09 June 2011


The chief ethical counselor of the US Geological Survey defines ethical behavior as doing the right thing even if you knew that no one was watching.  Unclear where nose-picking fits into this.

A major issue of contention between atheists and believers is that ethical behavior comes from a religious tradition.  Atheists say no - it's inherent to the human species.  Look at me - I'm ethical, they say.

Other atheists - the kind that attribute everything to Darwinian natural selection no matter the paucity of evidence - argue that ethical behavior is a societally-promoted evolutionary end-product. Those who weren't ethical in earlier, less forgiving eras... were killed by tribal or vigilante groups. Conform, help the group - propagate your genes. Thieves and murderers produce fewer children. Case closed.

I challenge any reader to deny that their parents ever corrected their unethical behavior when they were children or teenagers. "You will come with me as we return the toy you stole. And you will apologize." This would seem to imply that people are not born with ethical principles, but I disagree.

It's clear that there is perceived room for interpretation: taking a cheap pen from a hotel room?  Taking a towel? Taking a TV? Where do you draw the line? I knew a senior scientist in the USGS who would buy and bring his own drafting pencils to work for fear of using a government pen or pencil to write down a personal note. I watched another scientist ridicule him for this... and once sat beside that other scientist a year later, eating lunch on the edge of a fjord in southeast Alaska.  I pointed out a seal watching us from the water... and was stunned when the man pulled out his .44 Magnum pistol and started firing at the seal! I jumped up and asked what the heck? "Everyone has his time," was the laconic reply. I asked him if he'd had a mother, and he didn't reply, but the seal was smarter than me and dove beneath the surface.

Clearly there is a breadth of interpretation about what is right and what is wrong, but surely there must be some basic core principles that everyone from all societies adhere to?

How about killing a human being?  In Srebrenica, "Christian" Serbs murdered 8,000 innocent Muslim men and boys in 1995.  On 9/11/2001, Muslim fundamentalists murdered 3,000 innocent American men and women - including a significant number of Muslim men and women in the Twin Towers.  You could argue that this is just the behavior of sociopaths... but it took a lot of ordinary Serbs to bulldoze the burial trenches, to bus the victims to them, etc., and it took a lot of infrastructure and donations from a wide-ranging Middle East population to pull off 9/11.  There was a vast infrastructure and population behind the Holocaust, including hundreds of thousands of "ordinary" people.

Niccolo Machiavelli argued in The Prince that it is better - in terms of stability, economic well-being, and the happiness of society as a whole - for a ruthless ruler (the Prince) to kill some individuals.  These could be people who potentially threatened the ruler's power, or they could be innocent individuals being simply being used as an object lesson to instill fear and obedience.

No, left alone, mankind (as opposed to womankind *) seems to be able to carry out vast atrocities - history is full of these.  There are far too many of these, in fact, to be attributable to sociopaths and psychopaths.  Human beings appear on this planet as infants - nearly empty slates - and they can be molded to do most but not all things.

(* There are exceptions of course, but statistically, most of the murders and atrocities in our society's history are perpetrated by the male half of our dimorphic race.)

There is a history in my paternal line of infidelity - and a lot of women and children suffered terribly because of this.  My gentle Uncle James (earlier blog) was a notable exception.  The infidelity example, however, was before me as I grew up; I was reminded one way or another nearly every day that other kids had dads, and I didn't.  I made a conscious decision as a young man that the infidelity buck, figuratively, stops with me, with my generation.

I believe this decision was rooted in both my childhood loneliness, a basic core level of empathy, and with my growing awareness of a Supreme Being.  Even before I gave up atheism I had thought through this particular issue and made that particular decision.  Ultimately, I believe ethical behavior stems from recognizing the expectations of our Maker.

Someone IS watching.


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