The Illusion of Moral Absolutes
There are a few moral ideals that are common to all social groups, such as not stealing or committing senseless murder. These have lead to many people, both religious (theist and deist alike) and nonreligious, supposing the existence of moral absolutes.
These generalized moral ideals are picked up on keenly, but little attention is paid to the fact that other than these few things, all other moral ideas are blurred, subjective, and mutually exclusive. For example, some cultures seen cannibalism as a moral duty, and other see it as the worst imaginable crime.
The common morals (not stealing, not fruitlessly murdering) can be traced logically back to evolution via natural selection, and that is the reason that they are the only ones truly common to all social groups. They are the morals that help people live together as a group, which in turn helps them to survive as a species. It boils down to basic common sense: if you want to have a successful group, you can’t have people stealing from one another and you can’t have people killing at random.
All other morals enter the realm of subjectivity. Every culture agrees that a baseless random murder is wrong, but they disagree severely over definition of “baseless,” when it is okay to take a life and when it is not. Just a few hundred years ago it was socially acceptable for a brother to murder a man who had sex with his sister out of wedlock. Many countries today still practice honor killings where it is morally justifiable for a husband to kill is adulterating wife, or a father to kill his disobedient daughter. Among the Asmat in New Guinea, before they were influenced by Western society, it was not only considered correct, but a moral and religious obligation to kill and cannibalize your enemy.
Our culture today says that murdering the man who had sex with your sister is wrong, but killing another man during a war is alright. What a culture defines as “baseless” can change from era to era and culture to culture, but the idea that baseless murder is wrong remains. However, baseless killing, although universally agreed upon by human cultures, is not a moral absolute because of the way it fluctuates–that ever-changing definition of when it is okay to kill and when it is wrong. There are no moral absolutes, just generalizations.
Theists who look at these evolutionarily generated common moral traits see them as a sign that there must be an absolute source of morality, and posit that God is that source. They supposes something extreme about the nature of “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong”. From this standpoint, morals should be black and white, and universally applicable (supposing that humans are unique moral beings, separated from the animals) with very little room for subjectivity, yet that goes directly against our experience. Instead of there being many apparent absolutes and few areas of subjectivity, there is a wealth of subjectivity and such a lack of absolutes that it is wrong to even call them that.
The moral wiring imparted by evolution does not transverse very far into daily life and the majority of moralistic concerns, because the only thing evolution cares about is survival. It only affects morals that in turn affect survival and positive group interactions, and those are few and far between. For example, it doesn’t matter for the survival of the species if someone wears clothing that covers their entire body or wears hot pants and tube tops; that is why there are so many different moral ideas about modesty and attire. All other moral ideals are social constructs–-products of a specific culture and its practices.
Outside of a theistic world-view, one could argue that evolution itself has created a set of moral absolutes. It is logical to say that the very bare bones of morality come from evolution, but evolution is not the absolute creator of morality. It creates a little bit of morality some of the time, and it leaves a great big giant space for relativism and subjectivity, such as various moral social constructs. I can say that baseless killing is wrong, but that only applies to species that evolved to exist in groups. That same moral principle doesn’t apply at all when one considers solitary animals who benefit by killing any and all competition. Since evolution as a system places no importance or specialness on humans (unlike religious systems), if it contained moral absolutes, they should apply to all of the animal kingdom, not just one species. What is “good” for humans, orangutans, and horses is not the same thing as what is “good” for polar bears and snakes.
In the natural world we can see that there is not one right and one wrong, but many rights and many wrongs all contingent upon many varying factors, including species, environment, society, and culture. Evolution determines a few of those (the ones that relate directly to group species survival), but that is it. This idea that there are moral absolutes in the world is an illusion caused by the common moral generalities derived from evolution.