Innate vs. Cultural Morality
I find that in America, there is a very pervasive and fundamental misunderstanding of human morality. Very often, people try to classify acts as being moral or immoral, and this often leads to a deadlocked conversation, since for any conceivable act, there is some way (even if admittedly far-fetched) to justify it as good or bad in a particular situation.
Upon discovering this stumbling block, many people just throw their hands up in frustration and declare that all acts are completely subjective, and there is no such thing as an objective morality. Others insist that there are some things which are so incredibly clear that we may declare them to be universal. I submit to you that they are both wrong.
Innate vs. Cultural
The common conception of morality is flawed because it is assumed to be a single concept. It is not. Rather, there are two distinct kinds of morality, which I will refer to as innate and cultural. I will begin with an illustration, and then proceed to a firm definition.
Consider the act of tipping. At the risk of opening a nasty can of worms, I'm going to relate a story from the recent American Atheist Convention. My friend and I were sitting at the hotel bar after the evening's presentations were finished. At one point, the emminent Professor Richard Dawkins stood beside my friend and ordered two drinks. (As I recall, it was a margarita and a white wine.) After getting his drinks, Dawkins laid down a twenty, and upon receiving change, picked up the entire amount, pocketed it, and walked away with his drinks. My friend and I were both mortified, but we didn't mention it for a few minutes, until in a fit of pique, my friend called for the bartender and gave him several dollars, explaining that he thought it was awful that Dawkins had stiffed him.
This story is beautifully illustrative of the two concepts of morality. First, let's consider the act of tipping. If you found a Martian who had no concept of earthly matters, and explained "tipping", he would have no way to figure out whether or not it was appropriate. Why should one pay more than the agreed upon price for a good or service? Then again, if the price of a good is going to the establishment, why should an additional fee not go to the server of the good? There's simply no way to work it out logically.
Nevertheless, tipping is an act of morality. Dr. Dawkins probably ought to be forgiven for his faux pas. He is, after all, British, and it is considered bad manners in the UK to tip. Despite that fact, it is undeniable that whether or not he is forgiven, he should have tipped. He was in America, where bartenders either pay the rent or not based upon whether they receive tips. Tipping is an act of cultural morality. That is, whether or not one should tip is entirely dependent on the cultural perception of tipping.
At this point, one should ask the following question: Alright, so tipping is relative, but where does our inclination to either tip or not originate? That, as it turns out, is the Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question. I submit that tipping is a cultural application of an innate moral principle, namely fairness. Across all cultures on earth, humans have a concept of fairness. What is fair and what is unfair varies drastically, but there is always a moral obligation to treat others fairly when they deserve it. (Obviously, we can talk about how one goes about deserving fairness, but right now, let's stick to one topic.)
In England, it is considered rude to tip because it unbalances the transaction. It is seen as condescending, as if implying that the waiter is somehow insufficient to make a living on their normal salary. In America, on the other hand, tipping is required in order to make the transaction balanced. The system is set up differently, but the principle is exactly the same in both cases. This, then, is how morality can be absolute while being subjective. In the UK, you are objectively and absolutely obligated not to tip, while in America, you are objectively and absolutely obligated to tip.
Let's move on to something more difficult. As I've explained in great detail previously, humans are not naturally monogamous. However, they're not naturally polygamous either. Humans fall somewhere in between. We tend towards either serial monogamy or mild polygamy. Most cultures have some degree of legitimate polygamy, while only a very few (historically and present-day) have been either exclusively monogamous or polygamous.
With this in mind, let's consider a married man who has sex with someone other than the woman he is married to. In America, this is generally considered morally wrong. In parts of Utah, Asia, the Middle East, and in quite a few tribal cultures, it's considered a good thing -- if the second woman also happens to be his wife! In fact, in many cultures, it would be considered extremely bad form to withhold sex from one wife, as it would deprive her family of an heir, and that would be the equivalent of a cardinal sin.
Again, we need to look for a principle against which the act of having intercourse with multiple women can be evaluated. I suggest that the most obvious principle is fidelity. Again, across all cultures, humans expect loyalty from bonded partners. This extends from mating to business to international alliances. Once we have made a promise, we ought to keep it. From this point of view, it is easy to see that having multiple sexual partners can be either morally good or morally bad, and it all depends on what kind of promises are culturally expected. From these two examples, we can begin to get a grasp on how morality works in humans. We have innate motivations and expectations which precede culture -- fairness, loyalty, and justice, to name a few. Based on the way a culture functions, we can evaluate an action on whether or not it conforms to the locally subjective expectations and determine whether or not it was moral or immoral.
What about Really Bad Things?
This certainly isn't the end of the discussion. It would be difficult to leave morality here without discussing things like genocide, rape, torture, and other behaviors that seem to give every indication of being "universally bad." It is very hard for many people to leave things open-ended because they feel that without a blanket condemnation of such acts, there is an invitation to invent a culture in which they are considered ok.
