Nearly Doing the Right Thing

by Kieran Healy on February 23, 2006

Raw material for a short paper in moral philosophy, to be written by someone who is actually a moral philosopher.

*Case 1*. A woman “loses her expensive camera”: while on holiday in Hawaii. Some time later:

I got a call from an excited park ranger in Hawaii that “a nice Canadian couple reported that they found your camera!” … “Hello,” I said, when I reached the woman who had reported the camera found, “I got your number from the park ranger, it seems you have my camera?” We discussed the specifics of the camera, the brown pouch it was in, the spare battery and memory card, the yellow rubberband around the camera. It was clear it was my camera, and I was thrilled. “Well,” she said, “we have a bit of a situation. You see, my nine year old son found your camera, and we wanted to show him to do the right thing, so we called, but now he’s been using it for a week and he really loves it and we can’t bear to take it from him.” … “And he was recently diagnosed with diabetes, and he’s now convinced he has bad luck, and finding the camera was good luck, and so we can’t tell him that he has to give it up. Also we had to spend a lot of money to get a charger and a memory card.”

They have no intention of returning the camera. The camera owner says at least send me the memory cards plus $50 and we’ll say no more. She gets a package in the mail. A note inside reads “”Enclosed are some CDs with your images on them. We need the memory cards to operate the camera properly.” She calls the camera-thief back, angry, and is told “You’re lucky we sent you anything at all. Most people wouldn’t do that.”

*Case 2*. An Irishman and his Azerbaijani wife adopt an Indonensian boy. After a while, “they decide that it’s not working out”: (apparently they had “trouble bonding”) and they “dump him”:,,2091-2003949,00.html in an orphanage in Jakarta. This one seems to have worked out OK for the boy, as the Irish High Court just ruled that the parents must support him financially till he is 18 and he has full succession rights to their estates.

I’m wondering why the people in each case thought their actions were justified. Also, we normally think that it’s better to have at least made an effort in the direction of doing the right thing than not to have bothered, or actively done the wrong thing right from the beginning. But in these cases the initially worthwhile actions (calling the camera owner; adopting the child) make the subsequent bad faith seem that much worse. We’re taken by surprise as the story veers off in the wrong direction.



Bro. Bartleby 02.23.06 at 5:21 pm

Usually folks that no longer practice a religion (one that values virtues), do have residual virtues that initially points them in the right direction, then when their intellect takes over, virtues are replaced by comfort and expedience.


Vance Maverick 02.23.06 at 5:41 pm

Bro, you forgot to conclude that the malefactors here are liberals.


PP 02.23.06 at 5:42 pm

I have long argued that there is no such thing as altruism. There is only the appearance of it as a person performs an overt selfless action for an internal mental or emotional boost. When this boost wears off, sooner or later, most will rethink the entire process and realize that the selfish act would have been much more beneficial. They will recant if possible. How many times have you heard this… “I love helping others, it makes me feel so good” In some cases they get the best of both worlds meaning they get the short term feel good-iness and a selfish reward(returned the wallet but took the cash). Maybe there are some truly good people but I see more of the above than the Mother Theresa’s of the world.


Blue Gal 02.23.06 at 5:56 pm

The thing that amazes me is how little people believe in karma. From our current administration on down to adoptive parents. It all comes back atcha, folks.


Bro. Bartleby 02.23.06 at 5:57 pm

I should have added to comment 1, this is the same phenomenon that is presently occurring in America and Europe, but on a societal scale. The secular or humanist are practicing the residual virtues as taught by their ancestors — Judeo-Christian values (of course, as were taught, not practiced). This sort of ‘innate’ first response to do what is virtuous is then proceeded by the intellectual response, that being what brings comfort and is expedience (expedience for both self and group).


Evan 02.23.06 at 6:11 pm

I miss the good old days, when our theologically correct ancestors never let their virtues be “replaced by comfort and expedience.”


Fred the Fourth 02.23.06 at 6:20 pm

It can come from either side. During a business trip, my associate found a wallet in his rental car. We called the owner and said Happy Birthday, we’re going to mail you back your wallet. Is it OK if we take $X to pay for the mailing?
Reaction: How dare you poke into my wallet, and look at my Driver’s License (where we had found the name and birthdate, natch). How dare you touch my money!
We sent her the wallet anyway, minus the postage, but we were sorely tempted to buy a nice single-malt instead.


lemuel pitkin 02.23.06 at 6:23 pm

I’m pleased to report that while virtue and decency take a while to wear off once you kick religion, the pompousness, self-righteousness and annoying self-certainty clear up much mroe quickly.


Bro. Bartleby 02.23.06 at 7:11 pm

Bro. Lemuel,

You’re right. Being Christian and living as Jesus taught are more often than not, two different things.

In the case of Basil II (958 –1025), his Christianity wasn’t showing at all. Named the Bulgar-Slayer, the Byzantine emperor defeated the Bulgarians and had 15,000 of the prisoners blinded. Not much Christian love there. But even worse, every 100th he ‘only’ poked out one eye. But in the madness was a purpose. The 150 one-eyed Bulgarian soldiers led the blinded army back to Bulgaria, where upon seeing his returning army, the king suffered a heart attack and died.


Sam 02.23.06 at 7:55 pm

I think the people in the first case have a wee bit more of a leg to stand on. For them it was a matter of doing the right thing by their son versus restoring someone’s property: son v. property, which do you choose? A Confucian would have no problem with this. That being said, they should not have let the situation go as far as it did. They are at fault, but in an understandable sort of way. The second case is simply wrong. If you put a child in the position of being adopted into your family as a son, that is it: he is your son. You can’t just drop him off when it gets inconvenient. Again, a clear case for a Confucian. Hooray for the Irish court!(do you think they’ve read the Analects?)


sbk 02.23.06 at 8:08 pm

While they all address the problem of virtue, few of the comments so far have taken seriously Kieran’s question about the parties’ moral about-face, which seems to be the main point here.

The two cases involve vastly different levels of moral reasoning — the difference is so large that I think it effectively confounds any generalization about decision-making. We experience cameras and babies in completely different ways. That both cases involved “selfishness” and “incoherence” is probably indisputable, but I think that’s the strongest general claim you can make.

I think furthermore that the presuppositions of the people in both cases were not clear — I haven’t followed the links, but it may well be that people who believe adoption is reversible can still adopt babies (“provisionally,” they tell themselves), or that people intending to keep a found camera would still think it “polite” to let the camera’s owner know what has happened.

I don’t know if any current moral philosophy has a model of rationality sensitive enough to account for the garden-variety batshit selfishness of the camera-keeper; I’m not sure how much better it fares with the adopters, although I’d guess there’s some positive margin there.

As I was typing this the woman beside me at the cafe asked me to watch her things while she disappeared somewhere. I agreed. She returned a few minutes later with a slice of cheesecake, topped with a strawberry, and for a crazy, hungry moment I wondered if I might in some system of reasoning be entitled to the strawberry. I was so distracted that when she met my eyes to thank me I said, “Thank you,” and went back to my typing. FYI.


A. 02.23.06 at 8:09 pm

Teaching the son it’s OK to take the camera if you really, really want it is doing the right thing by him?


otto 02.23.06 at 8:11 pm

John Kerry might say this is an example of someone being in favour of returning a camera before they were against it.


jet 02.23.06 at 8:12 pm

Sam, I don’t understand how it is possible to see that the first couple had the problem of “doing the right thing by their son”. Obviously not the type of family that has their children donate their favorite Christmas present to children down at the homeless shelter.


