In one of those odd juxtapositions of the internet, one blog I follow was writing about how to craft a truly evil overlord* who kills to create his vision of Utopia and the other was writing about how much he wanted to read about how a charcter rose to slaughter for his vision of utopia**. Sam Sykes, the hardest-working fantasy prodigy out there, was blogging in response to another author*** who was decrying moral relativism in fiction. Far as I can tell, Sam was standing up for moral relativism****. If he is, I think he's wrong and I'll try to explain why.
Sam was taking issue with Bryan's comment on how he thought fantasy writers should do 'better' than to write nihilistic, morally ambigious fiction. Sam didn't think it was possible to say what 'better' is, in other words, that there was no basic morality that was not open to interpretation and debate. I think there are, though. I think there are basic virtues that don't change and that a big part of fiction is exploring them, bouncing off them, subverting them, maybe.
But there are there, the baseline of what is considered 'good'. There has to be, otherwise we are adrift, as writers and possibly as people. But let's focus on just the writing. Let's start with the big one, killing. Violence and the threat of violence is a big part of drama, fiction and fantasy especially. Those swords characters wear aren't just for show, they are tools for killing. A big part of any good story should be exploring questions like, when is it ok to kill? When is it right? When is it just? We have to know that so we can say when killing someone is unjust. Killing to defend yourself and your family is the morally right thing to do. How about killing for an ideal? Does the ideal matter? What about killing to bring about Utopia? What if the ideal is just 'I am awesome and everyone should listen to me'? Now we're getting into the Evil Overlord territory but you can find historical paralells to that mindset, you can even find contemporary ones.
Ok, let's go small. Lying. Telling the truth is a virture, an impartial one. Why? Because of trust. If you can't trust anyone to do what they say, you can't trust them at all. Society doesn't work. It's rare, but there are small, disfunctional ethic groups that don't have truth telling as a virtue. They are unable to organize and unable to get along with their neighbors because they lie. But lying is something everyone does, of course, a lie can be virtuous, as anyone who hid Jew during the 1930's and 40's can prove. But that basic morality is there.
So, storytelling. If we tell a story about someone who lies at random, who kills for a bad motivation, it doesn't resonate. Readers may just say, "I didn't like this" or "It didn't work for me" but what they're saying is that they don't identify with the character. Stories like this might get published, they might even be celebrated. There is shock value in 'bad' characters, an attraction to the dark there. But they won't persist, I feel.
Tolkien's work endures because it touches on eternal verities, the struggle between good and evil, not just in cultures, but in the hearts of every person. Choosing to do what is right, what is selfless, even and especially when it's hard is what makes a hero. Who's going to remember R. Scott Bakker's "Prince of Nothing" series ten years from now? Fifty years from now? The jury is still out on George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones series. It is as good as fantasy writing gets but I know a lot of readers who have given up or have at least stopped caring about the series. Why? Because virtue is not rewarded. The good suffer, evil florishes and the heroes keep getting killed, maimed and tortured.
Now, all that said, it doesn't mean you need to turn out cookie-cutter stories. It doesn't mean that your value system in your book needs to be Judiasm or Christianity or Islam, word for word. If you want it to be, and you're up front about it, fine. If you want to do something else, fine. Write the stories you want to read. But don't forget that there are things that are baseline values for a reason. There are storytelling conventions and they've become conventions for a reason. And a writer ignores that at their peril.
*** Bryan Thomas Schmidt http://www.adventuresinscifipublishing.com/2012/01/the-problem-with-moral-abiguity-in-fiction/
****(correct me if I'm wrong, Sam, but I read your post over a few times and that seems to be what you're saying)