good and bad events in our lives happen to us for a reason that life is good, and has a purpose, that human beings are basically good, that nature is good.[6] In a moral universe, these meanings might be subtly discerned (see Hermeneutics), while it also offers the prospect of spiritual development, growth and enlightenment, whereas if we live in an amoral universe, these notions are utterly denied and in fact impossible (see Moral nihilism and Nihilism). Foucault, for example, is sometimes depicted as an amoral nihilist.[7]

The concept of a moral universe seems also to underpin spirituality and forms the basis for kindness, compassion, altruism,[8] and caring for others in human behaviour, including ecological activism and conservation.[citation needed] This is because it places a value on human life and living things that goes beyond what would seem suitable if we regarded people and living things merely as agglomerations of atoms essentially no different from any other unfeeling, non-sentient molecular structures such as rocks, soil, mountains or planets.

Immanent justice[edit]

Belief in a moral universe often involves "deciding that negative experiences are punishment for prior misdeeds, even when plausible causal links are missing...(or) immanent justice."[9] The term is also "used to describe the young child's tendency to affirm the existence of punishments that emanate from things themselves...(which) implies a causal relation between the behaviour and the outcome."[10] In other words, it means "punishment for misdeeds (immanent justice)."[11] Studies have repeatedly shown that "children use the belief in a just world in immanent justice judgements,"[12] to try to make sense of life events. It involves the belief that "combinations of good or bad prior behavior [are] followed by a lucky or unlucky event."[13] Many people "believe they are living in a just world in which everybody gets what he deserves and deserves what he gets."[14] One study has even "demonstrated more evidence of immanent justice responding among adults than among elementary school children."[15] Arguably, immanent justice is a form of moral reasoning, and an aspect of the notion of a moral universe in which our actions are deemed to have consequences. Immanent justice is similar to the notion that 'what goes around comes around' or the proverb, 'we reap what we sow.'[citation needed] (See also panglossianism).

Many moral universes[edit]

A moral universe can be a form of morality, or 'moral code,' associated with a specific place, a person, a group of people, an activity, a nation or a concept. The "characteristics of one's moral code determine how often and in what life situations inner conflict is aroused."[16] This meaning attempts to explore variations in what are usually termed "traditional moral codes."[17]

Examples of this second meaning include the following: "the moral universe of sport and physical activity,"[18] "accidents in a moral universe,"[19] the "moral universe of mystic river,"[20] "expanding our moral universe,"[21] "the moral universe of aggrieved Chinese workers,"[22] "the moral universe of Mr Chips,"[23] "the moral universe of William Bennett,"[24] "the moral universe of 'healthy' leisure time,"[25] "the moral universe of Edward Houston's Yard,"[26] and of parents who "fail to define a moral universe for their children."[27]

This second meaning implies moral relativism, as opposed to moral absolutism, which holds that a universal basis for morality exists.[28]


  • Tom Bentley, Daniel Stedman Jones, The Moral Universe, Demos, 2001
  • Joshua Cohen, The Arc of the Moral Universe and Other Essays, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010
  • George W. King, The Moral Universe, Eaton & Mains, 1901
  • Nancey C. Murphy, George Francis Rayner Ellis, On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Theology, Cosmology, and Ethics, Augsburg Fortress, 1996
  • Michael W. Pelczar, The Moral Universe, Amherst College, 1993
  • E. Plumridge & J. Chetwynd, The Moral Universe of Injecting Drug Users in the Era of AIDS: Sharing Injecting Equipment and the Protection of Moral Standing, AIDS Care, Volume 10, Issue 6, 1998, pages 723-733
  • Shalom H. Schwartz, Universalism Values and the Inclusiveness of Our Moral Universe, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, November 2007, vol. 38 no. 6, pp. 711–728
  • Fulton J. Sheen, The Moral Universe: A Preface to Christian Living, Kessinger Publishing, 2010
  • Yi-Fu Tuan, The City as a Moral Universe, Geographical Review, Vol. 78, No. 3 (Jul., 1988), pp. 316–324

See also[edit]