Timothy Burke 02.23.06 at 9:10 pm

There’s tons of discussion of the camera case at the website that generated the account. One of the things that someone picked up on is the story that is offered about the son (has diabetes, loves the camera) sounds almost exactly like a story in one of John Fitzgerald’s Great Brain books (in the story, a hard-working poor couple steal a rocking horse from a wealthier family for their child who has diabetes and who is going to die from the disease within a year; when the wealthier family find out, they allow the poor child to keep the rocking horse.)

So caveat emptor here on assuming that there is even a real choice being made here between favoring a child’s desires and returning the camera.


Tracy W 02.23.06 at 10:06 pm

Isn’t part of the problem that both sets of people made explicit promises that they then broke? (Returning the memory cards plus $50 in the first case, in the second case adopting the child).

They’re breaking an explicit commitment to the wronged person, and to a very personal wrong person.

Us humans do tend to make distinctions in our thinking between specific people and non-specific people. E.g. many people will drive cars (thus risking unknown lives of people in other cars or pedestrians) but consider that the government should spend any amount of money to save the life of a specific person who needs an expensive operation.

In contacting the camera-owner, or adopting the boy, the people in these cases broke commitments to known, specific people. And this tends to rate higher in our emotional calculus.


beloml 02.23.06 at 10:48 pm

It might be because I live in a university town in a red state, but my experiences have been the opposite. My photographer husband left an expensive camera on a tripod in a park one day and when he realized his mistake an hour later, went back to find a woman discussing with a campus cop what to do with it since there was no ID on it.


Sam 02.23.06 at 10:52 pm

Yes, it would be good to teach the son to give up the camera. I would want to do that myself. But, the diabetes matters here; it provides a bit of a mitigating circumstance. The kid is dealing with a difficult diagnosis which may be sparking psychologicial issues (the bad luck/good luck thing). They should not have let it go so far, true. But the failure of having it go too far has now put them into a conundrum. To give the camera back, now, “hurts” the kid more than would have been the case had they not let him get attached to it. But it is too late. There will be some element of hurt, on top of the big dose of hurt the kid is already experiencing. From a Confucian perspective (and I am not a Confucian myself), that should enter into the equation. In the end, I think they should have given the camera back. But it is a hard case. And they should certainly have given back the memory card and the $50. They were right to ask for some consideration, but clearly wrong in not accepting the compromise offered by the camera owner.


jet 02.23.06 at 11:00 pm

Using the diabetes as an excuse to do something wrong is what “hurts” the most. What life lessons will the kid learn from this? And how easy would it have been to frame the situation so that the kid was lucky in that he was the hero that returned the camera (and more importantly the pictures) to those who lost them. Ranks him up there with Batman.


John Emerson 02.23.06 at 11:02 pm

My feeling is that there are totally random ethical and practical mutations, just as there are biological mutations, and that many of them are obviously non-viable.


John Quiggin 02.24.06 at 12:15 am

As regards the choice set open to the first couple, the fact that they were holidaying in Hawaii suggests that they could have bought their son a new camera as a reward for his honesty without having to go without meals or turning off the heat. You can get nice 3MP models for $US100 these days. In fact, I imagine a hint to the legal owner that such a reward would be appreciated would probably have done the trick.


Dan Kervick 02.24.06 at 12:30 am

You see, my nine year old son found your camera, and we wanted to show him to do the right thing, so we called, but now he’s been using it for a week.

I take seriously the notion that the parents have a conflict of obligations. Their obligation to return the property of another person is pitted against their obligation not to cause their child pain. But the fact that they have, through their own actions, entered into a situation in which the first obligation is now pitted against the second is where they went wrong to begin with. If one has some obligation to another person, one thereby has an obligation not to develop conflicting obligations which are of a kind to jeapordize the fulfillment of the first obligation.

Compare the camara situation with this one:

A man and a woman are married. They both love each other deeply, and depend on each other in many ways. Each is a healthy, well-balanced and confident. They plan to spend the rest of their lives together. They do not have any children, but intend to have some in the future. Both of them have organized their lives around those plans, and made various sacrifices – including foregoing other plans and life opportunities – for the sake of their relationship.

The man meets another woman at a social gathering. She asks for a ride home. He drives her home, and she asks if he wants to come up to her apartment. He goes up. They have sex. The next day they have sex again. They fall in love, and the love deepens and intensifies over time.

The new woman, it turns out, has many emotional needs and vulnerabilities. She has an intense fear of abandonment. She has never been very good in managing her personal affairs, and needs help from a committed partner just to make it through daily life. She has several old boyfriends who tend to exploit or terrorize her in various ways, and she could really use some protection. She also has a disease that causes her prolonged bouts of pain – pain which is much harder to endure alone than with a companion.

The man tells his wife: “I intended to come home that night, and live the rest of my life with you. But now I love two women and I must choose. Weighing the matter carefully, I have concluded this other woman simply needs me more than you. Although I understand the pain I will cause you by leaving you and ending our marriage, I believe that leaving the new woman will cause her even more suffering. As for myself, I will experience the same tortured mix of joy, suffering, elation, guilt and regret either way.

One question we can ask is what the man’s obligation is at this latter time – what choice he should make now that he is faced with a difficult dilemma. And it is a dilemma. He really does have a serious conlict of obligations.

But the place where he really went wrong was when he chose to go up to the second woman’s room and have sex with her. At that time he had no obligation to the second woman, and neither had developed an attachment to the other. Strong attachments do create obligations, and that is why the man had an obligation not to develop these strong attachments in the first place.

People have this tendency to fall in love as a consequence of sexual relationships. And everyone knows this. When one is in a committed relationship, part of what commitment consists in is assuming the obligation not to develop obligation-inducing attachments to others of a sort which will ultimately interfere with one’s ability to discharge the first obligation.

Those parents should never have let their child play with that camara, grow attached to it, and develop the conceit that it was good luck. They knew it belonged to someone else, and could reasonably predict that letting their child grow attached to it would create new obligations that would come into conflict with their obligation to the owner.


Dan Simon 02.24.06 at 1:11 am

I don’t understand why anybody would find the behavior in these two cases difficult to understand. People change their minds all the time, both towards a more selfless choice and towards a more selfish one. (What percentage of charitable pledges are honored, for example? Surely less than 100%.) Deciding to reverse one’s own good deed is a much less admirable choice than deciding to reverse one’s own indifferent or bad act, but indecisive wrongdoing is fundamentally no more mysterious than the more resolute variety.

I think the real jarring aspect of these cases–particularly the camera incident–is not the (im)moral decisions themselves, but rather the remarkable openness with which the parties in question reneged on their public promises of goodness. Often, even crudely selfish people will balk at weaseling out of a public commitment, out of an (equally selfish) desire to avoid public scorn. These characters, on the other hand, were quite willing to show themselves to be plain scoundrels, by steering off the proper path in a very conspicuous way.

Still, colossal chutzpah, ugly though it might be, is hardly a baffling moral mystery.


Martin James 02.24.06 at 1:14 am

The middle-classed-ness of the crooked timber commenters is so surprising to me.

Whatever happended to traditional moral values like “Finders keepers, losers weepers”?


blah 02.24.06 at 1:36 am

There is no obligation on parents not to cause their children emotional pain. To the contrary, parents have an overriding obligation to raise their children to be happy, well-adjusted, honest, and contributing members to society – which will involve causing varying amounts of emotional pain throughout the child-rearing process.

Parents who are afraid to hurt their children’s feelings – even for the child’s own long-term interests – are poor parents.


abb1 02.24.06 at 2:13 am

C’mon. What, not a single quote from Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain or some cynical 19th century French fella?


