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