The people I know who do not believe in god tend to wind up with the same ethical systems as the people who do. Maybe it’s the beneficent influence of a traditionally religious society; maybe it’s biological, but people of all creeds enjoy consensus on basic altruism. You don’t need the Bible to tell you stealing is bad, for the same reason that you don’t need a referee to play backyard football. Ethical systems are based on actions, results and sometimes motives. Provided they agree on what’s right and what’s wrong, two ethical systems can be functionally congruent while totally disagreeing on why wrong is wrong and not right.
As any pseudo-logical website will tell you, the only difference between a secular ethics and one based on religious authority lies in your ability to apply it to others. If I personally reject the notion of two dudes marrying each other, I am forced to admit the possibility that I could be wrong. My ethical conclusions bear the authority of my person, and that encourages me to limit their application to my personal self. If I believe that my ethics is set down by god, on the other hand—if I believe ethics are objective in the strict sense— than they objectively apply to everybody else, too. I submit that this difference in the construction of ethics explains two recent articles in the New York Times.
The first tracks reader agreement with the paper’s new ethicist, Chuck Klosterman. Apparently he’s been controversial since he took over the column in June; overall, two out of three poll respondents disagree with his responses to reader questions. One of those particular questions is not germane to our discussion, but the other two are. In one, Klosterman says it is not ethical for a person to steal his neighbor’s cat and bring it to the veterinarian. In the other, he says that a student should confront his friend for cheating on exams but that he is not ethically obligated to turn him in. The majority of readers—77% on the cat and 87% on the cheating friend—disagreed with both these answers.
Meanwhile, Dawn Hawkins—the executive director of a group called Morality in Media—has confronted a fellow passenger for looking at pornography on a plane. Flight attendants denied her request to make him stop, although he eventually put his iPad away on his own. After he did, Hawkins continued to “press him on why he was looking at those images in public” until a third passenger told her to knock it off. “Be quiet,” the woman said. “Nobody cares.” Hawkins has since made this breathless video describing her experience.
First of all, don’t look at pornography on an airplane. Moral questions aside, such behavior falls in the gray area between ethics and courtesy known as Come On, Son. Second, I feel a visceral revulsion watching that video and imagining Hawkins lambasting that poor pervert on the plane. Plenty of compelling arguments suggest that watching pornography is not victimless behavior. The argument that it victimizes Hawkins, however, requires enough logical equivalences to fall outside of what I understand to be her business. The same can be said of the man who overrules his neighbor’s decision not to treat cancer in a 12 year-old cat, and of the student who fails to snitch on his friend.
On these issues Klosterman and I agree, but much of the public evidently does not. Here, I think, lies the difference between ethics based on personal choice and ethics based on objective (religious) authority. In both of the Ethicist examples, Klosterman holds that the authority of others to make their own ethical decisions trumps objective standards of what should and should not be done. Don’t cheat, but when someone else cheats—or looks at pornography on the plane—you are not ethically obliged to turn him in. Don’t steal his cat, because even if he is doing something wrong, believing in an ethics does not give you the authority to enforce it on others.
There is danger in that kind of thinking, of course, and we must be careful not to apply it absolutely. If I see a mugging in progress, I am not going to shrug and consider the mugger’s right to ignore my ethical prohibition against robbery. Any responsible ethics must include protecting people from the depredations of others. But it does not have to include punishing others—at least, it doesn’t if you consider ethics subjective. Understanding the disagreement on that issue, between objectivity and subjectivity in right and wrong, might help us understand a lot of the ethical controversies of our time.