"Is morality relative or absolute?"

Humans spread out from a common origin into many different global environments. It was a triumph of our unique adaptability, for we display the broadest range of behaviours — nutritional, social, sexual and reproductive – of any animal. We also have classes of behaviour — religious, scientific, artistic, gendered, and philosophical, each underpinned by special languages — that animals lack. Paradoxically, success also came through conformity. Prehistorians track archaeological cultures by recognizing the physical symbolic codes (art styles, burial rites, settlement layouts) that channelled local routines. Each culture constrained diversity and could punish it with ostracism and death. Isolation bred idiosyncracy, and there was a shock when we began regional reintegration. Early empires created state religions which, although sometimes refracting species-wide instincts for a common-good, tended to elevate chosen peoples and their traditional ways.

Now we can monitor all of our cultures there is a need to adjudicate on conduct at a global level. But my question is not understood in the same way by everyone. To fundamentalists, it is heretical, because morality is God-given. Social theorists, on the other hand, often interpret absolute morality as imperialist —no more than local ethics metastasized by (for example) the United Nations. But appeals to protect cultural diversity are typically advanced without regard to the reality of individual suffering in particular communities. A third position, shared by many atheistic scientists and traditional Marxists, is based on ideas of utility, happiness and material truth: what is right is understood as being what is good for the species. But no one agrees on what this is, or how competing claims for access to it should be settled.

The 'ethics of care', first developed within feminist philosophy, moves beyond these positions. Instead of connecting morals either to religious rules and principles or reductive natural laws, it values shared human capacities, such as intimacy, sympathy, trust, fidelity, and compassion. Such an ethics might elide the distinction between relative and absolute by promoting species-wide common sense. Before we judge the prospect of my question vanishing as either optimistic or naïve, we must scrutinize the alternatives carefully.

Timothy Taylor is an archaeologist at University of Bradford, UK, and author of The Prehistory of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture.