Ethics and Morality are rules that social animals apply for dealing with one another. There are objective rules, which all stem from the Golden Rule. We may not know all the implications of the rules, and the way we apply them over time may change as our knowledge increases, but, at any given time, there is is an objective right and wrong.
The Golden rule is an in-group one, it assumes that the other is in your group. In primitive times, the in-group was very limited. As time progressed, knowledge has also progressed and the concept of who is in the group has systematically expanded. For example, when women and slaves were considered to be less than males, their treatment as chattel was defensible. Humanity progressed to the point that it was no longer rational or tenable to maintain that position, and it became impossible not to apply the golden rule to them. This is not an indication that morals are subjective, but rather that humans learn, and that objective progress is possible and measurable.
Animals have Morals
From the abstract of an article on Capuchin Monkey Concepts of Fairness:
Many highly cooperative nonhuman species seem guided by a set of expectations about the outcome of cooperation and the division of resources15, 16. Here we demonstrate that a nonhuman primate, the brown capuchin monkey (Cebus apella), responds negatively to unequal reward distribution in exchanges with a human experimenter. Monkeys refused to participate if they witnessed a conspecific obtain a more attractive reward for equal effort, an effect amplified if the partner received such a reward without any effort at all. These reactions support an early evolutionary origin of inequity aversion.
The results have also been recently replicated with Dogs so the concept of fair treatment, clearly an element of the golden rule, is clearly operative in at the very least some social mammals other than humans.
Dog owners routinely observe at least: Happiness, Sadness, Envy, fear, and guilt in dogs. These are all behaviors that indicate a fairly complicated emotional state. Clearly, in order to have a sense of justice, or suffer guilt, Dogs must have some notion of right and wrong.
The Arrow of Progress
Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate pg. 57 (citing Keeley) reports death rates among different societies caused by war. The rates reported in modern societies, even including event of the twentieth century such as world war II, are ten to thirty times lower than the rates reported for primitive societies. The long term death rate from 'war', which can include sub-national conflicts, is one objective indicator of human progress, by which societies can be measured.
Jared Diamond's accounts of the peoples of Papua New Guinea indicate the in-groups in those primitive were on the order of a few hundred people. As one progresses to more modern societies, the size of the in-group, deserving of tribal/city/region/national/human affinity, gradually expands. In the most modern societies barriers to women and those of minority races. as the size of the in-group expands the amount of coercion in society decreases. So another arrow of progress is the size of the 'in-group' deserving of consideration, and the corresponding drop in levels of routine coercion within society.
There are perhaps others arrows that will be discovered in time. The hypothesis here is that societies are similar points on the metrics of progress will have similar sorts of rules. This is not an indication that morals and ethics are subjective, any more than people using blow-pipes for hunting in the amazon is indicative that the value of technologies is subjective. It is simply that progress is unevenly distributed.
Last updated by Nelson Mar 5, 2009.