K. Liu 02.24.06 at 2:43 am

In the land of free nationalized health care, why would a diabetic child be that big of an issue? I would assume that the government will cover any expenses associated with it, and diabetes is sufficiently minor that most people who have it are capable of living perfectly normal lives with today’s medical technology. It’s not like he’s blind and limping along with one leg and half an arm.

And in objection the thing about religion as a source of morality… How well-grounded is someone’s morality if it comes from a decree? What would happen if that person suddenly lost religion? In my experience, some of the most morally upright people that I have met have been atheists: it makes sense; if you have to figure out and justify your own code of conduct, you are much more likely to truly believe in it.

Putting that aside, there is a perfectly good code of morality that secular society offers: property rights. If it can be shown that this camera was indeed the property of this person, then it is a simple matter of law.


Slocum 02.24.06 at 7:39 am

I think the people in the first case have a wee bit more of a leg to stand on. For them it was a matter of doing the right thing by their son versus restoring someone’s property: son v. property, which do you choose?

But obviously those aren’t their only choices–they could have chosen to let their son keep the camera AND paid the woman for it so she could buy herself another one. Or they could have bought a new (or used) replacement of the same model for their son and sent the original back to the woman. There were a variety of ways to both let their son continue to feel finding the camera had been a bit of good luck AND made the woman who lost the camera whole. Just no completely free ones.


Sam 02.24.06 at 8:55 am

One point on Dan K’s example: it pits the obligation of one social relationship against another social relationship (though the first, marriage relationship is obviously the more important). The camera case pits the parents social relationship to their son versus the owner’s relationship to a commodity. The former seems more important than the latter. And to slocum: I think you are absolutely right. The parents mistake was not the consideration of their son’s “hurt;” their error was in not pursuing a solution that would serve both obligations simultaneously. In other words: pay for the damn camera!


Jeremy 02.24.06 at 9:04 am

Fred the Fourth (#7),

Something very similar happened to me a couple of months ago. The woman’s wallet, found on the street, contained some telephone numbers, one of which I used to contact her (long distance; she was apparently visiting my city). She sounded very annoyed at my rummaging through her private papers and at my calling her home number, and she seemed reluctant to allow me to use some of the cash to pay for registered mail. So I simply replied that if she wanted her wallet back she could retrieve it in person, left her my email address and hung up. I quickly received an apologetic message begging me to return the wallet not to her home address but, instead, to another address. I did, but I’m wondering if there wasn’t some opportunity in it for a profitable bit of blackmail.


jet 02.24.06 at 9:18 am

Dan Kervick,
Great comment. Makes the point crystal clear that for both cases, the people made a concious decision to create a situation where someone was going to be caused pain.

In the short term, letting the kid have the (a) camera might have lessoned his pain. But in the long term, the lesson from this will cause him more pain, for he won’t be able to happily go through life stealing other people’s property because he’s had a bad run of it.


Bro. Bartleby 02.24.06 at 9:38 am

Over 30 comments, I noted some residual virtues floating about, but overall a whole lot of intellectualization when a simple WWJD wrist band would have solved the whole lot!


abb1 02.24.06 at 9:41 am

No, Bro. Bartleby, human nature being what it is – I’m afraid it wouldn’t.


James 02.24.06 at 10:12 am

The other minor point that could be made about case 1 is that until it’s determined that the camera’s owner can’t be found, letting the kid play with the camera is (a) wrong and (b) setting up just this sort of conflict. Keeping it reserved from use until it is either returned or one determines that the owner cannot be found would seem to be the appropriate thing to do.


Yan 02.24.06 at 11:10 am

“I’m wondering why the people in each case thought their actions were justified.”

This is, I think the most interesting question, which isn’t answered by a debate about whether or not their actions were in fact justified.

I suspect that the overwhelming majority of people, though they’d surely claim otherwise, do not strongly believe they have any moral obligations to others at all. I say this in all seriousness (though I use “believe” very broadly to include dispositions and attitudes, not just conscious propositional beliefs).

In the camera example, the key is her final word: “You’re lucky we sent you anything at all. Most people wouldn’t do that.” The self-righteousness of this statement should be taken at face value. She does not mean: “I know it’s wrong, but compared to what others would do, it’s not so bad.” She means that I should really be grateful that she did anything at all–that she did indeed do me a favor since she doesn’t truly believe she has any responsibility toward me at all.

I think this is generally the case–we do not believe in responsibility toward others. I don’t know why this is so. Surely secularization has something to do with it, but it does not explain why we nonetheless strongly believe that others have moral responsibilities toward ourselves. (In the camera example this is clearly implied: “you ought not complain about your camera or inconvenience me or push for something that might emotionally harm my child”)

This is why ethical disputes dishearten me. Because it’s not a problem of coming up with answers (we generally come up with good ones, and we generally agree surprisingly often). It’s that knowing what we ought to do doesn’t tell us anything about how and why people will or will act accordingly. Knowing the good does no good.


Martin James 02.24.06 at 11:17 am


You say

..then when their intellect takes over, virtues are replaced by comfort and expedience…

…This sort of ‘innate’ first response to do what is virtuous is then proceeded by the intellectual response, that being what brings comfort and is expedience (expedience for both self and group)…

These statements strike me as a bizarre inversion of what at least some of our ancestors believed, which is that the natural innate response of the passions is immoral and its the intellect that enables us to see morality.

Furthermore, wouldn’t the WWJD principle require that the person losing the camera send further gifts to the boy under the principle of (if a man steals your X, then offer him your Y also).


Martin James 02.24.06 at 11:38 am

A question for the non-brother-bartleby crowd that maintain a moral understanding that is not based on a God or a God-like moral principle.

If we take it as given that the camera parents have behaved immorally, I’m interested in what people believe are ( or should be )the consequences of this moral failing.

For example, which of the following best reflect your beliefs.

1. They will be unhappy because to be immoral brings unhappiness.

2. They should be shamed or scorned socially.

3. The should punished legally or extralegally.

4. There are no non-happiness, non-legal and non-social sanctions or consequences of acting immorally but its wrong anyway.

5. There exist non-God-like sanctions or consequences that are not personal feeling based, nor legal or social based, but exist in some kind of “ethical space”.

It may be my 1970’s primary education or my permissive socializing but all this “property rights and promise keeping are obviously moral talk” seems so naively Intelligent Design to me.

Were Machiavelli and Nietzsche and De Sade and Marx and Genet and Sarte just morally mistaken?


Gene O'Grady 02.24.06 at 12:14 pm

In regard to K Liu’s comments:

(1) Diabetes is always serious, even as well managed as my own. Diabetes in a child (a different disease) is always extremely serious.

(2) I find the idea that morality within religion (not an unproblematic area) depends on a “decree” baffling. Knowing a lot of religious people, it is my almost universal experience with them that it depends on a set of parameters for making decisions; more God loves you — what does that require of you? than God said so, or you’ll go to hell if you don’t.


Martin James 02.24.06 at 12:29 pm

Gene O’Grady,

Are you saying in (2) that the religious you know use religion more as moral motivation than as a specific set of moral standards?

Do you find that the “set of parameters” differs for the religious compared to the non-religous?

Does this group include many people that place a high value on studying religious texts such as the Koran or the Bible?


abb1 02.24.06 at 12:35 pm

I don’t see much difference whether the principle comes from God or it’s a norm of society. If violating norms of society doesn’t make you unhappy, why would you be unhappy violating God-given morality?

The only advantage God has here is that he is all-knowing and he will punish you sooner or later. Well, except that there is usually a work-around – repentance, etc.; otherwise heavy sinners wouldn’t have an incentive to come back to the flock.

But it’s hard to imagine that anyone capable of operating digital camera would believe in the kind of God who’s keeping the score and punishing people for petty thefts.

So, then, societal morality or God’s morality – what’s the difference?


