On the ethics of keeping ethics to yourself

Nietzsche in a cowboy outfit for some wonderful reason

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.

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  1. Good points. I studied philosophy as an undergrad and never could conceive of an objective morality without involving some transcendent being. So I settled in to the sort of personal ethics that you practice, which annoyingly require a fresh explanation each and every time it conflicts with someone else’s.

    Cultivating a personal/non-personal dichotomy also has the nagging problem that it allows for lazy thinkers to be inconsistent (they happily and with justification make up shit), which undermines the central purpose of ethics, to clearly define harm.

  2. “Moral questions aside, such behavior falls in the gray area between ethics and courtesy known as Come On, Son.”

    Great stuff.

  3. The overriding issue (and in my opinion, ignored) is that “objective” ethics are carried out by people (obviously, I know). But the point is, folks are fallible and will make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean “objective” ethics are subject to more criticism than ethics carried “subjectively.”

    I always shake my head when some dope see a bigger dope (say a televangelist) “sin” and then uses that as a reason to reject god, or should I say, God. (see what I did there?)

    Anyway, I love your articles, no I’m not mad, lol, and tell Sir Nigel, hello for me. Oh wait, I guess I just did!

  4. I’m curious about what a world wide law system would look like, due to the boundlessness of the internet and the continued confusion of nations because of business and culture. It obviously couldn’t be a religious systems as most religions tell their followers that their religion is the one true religion and to kill everyone else. in “The Diamond Age” Neal Stephenson hints at an interesting system called Common Economic Protocol. Its basic premise seems to be, “Everyone gets a shot. Don’t fuck with somebody’s shot.” For example, theft is illegal, because you took someone’s earned income and property. Shooting a man in the arm is illegal because you effect his chance to earn a living.

    Small infractions are left to the judicial systems of the territory where you live. So if you steal a man’s wallet, the magistrate might order you caned. If you steal an engineer’s designs, CEP might claim jurisdiction and seize all your assets and jail you.

    I also think it illustrates a difference between laws and ethics, especially the difference between these at municipal and international levels.

  5. As usual, great writing, Dan.

    Ethics can be “objective” without being religious for the same reason that we usually treat our subjective experience of color as objective: because, as you suggest, we share a biology and that biology affects our ethical interpretations. Obviously, there can be biological variation that affects that (there are very sinful colorblind people who do not see red like the rest of us), and ethics are much more subject to buffeting by cultural differences than color perception, but there are commonalities nonetheless that are (probably) based in evolution. So ethics is a more complex but not really different problem than any other question of what is “objective.”

    In some ways, I think the religious-secular difference is subsumed by a larger problem which is just that we do not agree, and don’t really think about or discuss, what society is “for.” Religious and secular people who are primarily concerned with some version of human rights will likely agree more on ethical issues with each other than with a secular person considered with maximizing happiness (a utilitarian). But for the most part, people don’t even consider the larger question and just have a grab bag of inchoate principles which they deploy for a number of purposes, some of which actually have to do with ethics.

  6. Can you please indicate the source of this amazing photo of Nietzsche? I cannot find it anywhere else and am anxious to know where you found it, and, if possible, its approximate date.

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