Axiology has always interested me. During a recent (painfully inevitable) holiday family gathering, my father related to me how, at the age of 5, I began questioning right and wrong. Not, mind you, if the act of making my bed or picking my nose was right or wrong; but, rather, if the concept of right or wrong was misunderstood by the grown-ups. It is certainly curious, I think, that somebody (that would be me!) who proclaims1 to disbelieve in right or wrong, and even debunks common ehtical systems in day-to-day conversations, would be so obsessed with morality -- even the lack of it.
Even more recently, a friend pointed out the glaringly obvious surreptitiousness of my ethical hypocrisy: How can I claim that right or wrong does not even exist on a fundamental level while, at the same time, proclaim to feel certain actions are inappropriate or morally reprehensible? How could I possibly feel an action is morally reprehensible while I claim to disbelieve morality? Well, clearly I can't! Yet, I feel compelled to try.
Given the context of an absense of human life -- the beloved but in the deep dark emptiness of space hypothesis -- morality simply does not exist. The ability to conceptualize right and wrong behavior makes no sense without a sentient being capable of both commiting and contemplating said behavior. However, this does not mean, or even imply, that morality does not exist at all; only that morality only exists given the context of beings capable of understanding it.
I believe this is a philosophical foundation that can not be cracked with supernatural arguments: emotions, behaviors, and rational concepts do exist, but only in the context in which beings capable of feeling, acting, and thinking them also exist. Aliens, gods, humans, and even Lassie may have feelings and ethics. In my lifetime, I have only run across human feelings and ethics; and I have no faith in gods, humans, or puppies.
"We all seek happiness and do not want suffering."2
My agonosticism certainly lends muscle to this argument in my own mind. Likewise with all things characteristic of all things living, I believe that rationalities, sentience, and emotions developed over the course of milbazillions of years of evolution. Quite simply put, those monkeys which developed rationality became more adept at survival and breeding. Those monkeys which developed a sense of community or society became much more adept at survival and breeding. And, finally, those monkeys which developed complex emotions became more adept at maintaining their societies. In other words, and I hope I'm not bridging a gap too wide to be lept in a single bound, the desire to seek happiness and the lack of a desire to suffer are emotional traits which have evolved through the course of the evolution of the monkeys' society.
The evolutionary nature of emotions is a philosophical foundation that I believe can be cracked with supernatural arguments. In fact, because of this, I decided not to present it as an argument in and of itself. I will only say that this is my belief, and I consider this belief to be fundamental to the continued discussion. Or, rather, I'm too lazy/weak-minded to write a proper argument. Anyway, this next leap may require temporary suspension of gravity....
I believe some emotions (love, empathy, pride, etc.) developed primarily, if not solely, along with society. These feelings serve little purpose other than to strengthen our societal bonds, ergo enabling us, as members of the society to, you guessed it, become more adept at surviving and breeding. Morality is, I believe, one of these emotions. Ethics are, I believe, a way to express, share, and even learn morality. Excluding psychological disorders (such as those people who are incapable of feeling fear or happiness), we all feel morality. We all feel a sense of right and wrong.
However, we may be too rational for our own good. We all (save the goths, woe are they) believe in love. This is an emotion that we all feel. Good ol' Darwin pitched it our way and, thank goodness, we're allowed to be warm and fuzzy inside from time to time. But, we don't all love the same things. We don't all love the same people. Rationality and learned emotion (no matter how irrational it may seem) causes us to differ. I might love sombody nice, while you love somebody mean. I might love something bitter, yet you love something sweet. Evolution gave us love -- but our love differs mildly or wildly. So while I believe in love, as an emotion, I do not believe that there is one true love.
And now to tie some knots.
I believe that morality is an emotion expressible through ethics and actions. I believe that, like love, we all agree and feel these feelings and that, like love, we all feel them mildly or wildly differently. So I would conclude that while right and wrong exists as an emotion that there is no one morality. In an attempt to apply this concept to a real hypothesis, I'll leap straight to one of our most disturbing ethical arguments.
The concept of abortion is, in my feelings, morally wrong. I believe this moral feeling developed partly through evolution (killing infants weakens society, reducing my ability to survive and breed), partly through learned emotion (aww, babies are so cute like kittens) and partly through learned ethics (for which I need no obnoxious, italicised example). However, I believe other humans may just as legitimately believe that abortion is acceptable, having developed through evolution (bringing up infants who are deformed or out of wedlock weakens society, reducing my ability to survive and breed), emotion (it's my body and I'll do with it what I want!) and learned ethics.
So yes, I do believe in morals. However, I do not believe that my morals necessarily align perfectly with anybody else's. We all have different feelings of right and wrong, and we all are capable of applying these feelings differently. Evolution gave most of us a decent set of good emotions (killing is bad, stealing is naughty), allowing society to function smoothly and, therefore, allowing us to breed smoothly. In general, these "obvious" ethics are enforced by edict in modern society, primarly to dissuade behavior of those people who fail to use their emotions properly or who, for whatever reason, developed what the masses would call improper emotions.
So when I claim to not believe in right and wrong, I don't mean that I do not have emotions which guide me to behave in a good or evil way. I mean that I do not believe that there is one set of right and wrong ethics which are correct and should be followed by all people. Abortion, by example, I feel is wrong. But I do not (and can not) judge those who feel it is acceptable. By contrasting example, I can judge others who murder, rape and hurt others -- because whatever guided them to commit these deeds did not (or should not) have developed through evolution and learned behavior. Murdering people for fun, since this is an easy hypothesis, is always bad for society and, therefore, reduces my chances to breed.
And I can't have that.
1. Nuncupate was a recent word of the day. It would be appropriate here.
2. How to Practice the Way to a Meaningful Life, Dalai Lama.