  1. ^ William Allan, Divine Justice and Cosmic Order in Early Greek Epic, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 126, (2006), pp.1-35
  2. ^ J K Hyde, Concepts of Power in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, UK: Ashgate, 2010, p.11
  3. ^ Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Adrian Del Caro, Robert B. Pippin, Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p.5
  4. ^ David Davidson, From Virgin to Dynamo: The "Amoral Woman" in European Cinema, Cinema Journal, Vol. 21, No. 1, Psychological Aspects (Autumn, 1981), pp.31-58
  5. ^ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 1880, p.6
  6. ^ Stephen R. Kellert, Timothy J. Farnham, The Good in Nature and Humanity: Connecting Science, Religion, and Spirituality with the Natural World, Island Press, 2002, p.16
  7. ^ O'Farrell, Clare D. Foucault and Post Modernism, The Sydney Papers, 18(3-4), 2006, pp.182-194, (specific citation on p.5)
  8. ^ James R Ozinga, Altruism, Greenwood Press, 1999
  9. ^ Mitchell J. Callan, John H. Ellard & Jennifer E. Nicol, The Belief in a Just World and Immanent Justice Reasoning in Adults, Pers Soc Psychol Bull, December 2006, vol. 32 no.12, pp.1646-1658
  10. ^ Rachel Karniol, A Conceptual Analysis of Immanent Justice Responses in Children, Child Development, Vol. 51, No.1 (Mar., 1980), pp.118-130 (p.118)
  11. ^ Ken Springer, Beliefs About Illness Causality Among Preschoolers with Cancer: Evidence Against Immanent Justice, J. Pediatr. Psychol. (1994), 19 (1), pp.91-101
  12. ^ P E Jose, Just-world reasoning in children's immanent justice judgements, Child Development, 1990 Aug, 61(4), pp.1024-33
  13. ^ Percival, Pamela; Haviland, Jeannette M., Consistency and retribution in children's immanent justice decisions. Developmental Psychology, Vol 14(2), Mar 1978, pp.132-136
  14. ^ Jürgen Maes & Manfred Schmitt, More on Ultimate and Immanent Justice: Results from the Research Project 'Justice as a Problem within Reunified Germany', Social Justice Research, Volume 12, Number 2, 1999, pp.65-78, p.65
  15. ^ Lakshmi Raman & Gerald A. Winer, Evidence of more immanent justice responding in adults than children: A challenge to traditional developmental theories. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 22.2, June 2004, pp.255-274
  16. ^ Wesley Allinsmith, Conscience and Conflict: The Moral Force in Personality, Child Development, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Dec., 1957), pp.469-476
  17. ^ Candida Rifkind, Screening Modernity:Cinema and Sexuality in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees, Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature, 2002 Vol. 27; Part 2, pp.29-50 (specific citation on p.40)
  18. ^ Zanker, Cathy; Gard, Michael, Fatness, Fitness, and the Moral Universe of Sport and Physical Activity, Sociology of Sport Journal. 25, no. 1, (2008): 48 (18 pages)
  19. ^ Blessing, Lee, Departments - Commentary - Accidents in a Moral Universe, American Theatre. 18, no. 8, (2001): 10
  20. ^ Wootton, Adrian, Play Madigan for me - Clint Eastwood has returned to pre-Dirty Harry days to make a crime film that matches the best of his Westerns. Adrian Wootton dissects the moral universe of Mystic River, Sight and Sound. 13, no. 11, (2003): 12 (4 pages)
  21. ^ Shriver Jr, Donald W, Reflections - Expanding Our Moral Universe, World Policy Journal. 21, no. 4, (2004): 63 (14 pages)
  22. ^ Thireau, Isabelle; Linshan, Hua, The Moral Universe of Aggrieved Chinese Workers: Workers' Appeals to Arbitration Committees and Letters and Visits Offices, The China Journal = Chung-kuo yen chiu. no. 50, (2003): 83 (24 pages)
  23. ^ McCulloch, Gary, The Moral Universe of Mr Chips: Veteran Teachers in British Literature and Drama, Teachers and Teaching 15, no. 4 (2009): 409-420
  24. ^ Connolly, William E., Drugs, the Nation and Free Lancing: Decoding the Moral Universe of William Bennett, Theory & Event 1, no. 1 (1997)
  25. ^ Grieves, Jim, Acquiring a Leisure Identity: Juvenile Jazz Bands and the Moral Universe of 'healthy' Leisure Time, Leisure Studies 8, no. 1 (1989): 1-9
  26. ^ Gundaker, G., African-American History, Cosmology and the Moral Universe of Edward Houston's Yard, Journal of Garden History. 14, no. 3, (1994): 179
  27. ^ Hymowitz, Kay S, Parenting: The Lost Art - When parents fail to define a moral universe for their children, they set them adrift -- Unmoored and vulnerable -- In a sensationalist, media-saturated world, American Educator. 25, no. 1, (2001): 4 (6 pages)
  28. ^ Steven Lukes, Moral Relativism, Profile Books, 2009, p.16