The Secular Morality Project - Towards a Shared Morality

Absolutism and Relativism in Morality

Theists will usually add the relationship with their god to the moral sphere and, of course, claim that their moral guidance has not been developed by humanity but declared by god as rules to live by. They usually use the term "absolute" to describe their morals which they see as fixed for all times and places and as having an existence independent of human beings, while in practice they frequently find reason to make exceptions, and "reinterpretations". Despite this, they decry secular morality as being "relative".

This is to completely ignore the way morality evolves in a population. The nature and needs of humanity ensure that morality has and will evolve without any divine guidance. Morals are not absolute in the sense of being fixed for all times and places and in this sense they are relative. However theists like to jump from a fair definition of "relative" to one which parodies the atheist's morality as constantly changing according to whatever is convenient, if not with the weather. This ignores the fact that the wider the scope of a particular piece of moral guidance, the less frequently it is likely to change. The Golden Rule, for instance, has been known to numerous cultures for millennia. Furthermore, commitment to respect such wisdom and live by it need be no less firm than the commitment some give to a religion's claimed absolutes. It is because principles can be so enduring that they can feel so essential to our nature and that people often think they have an existence independent of humanity. If religions disappeared such wisdom would still be available to us and respected .

Although our morals are not absolute, they do depend on some things that might be called "universal". These are common capacities that have evolved in the animal kingdom and are most visible in the higher primates and particularly in Homo Sapiens. Arguably they include:

  • Altruism - the instinctive kindness of the Triax rather than the calculated kindness of the Golden Rule
  • Intellectual abilities
  • Empathy - the ability to recognize or imagine the feelings of others, and to imagine how our behaviour might seem to them
  • The ability to forgive.
It is by the use of these capabilities that moral codes have been and will continue to be evolved.

This is very important to understand as even many atheists feel so battered by the taunt of relativism that they try to claim that morals are in some way absolute, even if they are not god-given. Much in the way that Plato talked about ideals, they say that the right morals are somehow out there waiting to be discovered. Given that we can be seen to be constructing morals using the moral evolution process anyway, we have no need to make such assumptions and Occam's razor demands that we don't. They might alternatively claim that morals are absolute in the other sense of being true for all times and places. This may appear so for some things because we cannot imagine any time or place when they would not be true but, if one moves from that to saying it is a moral that is independent of the process that created it, then one makes a mistake. Theists are very fond of claiming that there are absolute morals not created by man and that therefore god exists as they must have come from somewhere - a god. Their thinking gets even looser as they start to claim that this proves that their particular god exists.