Bro. Bartleby 02.24.06 at 12:56 pm

Bro. Martin,

Perhaps soon the residual virtues that your parent’s generation indoctrinated you with will soon disappear and you will finally find yourself in the perfect god-less world where you can see that ‘survival of the fittest’ is not a cliche, but a reality, and then you can choose whatever brings you (and your family/group/tribe/society) comfort and longevity. If that means keeping your eyes glued to the optics of a microscope or telescope in a quest to discover whatever, then that may be enough for you, I’m sure it will bide your limited time here on Earth. The secret is keeping busy and doing whatever that brings comfort — physical/mental (I guess I must leave out spiritual). Isn’t tenure comfort? Isn’t pats on the back for a well received presentation comfort? Isn’t a big SUV comfort? Isn’t saving whales comfort? Isn’t a T-bone steak comfort? Comfort comes in all forms, and in recent history it is driving human evolution. And as we say in the monestary, in a godless world, it is very simple: birth, life, death.

Bro. Bartleby


abb1 02.24.06 at 1:02 pm

But why can’t one be indocrinated with exactly the same – only God-less – virtues to achieve the same exactly result? Explain.


Bro. Bartleby 02.24.06 at 1:14 pm

“Everything” is up for grabs in a god-less world. If survival is paramount, then of course, you can create anything to protect self, even mimic the faithful! What a concept! They will disregard you, and then you will be free to grab your big dollop of pleasure.


joel turnipseed 02.24.06 at 1:31 pm

Bartleby —

I’m not sure comparative international crime/social statistics uphold your view: what is the function of these as a relative ratio of “God-fearing?” I don’t think it’d look pretty for the “fearing” nations.

Meantime, am puzzled by any sort of moral theory that could sanction the second of these examples, but could think of many that would have me going either way on the second (with exception that I don’t know the value of the camera: if my Nikon D70s, with one of my expensive lenses, was stolen, it’d be a felony).


abb1 02.24.06 at 1:50 pm

I don’t understand, Bro. Bartleby. You tell your children: there’s God out there and he wants you to behave this way. I tell my children: this how decent person should behave and all of us – your parents, grandparents, neighbors, etc – we all want you to be a decent person. What’s the difference, what does it have to do with survival? Normally we aren’t fighting for survival, but when we are – all bets are off, of course; whether you’re a man of faith or not, no one can predict what you’ll do.


Bro. Bartleby 02.24.06 at 2:04 pm

Bro. Joel,

I must confess I am a heretic, so many of the posts that portray religion in a sort of Christian Fundamentalist Sunday school fashion are foreign to me, as is your use of “God-fearing”.

In Hebrew, Yare’ or “to fear” has these meanings:

to fear, revere, be afraid
to stand in awe of, be awed
to fear, reverence, honour, respect
to cause astonishment and awe, be held in awe
to inspire reverence or godly fear or awe

So, in the Hebrew sense, when I look up to the night sky and see the Milky Way, I stand in “yare” — an awe that evokes a sort of fear, a fear of standing before something so enormous that it boggles the mind.

Let me just say that the “square one” for me is a belief in God/Creator — after you accept that, then I believe you have a true quest in life, to find what all this means. So, if your “square one” is god-less, then I see no purpose in life, other than we are here because of a fluke of atoms smashing a certain way and sparked ‘life’ without purpose, just a random accident — it happened, and the ultimate “so what” — and when you face that, then I suppose your quest is to have a whole bunch of fun in that middle part of birth/life/death. And further, if this is your belief, then I suppose arguing Darwin (which I don’t argue against) is part of the “whole bunch of fun” …


Jaybird 02.24.06 at 2:11 pm

What I find so personally offensive about the camera example is the “You’re lucky we sent you anything at all. Most people wouldn’t do that.”

Hey, you can steal my stuff, and that’s cool. Life sucks sometimes.

You have no right to steal my stuff and feel like you did the right thing. That pisses me OFF.


Jaybird 02.24.06 at 2:17 pm

Having thought about it some more, it’s not even the feeling like you did the right thing that gets me.

It’s the tone that says “Hey, I’m the aggrieved party here!” that’s found in the “most people wouldn’t even do that much”.

“I call you and send you your photos from this camera of yours I found and instead of being thankful for my generosity, you’re acting like a jerk! No good deed goes unpunished, I guess.”

“What the hell? You stole my camera!”

“I don’t appreciate having someone call me and swear into the telephone, missy!”


Bro. Bartleby 02.24.06 at 2:22 pm

I think you are telling your children whatever brings you most comfort (and having your child acknowledge your answers is indeed comforting), and if telling them that family/tribal cooperation brings the most peace (and comfort for you), and tossing in ancestry for good measure, then that solves your current problem, which brings you relief, and comfort. And in your telling of your children do you include their rather unimportance genesis by accident? Or do you forgo that in order to comfort them?


joel turnipseed 02.24.06 at 2:35 pm


OK, great–awe. Still no need for God. Or any bearing on God’s existence as necessary for me to behave appropriately. Moral sense is a natural outcome of our biological and social nature. Going through Marine Corps boot camp and fighting in a war; winning and losing games, friends–and loves; getting screwed and being done right by… all of these and many more have given me a sense of what I ought and ought not do, without any belief whatsoever in God. That I cannot, myself, decide whether I am a virtue ethicist or eudaimonic utilitarian has no bearing on my ability to make more-or-less appropriate moral decisions. The need for a God or even an abstract moral theory, frankly, is not necessary (indeed, as the complex history of casuistry & thinking on moral decision-making shows, it’s not clear that either a theology or non-theistic moral theory is sufficient to guarantee right action).

Meantime, still can’t believe the pig-fxxcking couple that sent their kid back. Unbelievable…


Martin James 02.24.06 at 2:50 pm


What percentage of people do you think “shamelessly” hold positions as moral that you think are immoral?

From your tone I take it that its in the 0 to 10% range. In other words, you are self-righteously indignant at their self-righteousness.

I assume the percentage is low for many people because people tend to self-select in association towards people with similar moral positions. However, since I tend to self-select association with people that hold different views from myself, I tend to see morally self-righteous disagreement everywhere.

I’m not self-righteously opposed to self-righteousness, I just can’t figure out how people don’t notice that most people don’t agree about morals most of the time.

If you read the statements of the people convicted at Nuremburg, or those supportive of slavery in 19th century USA, or of those carrying out the Inquisition, or those supporting gay rights, or those favoring female genital mutilation or those supporting Bin Laden or those protesting the war or those against Intelligent Design or those favoring blasphemy laws or those supporting free speech, and on and on, they all think they are right and they all disagree. A lot.

Where, precisely, does the moral certainty that makes you indignant come from?


Bro. Bartleby 02.24.06 at 2:51 pm

Bro. Joel,

A belief in God is just that, a “belief” … accept or don’t accept. I am saying that if you choose NOT to accept belief in God, than life is simple navigating through it with a strong instinctual urge for comfort. As you well know, a Marine DI derives great joy and comfort screaming into the face of a recruit. A recruit ‘may’ derive comfort having the DI screaming in his face, because that means you have ‘arrived’ and will fulfill your desire, to become a Marine. Comfort is multifaceted and complex, a boxer may derive comfort from being punched in the kisser and not getting wabble-kneed. And for the ‘godless’ all these terms such as, morals and virtues and good and evil and right and wrong are meaningless, other than how you can use them to benefit yourself and by extension, your family/tribe/society.


Martin James 02.24.06 at 3:03 pm

Bro Bartleby,

I am sympathetic to your outlook on our moral situation at least until you go off with all this “comfort” talk.

Why should I want to seek refuge in “comfort” from my meaningless existence?