I suspect that there are some acts, like those mentioned above, which are so inherently likely to offend the innate human moral sense that they will not be consistently sustainable as "good acts." Though we can imagine a society in which rape is universally acknowledged as good, it's very hard to imagine a society in which the vast majority of women genuinely believe it to be good. This is a very important point. There have been many societies in which one group has imposed its own "morality" on the population, but a close examination usually (always?) reveals that this morality is not universally agreed upon, but rather, universally enforced by those who are actually acting immorally by legislating that which defies our moral instincts.
I suggest that acts which are "universally bad" are tautological. Consider rape. Rape is literally defined as the unfair use of a person for sexual gratification. To say that rape is always wrong is simply to say that an act of unfairness is always wrong when fairness is right. Some acts of sex -- even forced sex -- are not considered rape, and are not, therefore, wrong. There are some people who like being forced to have sex, after all. Think very hard on this truth: Without knowing the desires of both parties, it is impossible to tell whether a rape is being commited, or whether two lovers are playing an elaborate game. (Of course, if we suspect a rape, we are better off assuming the worst, since the best case scenario is preventing a rape, and the worst is ruining a fun moment of play.) For that matter, some people like being subjected to what many people would consider torture. Again, it is the principle, not the act. Strap electrodes to two men's testicles, and you have one case of torture and one case of a very happy masochist.
Is there ever a case where genocide is fair? Perhaps not, but we must avoid the temptation to declare that this admission constitutes a case for the absolute immorality of certain acts. I can, after all, imagine a far-fetched but possible situation in which an act of genocide would be the best of several very bad alternatives. When I say that there is probably not a case in which genocide is fair, I am really saying that it is so highly improbable that it is not worth serious consideration at this time.
What Constitutes "An Act"?
We must be very careful with our definitions. Let's continue thinking about rape in an effort to avoid potential philosophical traps. Is the act of forceably engaging in intercourse with a woman who is physically fighting back wrong? I don't know, and neither do you. As I mentioned, I can show you a scene involving such actions, and without knowing the motivations of both parties, you cannot tell whether it is an act of rape or an act of play.
Forcing sex on a woman is not inherently immoral. Raping a woman -- by definition -- is inherently immoral. This is where theists often misplace morality. They believe that a particular set of physical movements is inherently wrong, like sex or masturbation or punching someone in the face. What they miss is that actions by themselves are neither moral nor immoral, and morality can only be judged by how an action impacts another person.
Hopefully, you can see that even with something as apparently clear-cut as rape, we cannot account for all cultural differences. In America, many people think that a woman who feels "pressured" to have sex by a date is being raped, while in other cultures, the matter would be settled by the fact that the woman invited the man into her bedroom. Rape is not a universally agreed upon action. It is a universally agreed upon principle which can manifest as different actions in different cultures. We must be careful to separate descriptions of physical actions from descriptions of cultural relevance. "Rape" is a cultural value assessment, while "forced sexual intercourse" is a description of a physical action. We must not make the mistake of substituting one for the other in a moral evaluation.
The Trap of Strong Feelings
Here, I must issue a very stern warning. There is a very, very big difference between strong feelings and innate feelings. We must be constantly aware of this, or we will fall victim to the fallacy of believing our culture to be morally superior to all others. Culture can give us very strong emotional reactions to various acts. The Dawkins Tip Fiasco is a great example. My friend was genuinely and deeply put off that Dawkins didn't tip. He was so upset about it that he couldn't rest until the injustice was rectified. Nevertheless, his intense emotional reaction is most certainly not evidence that tipping is innately good.
This is where science can help us. Cognitive psychologists have made a lot of progress into determining what beliefs are innate to humans. With more research, we will most likely be able to hone our knowledge of our instincts even further. Perhaps there is a basic algorythm which describes all humans' perception of fairness. If this is so, we could theoretically examine any transaction in any culture and determine if it closely matches human instinct. Then again, perhaps not. It might be that the algorythm is too complex to be reasonably approximated.
Nevertheless, even if our judgments are necessarily fuzzy around the edges, the key to evaluating moral practices is understanding the difference between a cultural application of a princple and the principle itself. If there is a moral to this story, it is this: If you are trying to ascribe absolute moral value to a description of a physical act, you are making a philosophical error. If you cannot make a direct connection to an innate, rather than a cultural moral impulse, you would do well to keep an open mind about other people's morals. After all, there are many different sub-cultures within a nation. (It might be that within your Baptist culture, it is wrong to have threesomes with your wife and her best friend, but you must not try to impose that as an absolute moral upon someone who vowed to share sex with agreed upon third parties as part of a bonded relationship.) Finally, you must not claim something to be innate if it is not shared across cultures and history.
It is my belief that if we follow these basic principles, they will lead naturally to a very egalitarian culture, for they will automatically exclude a very wide range of behaviors from moral judgment while allowing for a wide variety of practices within sub-cultures. If we bear them in mind, we will naturally come to understand the meaning of various actions within cultures very foreign to us, and we will learn to respect that which -- though odd to us -- has a legitimate and fulfilling place in other people's lives.