The second question ties in closely with the entire "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" meme. Every person is in a different situation. Every person has different abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. A single system of rules and guidelines for actions and judgments could not serve humanity's varied needs.1 (Hence, one type of "moral relativist" is concerned with the knowledge that people and situations differ in their applicable moralities, and specifically with avoiding the mistake of judging another's action from within the context of one's own (or one's ideal) morality.)
This document is more concerned with the first question, upon which point I am opposed by a second type of "moral relativist" who will argue variously that we cannot know anything, that for one person to claim to be Right is hubris and damns those who disagree (which would somehow be incorrect because calling other people incorrect is not nice - a wonderfully hypocritical argument), and that morals are necessarily of a personal and religious nature and therefore not subject to judgments of validity.
My response is that the value of a set of morals has a clear criterion upon which it can be judged: How well it works toward its goal. Those moral systems that do not work are failures, and can be discarded.
What, then, is the goal? It is simply: That which is good. (Substitute, if you wish, "Quality," "that which is right," "Beauty," "Buddha nature," or whatever synonym floats your boat.)
But why goodness? Why not choose, as the goal of your moral system, to advance scientific progress, to eat mountains of olives, to prove your ethnic superiority, or to kill as many people as you can get your hands on? Simple: Good is already enmeshed in the concept of morals. To ask, "What is the moral thing for me to do?" is to ask, "What is the right thing for me to do?" Right action is that which brings about Goodness/Quality.
How can you know whether your moral system works? Is that an imponderable metaphysical question? No; no more than is determining whether a business scheme works to create profit. Use the information at your disposal; judge what the moral system contributes or fails to contribute to situations of varying circumstances and varying results, accounting for other possible influences; explore hypothetical situations and extrapolate the consequences of following your moral guidelines. The method for figuring out morality, as with figuring out any other critically important part of a worldview, is to thoroughly explore the evidence; analyze, synthesize, test and practice, until you have figured out how best to promote goodness. Ultimately, you are simply judging to make sure that your actions are in the interests of those things that you value.
Then what do you value? Again, this brings us to, "Does a dog have Buddha nature?" That is, should you be judging according to what is best for you? For society? For your dog? For Truth? Relax. All of these things have value to you, or at least likely do if you have a sense of perspective regarding those things that affect you.2 Weigh them. Keep in mind that value to them is indirect value to you. Assuming you like your dog, investment in dog food and flea collars, in benefiting the dog, benefits you. All things are intertwined, and mutual benefit is far more common than appearances would at times indicate. The realization of this is a cornerstone of respect and civility. Once all things are seen in their proper perspective, the question of goodness for the self reflects (and is reflected by) that of goodness for others enough that the same actions are suggested by both paths. If you yet lack enlightenment, simply do the best you can to find the greatest good, as you perceive it. Nobody is asking of you any more than that. (Nobody who matters, anyway.3)
That leaves one question: Why? Why be moral? If you do not fear Hell nor desire Heaven, nor feel the weight of karma upon you, why do you have to strive toward Goodness and Beauty? Simple: You do not have to. Right action is merely the means to achieve happiness and fulfillment. If you do not find that which you value to be worth an expenditure of effort on its behalf, you are perfectly free to ignore it. Most people do. And I will not even condemn you, for in that case you have damned yourself as thoroughly as would the cruelest of the fundamentalist gods. To live a life devoid of all the wonders that people can give to themselves and to others is the hell of which I write, and your only blessing is that you will likely not recognize it. I hope, in that case, that I sound to you like a crazed fanatic, that you might more easily dismiss my words and never pine for the world outside your cage.
There are those of us who feel a need to act in accordance with that which is Good. How is it that I have just disclaimed the existence of a fundamental need for morals, yet I claim that some people have such a need? The clue is in the concept of "need," which is incomplete without a specified end toward which it is necessary.4 To be inspired to do great deeds, to overcome all obstacles in the search for Truth, to be willing to forsake your security and comfort in order to bring about what you know to be Right, in short, to be a hero, you must have a goal. A simple, overriding goal toward which Goodness will contribute. A perfect example is: Happiness.5
Goodness involves the fulfillment of our values (by definition; values describe that which we perceive as good), which brings happiness. And contentment. And joy. Sometimes, even rapture. And more, for those of us with an appreciation for Goodness in and of itself will hold it in reverence6, and that reverence is a source of unceasing inspiration. I learned that reverence the very first time I saw and recognized true Beauty7, and it changed me forever. It became the catalyst and the cornerstone in my philosophy, which is to say in me.
Let me summarize with the immortal words of Tracy Walsh: "I don't believe people have a higher purpose than happiness."8
To work to embrace, create, propagate, and preserve goodness is definitively good. It is right. It brings happiness. It is moral. That is the biggest part of what we need to know in order to set our foot on the path.
1. Illustrative discussion of this may be found in Random Thoughts.
2. There are two subtly different uses of the word "value". The first concerns capacity to benefit you (directly or indirectly). The second concerns your perception of this. (Frequently, the two augment each other. Falling in love is an extreme example of this mutual augmentation.) The point here is that one can be "correct" or "mistaken" (to various degrees) in placing value.9 The object of "perspective" is to match the perception of quality to the actual quality, as closely as is reasonable to accomplish.
4. Example: You do not "need" a cutting implement in order to survive, but you do need one to slice vegetables for dinner.
5. The practice of Goodness toward happiness does not have to be calculated, of course. Happiness can be expected to correlate with the overall quality of one's actions. (This is not to say that there are not other factors, such as one's health and environment, also affecting happiness. And I emphatically deny any claim of perfect correlation. Sometimes, life kicks you in the teeth for doing the best you can do. And sometimes your decisions are less than ideal. In either case, you have an opportunity to learn something from it. Only an expert gets it right most of the time, and in the field of creating happiness, just as in any other field, an expert (to paraphrase Neils Bohr) is someone who has already made all of the mistakes (and, I will add, who has learned how to avoid them).)
6. The bumper stickers are mistaken when they say "Faith can move mountains." Faith is about what you believe and why you believe it; beliefs are passive. But reverence can inspire, motivate and drive a person to greatness.
7. Thank you, angel.
8. By "happiness," I do not refer only to animal pleasures. See John Stuart Mill's excellent work, Utilitarianism, chapter II (the earliest pages thereof) for elaboration.
9. The mistake of attaching too great a perceived value to an object is sometimes softened by the fact that perceived value can create happiness, therefore imbuing its object with some real value to the perceiver. However, the over-valuing of something whose aquisition is harmful, improbable, or (in some cases) ill-considered is the cause of a great deal of dissatisfaction and misery.