Has the internet ruined the ability of monks to appreciate asceticism or even a semi-random vacillation from hedonism to asceticism?

Can there be a greater challenge that undistractedly (whether by fun, family, cause, creed or adventure) facing a completley meaningless existence?

Could this be the true meaning of “Who can look at the face of God and survive?”


abb1 02.24.06 at 3:04 pm

Why, your role here is to be a part of the humanity. Same idea, only it’s not supernatural. Why do you need to identify with a supernatual force to have a purpose, why isn’t empathy with other human beings enough? It’s possible, especially if you look at them from a distance; don’t get too close.


Bro. Bartleby 02.24.06 at 3:13 pm

Bro. Martin,

Comfort is the goal/quest for the ‘godless’ … the society around us attests to that, don’t you think?


Bro. Bartleby 02.24.06 at 3:20 pm

Role? I think that too is one of ‘our’ words. In a godless world ‘roles’ are simply make believe, a socially agreed upon device to keep folks in order.


wcw 02.24.06 at 3:24 pm

The common thread I see between these two stories is totally different: it is risk.

Once the camera-finders decide to keep the camera whien its owners know their identities and location, they are at risk. The owners are adults, but many human beings are dangerously vindictive. There would be a very real risk of revenge. I have witnessed substantially smaller disputes escalating into something easily worth the full retail price of a nice digital camera to avoid. What sort of people take that risk for a few-hundred-dollar toy?

Adoptive parents know the law does not allow them to “return” their child. Morality aside, what sort of idiot risks engaging the heartless machinery of the state? They are lucky, I would posit, not to be in prison. I’d rather raise a child with whom I hadn’t “bonded” than risk prison.

Last, and parenthetically: it is obvious to me that based on the details provided the camera-nappers were lying. If they even have a child, if he even has any health problems, if they even bought a charger, they clearly did not buy memory — since they never returned it, claiming it was “needed to work the camera” (code for, “we lied when we said we had to buy a memory card). Sounds to me like they were not only senseless risktakers, but that they told their tales in hopes of arousing a sympathetic gift for their “sick child”. I’d be shocked if they had a child with diabetes.


Martin James 02.24.06 at 3:26 pm

Bro Bartleby,

I think comfort is the goal/quest of most of the Godly and the Godless. What I don’t agree with is makingan invidious comparison that the Godly have a “higher” quest and the Godless are just pursuing comfort.

Despite Mr. Turnipseed’s experiences, I don’t think an honest, thoughtful person can exist today without considerable moral doubt, whether that doubt be Godly or Godless and furthermore I think there is worse situation than to be a carefully, morally serious person in a world of moral doubt.

Take these people who adopted the child and then put him back. How is this worse than the 20 to 40% of males that have no contact with their biological children? And if not worse, then is their no moral obligation to spend time, energy and money against the situation.

And by similar logic aren’t we all hopelessly failing morally?

Aren’t we all Don Quixote?


Martial 02.24.06 at 3:33 pm

I’m confounded by the fact that the family didn’t leave the camera with the park Lost and Found. That’s the easiest of all ways out for them. They get a moderate doing-something-good rush and they have no further responsibility.

I’m also perplexed that the “excited park ranger” didn’t insist on taking the camera to Lost and Found.


joel turnipseed 02.24.06 at 3:53 pm

Martin James —

I’m not sure what you mean by “despite Mr. Turnipseed’s experiences,” since you seem to infer that my stipulation had something to do with absence of moral doubt, when, in fact, the gist of my comment was that, absent some inherent ability to behave morally, we probably couldn’t do so at all, given the deep philosphical puzzles & complexity of empirical facts regarding what it means to make a moral decision. Luckily, we are able to do so, and my brief biographical statement was just to say: bouncing around in human life is enough to give our biological/social nature’s enough feedback to develop more-or-less appropriate responses to future stimulation. Our rational minds may harbor doubt (and, indeed, it would be good for us to have an instinct for this, as that would mean that we were looking for more data–“look before you leap” built right in.

As to the meaningfulness of statements like “good,” etc., without underpinning of God–if I needed to constantly reference a third-party underwriter to understand these things, I wouldn’t be able to get through an hour’s interactions, much less a life’s.


Bro. Bartleby 02.24.06 at 3:54 pm

Bro. Martin,

Then make the case for any kind of quest if you think creation was a purposeless accident taking place in a purposeless universe.


Barbara W. Klaser 02.24.06 at 3:55 pm

I’m as disturbed by some of the comments here as by the stories posted in the article.

One needn’t be religious to have values. Some of the most ethical people I know are atheists or agnostics. We hear about corrupt religous people all the time.

The point of the story is, I think, a form of hypocrisy, the pretense of being virtuous, but not following through in one’s actions. That comes in all religous and non-religious, and all political flavors.


joel turnipseed 02.24.06 at 4:24 pm


What do pennies in Heaven have to do with my becoming a better Father? Husband? Friend? Writer? Film-maker? Go player? Fly fisherman? Those are my priorities, in rank order, and I don’t see how anything to do with some third party to those things (except as I may either set or gain by example) matters in the least–much less anything that has to do with my dust when I’m gone.

In anticipation of your invocation of Jesus or God in the matter of ultimate third-party examples, I sure hope I’m not asked to elminate entire peoples , cure blindness and leprosy by my hand, etcetera–indeed, the psychological difficulty of trying to imagine what I must do, absent their supernatural powers, in emulating them is difficult in the extreme: when the answer to WWJD is “lay hands upon thee!” it’s a real cause for perplexity to me as to how I should carry that out!


joel turnipseed 02.24.06 at 4:29 pm

Though, before I am taken as anti-Jesus: let me state that I am not. His example of what happens to someone who casts out the money changers is instructive, indeed–just one of many, I’ll admit (cf., the related & equally instructive principle in Matthew 25:29).


Bro. Bartleby 02.24.06 at 4:34 pm

“One needn’t be religious to have values.”

Right. Values are simply core beliefs. The Nazis had values, I’m sure you and I would not agree that they were good values.


Bro. Bartleby 02.24.06 at 4:41 pm


You are right, atheists are free to do, or try to do, whatever they desire. And true, for you anything, or nothing, can matter. And finally, so too your dust when you are gone. I argue not. Augustine said it best: free will.


Martin James 02.24.06 at 5:06 pm

Joel Turnipseep:

I find your post number 60 well stated.

I would make an analogy to what you said with language. We don’t know how humans process language; we can’t explain it with theory and we can’t replicate it with machines, but they have an inherent they do it.

And I think your point is that moral behaviour is the same way. We do it fairly competently even absent the theory.

My argument furthering the language analogy is that we don’t muddle through all that well. We have a tower of babel of morality. No matter who’s morals I go by we are awash in a see of error both theoretical and practical.

Let’s take torture. We have those that say torture is obviously wrong and those that say its necessary and just to torute terrorists.

Let’s take abortion. We have those that say its wrong and those that say its an important right. Are you sure our tens of millions of abortions a decade in the USA are “more-or-less appropriate” moral acts and not a horrifying embryonicide?

Let’s take ditribution of income. There are those that say its injust that there are poor in the world simultaneous with great riches. There are opposed those that say taxation and redistribution is theft. By both their lights, we’re smothered in moral error worldwide.

Or what about eating animals for food?

An on and on and on.

Nothing personal to you but I’m curious how you and Jaybird, and Barbara W. Klaser’s most highly ethical atheists know how to be moral when often even SEEING that a moral question exists is often half the battle.


