I get into a lot of debates about morality, ethics, personal philosophies on life, and what results from each individual’s take on such issues. This is often the case with atheists because of the fact that most of us have a very strong sense of ethics, where we stand on ethical issues, and well-thought out lines of logical reasoning on the topic. It is also often the case with anarchists for the same reasons. We anarchists and atheists have often rejected states and religions based on the grounds that their actions and teachings seem to often be in direct opposition to decent human ethics.
So, what is the most basic and simple ethical rule that many (dare I say most?) anarchists and atheists live by? It’s quite a simple rule. If you’re a religious person, you’re probably already familiar with it, because most religions consider it one of the cornerstones of their belief system.
The Golden Rule
The Golden Rule, whether named as such or not, tends to be the ethical foundation of the philosophical beliefs of anarchists and atheists alike. In essence, we believe in doing to others only as we would have done to us, and conversely, never doing to others what we would prefer not to have done to us.
Stated in more religious terms, comes this excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on The Golden Rule:
The “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” from the Parliament of the World’s Religions (1993) proclaimed the Golden Rule (“We must treat others as we wish others to treat us”) as the common principle for many religions. The Initial Declaration was signed by 143 respected leaders from all of the world’s major faiths, including Baha’i Faith, Brahmanism, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Indigenous, Interfaith, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American, Neo-Pagan, Sikhism, Taoism, Theosophist, Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian. In the folklore of several cultures the Golden Rule is depicted by the allegory of the long spoons.
This may sound simple, because it is, but for some reason many of the adherents of these same 143 religions choose to live contrary to this simple, near-global ethic. This is also true of atheists and anarchists, but I think you’ll find (statistics bear this out), that both atheists and anarchists abide by it more frequently than the religious and statists.
The Non-Aggression Principle
Closely related to The Golden Rule, The Non-Aggression Principle simply states that the initiation of force against another is an inherently illegitimate action. It is a philosophical stance taken by many Anarchists and Libertarians as a moral stance against any use of aggression against groups or individuals.
This is a wholly more philosophical and rational view on the same basic philosophy, and looking to the Wikipedia entry on the Non-Aggression Principle, we find:
The non-aggression principle (also called the non-aggression axiom, the anti-coercion principle, the zero aggression principle, the non-initiation of force), or NAP for short, is a moral stance which asserts that aggression is inherently illegitimate. Aggression, for the purposes of the NAP, is defined as the initiation or threatening of violence against a person or legitimately owned property of another. Specifically, any unsolicited actions of others that physically affect an individual’s property, including that person’s body, no matter if the result of those actions is damaging, beneficiary or neutral to the owner, are considered violent when they are against the owner’s free will and interfere with his right to self-determination, as based on the libertarian principle of self-ownership. Supporters of NAP use it to demonstrate the immorality of theft, vandalism, assault, and fraud. In contrast to pacifism, the non-aggression principle does not preclude violence used in self-defense.
Note the final sentence of this definition. The Non-Aggression Principle does not reject violence used as self-defense. Rather, proponents would tend to agree that the only legitimate use of violence or coercion is to stop or prevent the violence and coercion of another. In essence, it is like saying, “do not do any violence or coercion to another unless they do it to you, first.”
Two Examples from My Life
To put this in more concrete terms I’ll give you two examples from my own personal experiences of life where The Golden Rule and/or The Non-Aggression Principle came into play, and I chose to act out of these simple rules rather than to simply go along with what others might do in the same situations.
Smoking in a Restaurant
If you read my other blogs, you might be aware that I recently moved to Ukraine. Over here, it is quite legal to smoke in cafes, bars and restaurants. Most permit it, and it is legal throughout the country.
I was out with a friend recently, and we were having dinner and a few beers at a local restaurant. This particular restaurant has no ban on smoking in its seating room, and no smoking or non-smoking sections. Quite a few people, perhaps a third of the patrons, were smoking. We had finished our meal, and were about to finish our beers and order another. My companion took out a cigarette, and offered one to me.
I used to be a regular smoker, going through a pack or more a day. I gave it up some time ago, and now I only occasionally have a smoke or two, and only when I’m drinking alcoholic beverages. Otherwise, I stay away from it. Every once in a while, when under great stress, I might buy a pack or two, smoke through them, and then give it up again. That behavior, on the other hand, is extremely rare for me, as I rarely experience much stress in life.
