In the absence of conscious beings with free will, morality can not exist. Picture a universe of infinite violence such as our own with no sentient life. Is the extreme destruction of a super nova evil? Is a tsunami evil, or an earthquake? Surely not.
Now assume a universe with consciousness and beings able to cause acts of violence and cruelty.
Destruction of itself can not, presumably, be deemed evil (even if caused by sentient beings) unless other sentient beings suffer. And even then intent must be shown. Accidental destruction causing suffering can not be evil. There must have been an intent to cause suffering. Or callous carelessness without regard to the consequences.
We know that consciousness exists even if we do not understand what it is. I think, therefore I am.
We do not know whether free will exists. Without free will there can be no intent to cause harm and suffering. Nor indeed to cause good or happiness.
But we must act as if free will does exist. We must believe free will exists. Not to do so makes all our thoughts, words and deeds pointless.
So on those assumptions does evil exist? Does good exist? Are there any moral imperatives or are we free to interpret morality as we desire?
I argue very strongly that moral imperatives do exist in a universe with sentience and free will.
The most important moral imperative is to abolish suffering. To refrain from causing suffering to conscious beings. I can not, will not accept, as I have seen argued recently, that good and evil are subject to change and interpretation by different societies in different ages.
This has absolutely nothing to do with a belief or disbelief in a deity. We do not need a deity to explain to us what suffering is and to tell us it is wrong.
And please, please do not tell me that society of any age or geography genuinely believed that the barbarity handed out to their fellow men was justified. Was not “evil”. If they did so believe then very clearly they were wrong. Good and evil do very obviously exist in our universe and it is our duty to espouse the former and eschew the latter.
We are not robots, surely? And on that assumption our duty is to prevent suffering.
I recently sang in a Passion by the contemporary English composer Howard Goodall.
The lyrics were profound (even if the music was not destined to become one of my personal favorites).
In his Lamentations are found the words of William Wilberforce, spoken in the House of Commons on 18th April 1791, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know”.
Please do not tell me that among sentient beings with free will, morals are relative.