Martin James 02.24.06 at 5:10 pm


I’ll be so disappointed if the spelling Nazi’s don’t come out for my pun on “see of error”


Sam 02.24.06 at 5:38 pm

Reductio ad Hitlerum…


joel turnipseed 02.24.06 at 5:43 pm

Well, to some the Vatican is the “see of error,” so thank you, at least, for teeing up a bad pun.

As to “know how to be moral…” — this assumes that moral discourse/imagination is somehow related to God. The Chinese were having moral discussions long before the Hebrew texts were written & the Greeks had highly sophisticated moral philosophy long before Jesus came along, just to mention the rational aspect of the issue. Of course, if my speculation is right (and your language analogy suits me just fine), we don’t need discourse about morality to behave so (though, I’m far from saying it doesn’t help).


abb1 02.24.06 at 5:53 pm

Exactly. It’s a product of societal evolution and personal experience. Social being determines consciousness. And social being also creates gods in the image of man.


Ray 02.24.06 at 6:07 pm

And if bartleby thinks believing in God answers the question of how to be moral, then he should go back and read some of those Greeks.
The thing I don’t get is how he says’comfort’ is the goal of the godless, and how great it is that believers don’t have to look for any comfort beyond god once they decide to believe in him. Hello?


Martin James 02.24.06 at 6:12 pm


Would an argument that Hitler was popular, therefore we don’t have much agreement on morals be a

Reductio ad Hitlerum…

and, if so, a fallacious or non-fallacious one?


Martin James 02.24.06 at 6:30 pm


…It’s a product of societal evolution and personal experience. Social being determines consciousness. And social being also creates gods in the image of man…

Does this mean that something is moral if it “catches on socially” that its moral.

A bit too majoritarian for my tastes but you could be right. ( well, if a lot of other people think so too.)


Dan Kervick 02.24.06 at 6:47 pm

Then make the case for any kind of quest if you think creation was a purposeless accident taking place in a purposeless universe.

Brother Bartleby,

Can you make the case for some kind of quest in a created universe that is planned and purposful? How does a universal purpose communicate itself to the internal purposes of a human agent?

Both the Stoics and later Christian natural law theorists believed that the moral law was imprinted on the heart in some way. So how do you know that atheists are not pursuing a quest that is just as purposive and divinely inspired as the quest that pursued by some theists?

And let’s suppose that many atheists are instead wandering in confusion. Do you think theists are granted immunity from this confusion? Does their mere belief in God win them all the other virtues? Might not God blight the vision of theists in equal measure with atheists? How do you know that their intoxication with the divine purpose they think they discern is not just a deceptive stupor?

Do you think you understand God’s plan personally? How did your mind grow so vast? And if you don’t understand it, isn’t it possible that your own pursuits are driven mainly by corrupt residual vices passed down by parents and a cultural tradition which only assume the guise of fidelity to the divine will, but are not the real thing?


Bro. Bartleby 02.24.06 at 6:59 pm

Believing in God/Creator makes questions of moral behavior (and questions of everything) meaningful, in that we can seek to understand this God/Creator and we can seek to understand why we are here and for what purpose. Comfort is the goal of the believer and the non-believer — it is the human condition. Evolution made us this way. Or God made us this way. Or God through evolution made us this way. Nevertheless, from this position (belief in God/Creator) one can seek answers, and Science should be ‘the’ tool in the theologian’s toolbox.

If one rules out God/Creator from the get go, then all seeking is busy work with no other purpose than self gratification. What ultimate purpose can Science have for an atheist? I can not think of a purpose, other than having fun looking at and thinking about cool (but ultimately meaningless) things.


Bro. Bartleby 02.24.06 at 7:22 pm

Bro. Dan,
I merely think that belief in God/Creator is the place where upon we can set out on our quest to find meaning for life. For me, it is an exciting adventure. I think belief and disbelief require equal faith. One must leap this way, or that way. Both require a leap. Most do not leap, they, like cacti in the desert, become sentinel and prickly reminders of failure to accept a great gift — the gift of life.


Sam 02.24.06 at 7:50 pm

When Hitler pops us, the conversation has run its course…


Barbara W. Klaser 02.24.06 at 8:37 pm

“Most do not leap, they, like cacti in the desert, become sentinel and prickly reminders of failure to accept a great gift—the gift of life.”

How can something so efficient at survival be a reminder of failure to accept life? The cactus embraces life.

I’m not sure why you brought Hitler into this discussion, either. Did either of the stories somehow remind you of Hitler?

I’ll leave you to your preaching. I don’t see this discussion going anywhere.


Martin James 02.25.06 at 12:01 am


Great Freudian slip.


Martin James 02.25.06 at 12:24 am

On re-reading the comments my opinion is than Dan Kervick and Yan both had very thoughtful comments.

So, Dan Kervick, if you are still reading, is Yan in post 35 correct?


Bro. Bartleby 02.25.06 at 12:48 am

… sorry if I offended any cacti, I really do love them, in fact, I’m surrounded my them … and if necessary, they may use me as a metaphor while chatting among themselves.


John Quiggin 02.25.06 at 5:35 am

Just to point out belief in an omnipotent & vengeful creator is a lot of baggage to take on if all you want to inculcate is a willingness to do the right thing when it’s not obviously advantageous.

Beliefs in karma, “what goes around, comes around”, “truth will out” etc are more directly relevant and more plausible.


David B 02.25.06 at 8:09 am

In most legal systems (I guess) deliberately holding onto a valuable lost item, and refusing to return it to its original owner, would be a crime. A visit from the fuzz might have concentrated the finders’ moral sense wonderfully!


Bro. Bartleby 02.25.06 at 9:47 am

“Just to point out belief in an omnipotent & vengeful creator is a lot of baggage to take on…”


“A visit from the fuzz might have concentrated the finders’ moral sense wonderfully!”

Perhaps the reason atheists behave morally is because of their fear of the godless god “FUZZ” …


Martin james 02.25.06 at 10:56 am

In New Jersey accroding to the following case from 1980

A key element of the crime of theft of lost or misplaced property is that the finder must know the identity of the owner. There is no theft if the finder makes no effort to find the owner. It also supports the comment above about specifc people compared to people in general. The crime does not occur until the person is known.

So the law here supports the idea in question which is that taking the first good step, identifying the owner makes the subsequent change of heart more wrong.


Dan Kervick 02.25.06 at 10:59 am

So, Dan Kervick, if you are still reading, is Yan in post 35 correct?

I think he definitely in the ballpark, although I suspect that there are certain kinds of obligation that nearly everone accepts. Most people think it is unconditionally wrong to beat their children, for example – and that they are thus obligated not to beat them. So I think that the statement that most people do not believe that they have any moral obligations to others at all is a bit too strong.

Another interpretation of the Canadian woman’s statement is that she accepts that it is wrong, in some objective sense, to keep the camara, but she also believes that we live in a world where few people fulfill their obligations, and therefore she believes the woman who lost the camara is not justified in expecting it to be returned.

I supect that most people believe that their own behavior is morally better than the norm, and that they are therefore good people, relatively speaking.


Jaybird 02.26.06 at 5:13 pm

Martin, it’s not that I was upset by people “shamelessly” (why did you put that in quotes? I didn’t use that word) holding positions that I see as immoral but they see as moral.

It’s that they acknowledged that the property was someone else’s… but then went on to get morally indignant when the someone else called them on keeping it even though everyone knew the camera originally belonged to the camera owner.

What upset me was not the keeping of the camera. “Finders Keepers” is a coherent moral position and one that I can comprehend. I’m not sure it’s particularly admirable, but it’s one of the oldest ones in the world.

The people who found the camera, however, were pretty much demanding to be seen as better than thieves despite the fact that, at the end of the day, they ended up with all of the lady’s stuff without her consent (and she even consented to letting the camera stay with them).