Regardless of my habits, past and/or present, I do not like it when people smoke near me when I’m eating or drinking. Being an anarchist, I am opposed to laws that impose an anti-smoking rule on others, as I find this to be in violation of the Non-Aggression Principle, but at the same time, I don’t like the behavior in others, regardless of what the local laws and customs may say.
So when this little encounter happened, I had this little conversation with my friend:
“Sure, I’ll have a smoke with you, but let’s go outside,” I replied.
“Why? It’s freezing out there, and you know we can smoke in here. Look, lots of people in here are smoking,” he observed.
“It’s like this…. I don’t like it when people smoke while I’m eating. I find it kind of nauseating. It kind of upsets my meal, and makes it less enjoyable.”
“Yeah, me too, but we can smoke in here anyways,” he responded.
“Yes, I know that, but listen to me for a minute. I won’t smoke in here because to do so would be to engage in a behavior that I do not want others to do to me. In essence, I’d be violating my own ethical judgment to have a smoke in here right now. I won’t hold it against you if you want to smoke inside, but I won’t join you unless we go outside, because smoking inside is against my own ethics. It would be doing something to these non-smokers that I would not want these other smokers to do to me. Can you understand that?” I tried to be as gentle with him as possible, and explain my view without making him wrong in the process. In essence, I didn’t clobber him with, “and you’re a jerk for wanting to do it.” I just told him where I stand on the issue personally, and stood up for The Golden Rule.
“Yes. I see what you’re saying. Let’s go outside,” he replied. We put on our coats and hats, went outside, had our cigarettes, came back in, sat down and ordered another round.
Spanking Children & Religious Indoctrination
A short time ago, I was involved in a discussion about the merits of spanking children and indoctrinating them into religions of the parents on Facebook. Three individuals involved in this discussion were advocating both as “legitimate forms of discipline and education” in the family, and as you might expect with my two philosophies above, I was arguing against both.
Now, my parents spanked me when I was a kid, and they also forced me to attend Sunday school and church. I turned out okay. I didn’t end up all screwed-up because of it. Not every child will. Some will. In fact, many will. It may not even be a majority that will end up with psychological problems as a result of either of these behaviors. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that only the tiniest of fractions ends up with serious emotional or psychological damage as a result, and put it at 1%. To me, this tiny risk is more than enough reason to prevent me from ever attempting to indoctrinate my children into atheism, and enough to prevent me from ever spanking them. I just see both practices as illegitimate acts of coercion and violence against children, and will never see them any other way.
So, I was making this same argument to these Christians, who in my mind were plainly in denial of their own Golden Rule, as plainly stated in several places in their own Holy Bible. Yet they continued to argue in favor of both actions, calling me all manner of names, and implying that it was I who was immoral for refusing to raise a hand to children and refusing to indoctrinate them into a proper belief system. This behavior astounds me, but I see it again and again. I find it vile and disgusting.
One of them actually made this argument:
“But, I’m an adult, and my parents spanked me and forced me to go to church, and I did not turn out any worse for it. So, by The Golden Rule, because I don’t mind what they did to me, I have the right to do it to my kids, too,” she stated.
“Listen to me. When you were a child, and your parents forced you to do to church, did you want to go?”
“No, of course not, but…”
“No buts, listen to me again, and answer this. When you were a child, and your parents spanked you, did you want to be spanked?” I asked her the same question again, about her other behavior.
“No, of course not, but…”
“Listen. There are no buts here. But is where the shit comes out. You want to justify your present actions against an unwilling person…no, not a person…a defenseless child…which makes your actions all the more detestable. You want to say that because 30 years post, you view your parents actions as just, that this gives you the right to violate The Golden Rule against your own child today. Your child, however, does not want to suffer your indoctrinations and spankings. Your children simply want to be left alone, and have no psychological or physical coercion or force used against them. I know. I was once exactly like your children, and I didn’t want anything to do with either of these detestable behaviors then. You want to make an exception to The Golden Rule that states: Do unto others what they might have you do unto them after 20 or more years of personal reflection on the events. Well, bad news for you: The Golden Rule does not work that way. It is about what the other person would do NOW, not what they’ll think about it after decades. It is about the present, and in the present, you’re violating that rule in the guise of some misguided parenting by your own parents. Sorry, but that does not cut it.”
I was far less gentle with her. Why? She’s engaging in child abuse. She does not deserve anything less than the direct, unvarnished truth about her immoral and illegitimate acts. She can post all the refutations she likes, but in the end, she’s arguing against one of the cornerstones of her own religion. She’s arguing in favor of psychological and physical coercion against a helpless child. That’s sick, and it needs to be called sick.