Back in the character-based Stone Age of the personal computer, all MS-DOS PCs started up with a C-prompt, the “C:>” text with a blinking cursor. At least, all PCs that weren’t broken.
Can we conclude anything from that? That “C:>” is a reflection of some supernatural or transcendental truth? That it is an insight into God’s mind? No—it’s just a useful trait shared by this class of PCs. There’s no objective meaning behind these characters. This text is useful (it shows the directory in which any typed commands will take place), so it was selected. There’s nothing more profound than this behind it.
Human morality is like this. Almost all humans have shared moral programming, not dissimilar from instincts in other animals. Through instinct, honeybees communicate where the nectar is, newborn sea turtles go toward the ocean, and juvenile birds fly. Training or acculturation can override human programming, of course, but in general we have a shared moral sense—a shared acceptance of the Golden Rule, for example.
We think our moral programming is pretty important, and that’s understandable, but there’s no reason to imagine that it is objectively true and based on some supernatural grounding. Said another way, we think that our morality is true because it tells us that it’s true, but we can’t infer from this that it is grounded outside us. If we imagine a warlike (or gentle or wise) civilization on another planet, their programming would tell them that their morality is the correct approach, not ours.
We must not confuse universally shared moral programming with universal moral truths.
Our morality is what our programming says it is—it’s no more profound than that. There’s as much reason to imagine that it is a window into the transcendent as that the MS-DOS C-prompt is.
More: a popular apologist gets objective morality wrong here.
In Nature there are neither rewards nor punishments—
there are consequences.
― Robert G. Ingersoll
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 4/26/12.)