Maybe it’s something as simple as “if you’re going to be a crook, be a crook. Don’t call me and tell me how you’re so much better than a crook because you called me to tell me how much better than a crook you are.”


Bro. Bartleby 02.26.06 at 10:41 pm

(“Finders Keepers” is a coherent moral position and one that I can comprehend. I’m not sure it’s particularly admirable, but it’s one of the oldest ones in the world.)

And as atheism evolves, morals de-evolve. Seems coherent to me.


abb1 02.27.06 at 2:07 am

Not necessarily. Things like slavery, child labor, corporal punishment used to be acceptable, but not so much anymore.


martin james 02.27.06 at 2:30 am


I used the term “shamelessly” in quotes as shorthand for the attitude you describe as people that claim the right to be treated with the moral highground when they don’t have it.

I’m just find it so quaint that the “Hey, don’t lay your guilt trip on me man” attitude seems to be on the wane. Maybe we late-boomers who assumed that attitude would reign forever and ever are as morally repugnant as we’re reputed to be.


martin james 02.27.06 at 2:33 am


The past 5 years have convinced me that

“Things like slavery, child labor, corporal punishment used to be UNacceptable, but not so much anymore” is also a true statement.


martin james 02.27.06 at 2:41 am

Bro B.

You said, “And as atheism evolves, morals de-evolve.”

This seems both overly simplistic and empirically wrong. Plus if it were true why did we evolve the linguistic ability to use the term “moral” in both a religious way and a non-religious way.

If you are correct morals have been de-evolving quite some time. Thor wan’t born last Thursday you know.


dale 02.27.06 at 3:57 am

This might well be dead thread, but I can’t resist addressing some of the issues raised. They might well have been addressed by other commenters. First, though a tip of the hat to Lemuel Pitkin (comment 8) – one can only hope.

Next Sam (comment 10):

“For them it was a matter of doing the right thing by their son versus restoring someone’s property: son v. property, which do you choose? A Confucian would have no problem with this.”

Sam, you are correct in pointing out that to a Confucian this is a no-brainer. They would simply have to return the camera IN ORDER TO DO RIGHT BY THEIR SON, who will see and follow their example. What example? The example of their disciplined conformity to the needs of communal living and authority, which is enshrined as a virtue under Confucius. Things are never quite as simplistic as we’d like, and if you hope to brandish Confucius, learn where his legs are, the better to swing him with.

If I’m not mistaken, this would have been an Aristotelian take on the matter too, with the virtue arising from maintaining the integrity of the civilised community. To answer a range of early commenters with this one example: this would not constitute ‘residual virtue’ or ‘residual morality’. This was the real deal and existed in deeply sophisticated form way, way before Christians adopted it.

The unpleasant assumption that morality is the domain solely of the religions of the sky-god, or the moon cult was never borne out in reality, and more often that not, under the dominant cults of our ages morality was expediently jettisoned to make space for obedience and ritual, and as justification for vice. In that latter sense, the folk in these examples might well be for more ‘religious’, than they are ‘residually virtuous’.

SBK (comment 11) brings us back on track:

“While they all address the problem of virtue, few of the comments so far have taken seriously Kieran’s question about the parties’ moral about-face, which seems to be the main point here”

While SBK states that the fact that “both cases involved “selfishness” and “incoherence” is probably indisputable,’ but thinks it’s ‘the strongest general claim you can make’ I tend to see both cases as being manifestations of child-like engagement with reality, an engagement without an inherent responsibility, which is deemed to be reversible when it becomes difficult, and I think this is generally applicable to both cases. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that this extended adolescence is more common that one might imagine, too.

Dan (comment 23) makes an important point when he says that he finds remarkable the ‘openness with which the parties in question reneged on their public promises of goodness.’

This is genuinely interesting, as it represents a willingness to override the threat of communal disapproval, upon which so much is founded and made possible. While this could be an intimation of the decline and fall of civilisation, it should be noted that the circumstances of both cases make this easier for the offending parties: in the ‘camera case’, the owner is far away, lives in another country and is a member of a different community. This makes it easier to deny an obligation that the offender would have felt more strongly had the owner been a neighbour or friend. In the ‘orphan case’, the offended parties might be the child, the orphanage, and the community around the orphanage – again, far away and in another country, which may have made it easier to resist the pressure of responsibility.

A lot of this speaks to the degree to which virtue is only unwillingly shouldered, and the willingness with which it is unshouldered should circumstances make that possible. This has exercised some of the seemingly religious commenters in this thread, who contrast religious and secular virtue, but I would bring to their attention that whether the virtue is enforced by God or state, it is still externally enforced, and confers no real merit on the person engaged in it, being simply a species of obedience.


dale 02.27.06 at 5:27 am

given what i said about the pressure to be virtuous exterted by communal oversight diminishing with distance, disparate communities or too attenuated a link between the interacting parties, there are interesting questions raised about the effects, or lack thereof, of the internet, especially with respect to the ‘camera case’.

(i love that whole sentence.)


Z 02.27.06 at 6:02 am

Do not do to others what you wouldn’t them have done to you. All I need to answer most ethical questions, no God needed, no strings attached.


dale 02.27.06 at 6:10 am

and in the midst of much bartling, Yan (comment 35) identifies issues around perceived responsibilities as being important and has something valuable to say about them.

Yan says: “I suspect that the overwhelming majority of people, though they’d surely claim otherwise, do not strongly believe they have any moral obligations to others at all. I say this in all seriousness (though I use “believe” very broadly to include dispositions and attitudes, not just conscious propositional beliefs)”

Had i read this earlier, i might have been saved saying that “I tend to see both cases as being manifestations of child-like engagement with reality, an engagement without an inherent responsibility, which is deemed to be reversible when it becomes difficult”.

Yan goes further, though, to say that “I think this is generally the case—we do not believe in responsibility toward others. I don’t know why this is so. Surely secularisation has something to do with it, but it does not explain why we nonetheless strongly believe that others have moral responsibilities toward ourselves.”

I’m not sure i would lay the blame on secularisation (correlation not implying causation), though i could understand that someone might. i described this behaviour as adolescent or child-like, and i’d stand by that metaphor, and extend it. i’d make a distinction between child-like and adult modes of engagement, on the basis of a number of characteristic behaviours, including the capacity to defer gratification and the acceptance of reciprocal obligation both of which are relevant to these two cases.

if that were true, then this kind of behaviour might reasonably be seen to arise not from secularism, per se, but from something like the lack of systematic, structured ‘culturing’ of people, common in the past (whether religious or philosophical or other) in terms of which child-like engagement with the world (first-person engagement)was subjected to disciplined programme of revision.

i would put it that the act of organised revision in its own right (rather than through the content of the revision) might inculcate certain basic skills of engagement, and these might constitute adulthood. for example, accepting a long-term process of discipline in service of a future goal might teach the value and nature of delayed gratification. similarly, receiving the such instruction from others, while at the same time becoming aware of the value of what one is learning might embed a sense of responsibility to return that favour, and thereby introduce the idea of reciprocal obligation.

in the modern, supposedly secular world this disciplining function is mostly absent, outside of the techniques needed to turn a lathe or its equivalent, since the engines of our societies really only value labour, not visionaries, prophets and artists. the vast majority of people are therefore left to reach adulthood merely biologically.

Konrad Lorenz said man is an intermediate stage between apes and humans – the extension of that is that becoming human (or becoming a human adult) is a volitional process, not an inevitable or natural one. In the absence of some such deliberate process, it might be that an adult mindset (with its knowledge of reciprocal obligations and its consciousness of the longer-term consequences) never develops or, if present, is only weakly embedded, and innate virtue (which is often nothing more than carrying on with something when there’s no longer anyone watching) falters and stalls.

the commercialisation of our cultures must also have an effect, in that, in order to make a community of consumers (or people who are responsive to advertising) businesses must cultivate juvenile qualities, such as impulsiveness, a belief in the validity of instant gratification and the like.

