First posted 26 Oct 2003. Much of this reasoning still holds for me today. The original, though, had a sniping, accusatory, condescending tone toward religion, which I've toned down even for re-posting. As a matter of fact, Mark's "...love thy neighbour as thyself." is probably the core of my ethical beliefs these days, turbocharged by seeing that your neighbour IS yourself (but that will take a bit more explaining).
There is no ethical dimension to the universe per se. Nothing, intrinsically, is right or wrong, good or evil. Everything just is. Along with any other self-conscious beings that exist out there, we humans define right and wrong, and it is all too obvious that we disagree among ourselves on many of the finer points. We must simultaneously accept that there is no irreducible moral formula and commit to continuing a pluralistic ethical dialog.
Nearly all of us have a righteous element literally bred into us, and our social conventions reinforce this. This combination of factors means we can hardly help believing that what we (each of us) defines as right is right not by virtue of our definition but as a universal fact, which we simply recognise rather than create. Nonetheless, the right and the wrong are human children, born of a combination of mental ancestors - 1) our awareness of our own mortality, 2) our empathetic feelings (outside the 'heat of the moment') toward others, 3) our ability to generalise through reason from our own specific desires and needs to those of others, 4) our recognition that the overall gains from co-operation are greater than those possible in unbridled competition, and (unfortunately) 5) the drive of some to manipulate and control others.
In one sense, our search for universal ethical truths is good. I would like to think that humanity can agree to at least a broad set of principles that all individuals should be held to in their actions and interactions. In this sense, a 'universal' system is probably attainable, although its granularity is limited.
But there is another sense of 'universal' that I don't like at all. For a great part of our history as humans, many have appealed to fixed, closed, non-debatable rules, dictated by an almighty power whom they see as the foundation, the underwriting of morality. I'll write more on religion some other time, but for now I'll just say that I find it dangerous to ascribe to a higher power (who just happens to look like you and believe the things that your culture brought you up to believe) the regulatory minutiae that should govern the world.
Since I see it as a human institution, I fear that the church often has reason number (5) at the heart of its teachings and persecutions. Let's not seek to anchor right and wrong in a universal god or any other thing outside ourselves. I'm not sure, given the world we experience, how it could exist 'out there', and if it did, I don't think that I would trust anyone else in the role of seer and interpreter of the universal truth.
In the past several centuries, many more clever than me have searched diligently for a watertight secular system of ethics, usually basing it in number (3) above, or perhaps in number (2) by way ascribing to all the feelings that they themselves have. I can't pretend to have a simple, univariate, exceptionless system, but I do think that recognising the list above might help us in our moral discourse with one another. Of course, the truth is that we will continue to come up with different detailed answers. It is equally true that we will all need to be on the lookout for those who dress up number (5) in the finery of the previous four.
But perhaps we can establish and build on a core set of principles. Candidates are all around us. Often the biggest obstacle is the 'insider-outsider' syndrome. National laws (most likely those in liberal democracies) set up quite good frameworks for how citizens should deal with one another. They all too often fail to apply the same principles to those outsiders struggling remotely, unknown and unfelt.
I've done little more than put a marker in the ground here - attempting to slay the dragon of superhuman morality with a couple quick thrusts and suggesting the real drivers behind our conceptions of right and wrong. In another post, sometime soon, I'll put forward my (hardly original) view that ethical choices should be based on their predicted consequences and that the real task before us is to move to an inclusive conception of well-being with which to measure those consequences.