I have a friend who, recently, had a problem with little boys playing with squirt guns indoors. She called a Kids Meeting. There had not been any Kids Meetings before at this house, but that got the kids to sit down. She asked who was responsible, and all of the boys pointed at the one who was the most drenched. My friend did not believe them, but she then asked them what happens if people shoot squirt guns inside. The boys raised their hands and gave answers like, “The furniture might get messed up.” or “The squirt guns might make a puddle and then someone might slip and fall.”. My friend said, “Let’s make a rule: no playing with squirt guns inside.” The boys agreed, and they didn’t squirt guns inside anymore; at least, not for a couple of days.
The boys were not squirting guns because they had failed to grasp their prime moral imperative; they were squirting guns because they are little kids and were having fun, they just needed help to see how squirting squirt guns could harm people. And, by being encouraged to develop thoughts about their actions, they figured out, with a little help, how they ought to behave. My friend acted as an authority, but more like a teacher and less like a police officer.
I do not believe in any moral absolutes, but I think that harming people is bad and that helping people is good. I do not think that the moral beliefs that I do have are controversial. I would expect constructive controversies regarding things like whether aid should be given to kids in Somalia if warlords collect taxes on this aid, or what constitutes self-plagiarism, or whether people should eat chickens.
If two people are talking about right and wrong, they can have a good conversation if they agree on some basic points (eg, it is wrong to harm people); agreement on how they arrived at these points is not necessary. And yet, it’s often the case that secular people get asked by religious people how they have any morals at all. This is unfortunate. Although I disagree with religious people regarding whether God exists, I have more agreement than disagreement with them on how people ought to treat each other.
Human beings have a variety of beliefs about how morals come from God, or gods, or inside of people, or the structure of the universe, or something else. Human beings also have diverse sets of specific moral rules: what constitutes a stingy tip or who should be in charge in a family or how many times you need to say “thank you”. Between the source of morality and specific rules that people follow is a narrowly similar thing across humans: we think that it’s important to take care of family members, to not harm neighbors; we have empathy, especially toward people that we are related to or people with whom we can relate.
The next step for human beings to become more good is not the development of a more thorough or uniform or precise ethical basis; instead, it’s expanding the idea of who family and neighbors are by developing understanding of the commonality that humans have.