Is there an objective morality?
If bonobos became as conscious and intelligent as humans, and were thus able to outline their moral principles, they would surely pronounce unbounded and incessant sexual promiscuity morally good and sound, and monogamous tendencies a depravity. They would come up with various reasons to justify their moral sentiments. They would, for example, praise their sexual practices as vital for ensuring social cohesion, peace and prosperity.
Once they became acquainted with humans and learned that we are equally intelligent and conscious, they’d be bewildered by our different moral precepts, and even more by how we also appear to justify them with logic, even going so far as to argue (just like them) that our moral principles can be derived from an objective and universal ethical system that can be discovered or inferred through reason alone, like a mathematical theorem. Further bewilderment would follow upon their discovery that some of us also believe that our morality was provided by an all-mighty God who created humans, and humans alone, as supreme among all creatures.
While the concept of morality doesn’t really apply to animals, we can certainly consider the behavior of other great apes, for example, as guided by a sort of morality, although mostly an innate one; that is, by a system of hardwired preferences and aversions with regard to their social interactions. At any rate, this thought experiment intends to illustrate that each species has different imperatives and urges, and that its “morality” is shaped by them. There can’t be universal moral principles in the abstract, wholly removed from our nature. Consider praying mantises: if they likewise became intelligent and capable of expressing their morality, wouldn’t the females extol the virtues of devouring their partners during sexual intercourse? And what would the males think of that? So even within one species there can be conflicting conceptions of good and evil.
In philosophy, the naturalistic fallacy refers to claims that what is found in nature is good, that we can deduct an ought from an is. Asserting “aggression is natural in humans, therefore war is acceptable” would incur this fallacy. In practice, however, a least some of our “oughts” reflect to a great extent what is natural in us. For example, there is nothing intrinsically or objectively moral in our preference for our own children over all others, yet such predisposition is exceptionally strong in our nature, and for that reason we consider it obviously reasonable, just and good. I’m not arguing that this particular preference is immoral, but simply that it feels moral because it is so ingrained in us.
Now, it goes without saying that culture plays a substantial role in shaping the morals of our species, but culture is not boundless, it can’t be totally disconnected from our underlying nature. A human culture will never develop in which eating your partner in the middle of lovemaking is widely practiced and universally lauded. There are numerous human universals, that is, elements and traits common to all human cultures, which suggests that their origin is in our nature, rather than learned or cultural. Human nature is, nonetheless, flexible and adaptable. It’s not characterized by narrow and rigid behaviors, by those rather mechanical instincts more prevalent in animals, particularly the lower ones. That’s why it can give rise to very different values and norms, and these can greatly differ in their moral quality. Some can clearly make lots of people miserable, while others can foster the happiness of most.
Being endowed with a fairly malleable nature, with a nature of considerable range and possibilities, we’d be wise to endeavor to develop and cement values aligned with its better angels, with those innate aspects and potentials most likely to promote our happiness and prosperity.