Our problem, therefore, might not be a lack of religious organising, but a lack of purposeful organisation per se. unless we make this kind of distinction, we are forever prey to those who would have us adopt their archaic gods anew.


dale 02.27.06 at 7:47 am

it’s not very coherent (my commentary) but there’s the germ of an idea in there, somewhere.



abb1 02.27.06 at 8:24 am

Do not do to others what you wouldn’t them have done to you. All I need to answer most ethical questions, no God needed, no strings attached.

Yes, but religious people suspect that the logic of atheism inevitably leads to nihilism, so that you won’t feel any need to have any rules whatsoever.

Like a small child who doesn’t believe in Santa.


Sam 02.27.06 at 8:51 am

I have been swingning with Confucius for a while now, and I will hold to my position that in a property v. family conflict, family wins. Here’s passage 8.18 from the Analects:

Speaking to Confucius, the Duke She said: “In my village there was a man called Body Upright. When his father stole a sheep, he testified against him.”
“In my village,” said Confucius, “to be upright was something else altogether. Fathers harbored sons and sons harbored fathers – and between them they were upright.”

This is generally understood to mean that a son should not turn in a father if he has stolen something, and a father should not turn in a son.


dale 02.27.06 at 10:06 am

sam! nice to hear from you. i’m at work so i can’t check a thing, but i take at face value your reference. i would put it to you that the issue at stake is not (as you put it) a property versus family conflict but a family versus state conflict, and therefore in the greater scheme of things, the family would defer to the state.

the reasons for this are as follows:

a)in the ‘camera case’, no theft has occurred, nor is there the chance or need for parent or child to testify against each other. the child is irrelevant to the decision making process here, serving mainly as prop.

b) the conflict is therefore between the parents and the owner of the property, and by proxy, between the parents ansd the state (as enforcer of the relations between parent and owner).

c) the child only comes into it when used as a justification for the behaviour of the parent (in the claim that the parent MUST act the way they do in service of the child). the child is passive (not as in your reference, active) and so i don’t think your reference holds.

d)in the straight-forward conflict between the family and the state, the state wins under confucius (with special exemptions).

e) in the secondary case (made by the parents) of the claimed conflict between the child’s needs and the owner’s needs, i think that the confucian retort would be as i claimed it to be. the family cannot demonstrate the child has a need of that type, and given that a moral conflict arises as a result of the parent’s actions, the best the family could provide the child with is an ‘upright’ example.

essentially, in the reference you quote, the matter at hand is whether or not to testify, while in the ‘camera case’ the matter at hand is whether or not to be moral. i would think that the moment the child is brought into the ‘camera case’ the confucian interpretation would require the return of the camera, since the need for the camera is minor, while the need for moral instruction is major. had it been a food item, the prognosis might have been different.

btw – does anyone else doubt that a 9-year-old is so taken with this *particular* camera?


wcw 02.27.06 at 11:54 am

Viz my c. 57. Given the strong evidence for lying, I doubt that a “sick child” exists in the first place, much less has become taken with a particular object.


Bro. Bartleby 02.27.06 at 12:57 pm

(Confucius for a while now, and I will hold to my position that in a property v. family conflict, family wins.)

Bingo! That is my same argument for the current conflict between civilizations, those who hold to honor/blood/family/clan vs those who hold to law. In Western societies law is paramount, so that in conflicts, law resolves issues, whereas in most non-Western societies, laws are respected until they infringe upon one’s sense of honor, then blood/family/clan trump law.


Bro. Bartleby 02.27.06 at 1:13 pm

I should add, in Christianity it was in Matthew 10:34-36 that Jesus forever breaks the bonds of blood and family and honor when he said:
“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”
In context, Jesus is instructing His 12 disciples before setting them off on their mission to spread the Good News to the people of Israel. I believe Jesus was making clear that His Way was not the traditional honor-based way (that which is captive of blood and clan and tribe). To choose ‘The Way’ one may well have to use the figurative sword and cleave with family and friends—which may set a new believer again his father and mother, and all those that are bound by the blood of the clan.


dale 02.27.06 at 1:19 pm

more sam (100):

first off, let me apologise if my initial comment (94) was overly snarky – i didn’t mean it that way, and i am genuinely glad to see someone discussing something other than the western canon here. also, apologies for disjointed commenting – i had to leave work and attend to something and was necessarily offline.

to continue from my 101:

my main reason for being unconvinced that the Confucian position is as you have it, is of course the one i failed to mention:), namely that if Confucius had really intended the example you give to pertain universally, then he would necesarily have been advocating the collapse of Confucian societal organisation, which very much dependended on adherence to promulgated laws and maintenance of an explicit vertical hierarchy. resolving all value conflicts in favour of the second smallest unit of society (the family) would have had disastrous effects for the excercise of power within that hierarchy.

where does this leave us with respect to passage 8.18 from the analects? as you no doubt know, chinese theory is generally anecdotal and ‘organic’, rather than rigidly organised or structural, and is less concerned with resolution of internal contradictions than we like. Confucius may have meant that particular passage to carry that specific, excessive emphasis (in context), and been prepared to suffer the threat of universal literal interpretation, secure that his intended audience was sophisticated enough to finesse the problem.

furthermore, Confucius was exceptionally concerned with the power of example, and taught that rulers (in which he inluded heads of family, by analogy) were only capable of leadership through personal rectitude, a belief that directly supports my interpretation. Confucianism as a system is almost entirely devoted to the importance of personal moral rectitude (from which all else flows) at the expense of all else. all these concerns both support and influence my interpretation, as you can see in my comment 101.

Lastly, his great opportunity to test and refine his theories of societal organisation arose when he was appointed magistrate of Chung-tu, and subsequently ‘justice minister’of the state of Lu, in which positions he is believed to have been exemplary. i find it hard to believe that someone whose life was spent in such a fashion would have willy-nilly advocated the contravention of community and state obligations, and i can only imagine that your reading is a hasty one.

on the other hand, you might simply be right. :)


dale 02.27.06 at 1:26 pm

hi bartleby

ref: 103

i think you have taken sam’s contention out of context and muscled it into supporting something it clearly doesn’t support. if you read the discussion in order (94, 100, 101, 105) the statement might be clearer.


Bro. Bartleby 02.27.06 at 1:54 pm

Bro. Dale, sorry if I muscled a bit, but at the monastery dining table ‘muscling’ (or taking the megaphone) is the norm. What you raise about Confucian thought brings up the current issue of the PRC’s more or less disregard for copyright protection. For Confucian ethics trump Western ideas of law. As you well know, in Confucianism, knowledge cannot be owned; in art, copying is considered a virtue, especially to copy faithfully a master’s work. And finally, profiting from knowledge and artistic production is considered immoral. So we read about Bill Gates going to China, yet he and most Westerns not understanding the dynamics of Confucianism that lives today beneath the veil of communism.


Bro. Bartleby 02.27.06 at 2:22 pm

(Thor wan’t born last Thursday you know.)

Do you consider Thor immoral?


Sam 02.27.06 at 2:58 pm

Wow. A lot to think about. Let me just focus on one thing. In 101, you say “the child is irrelevant to the decision making process here, serving mainly as prop.” I am assuming just the opposite. I take at face value that the child’s condition and emotional state are what are driving the parent’s concern. If that is true, then I believe Confucius would understand, and see as legitimate and humane, their interest in protecting the child from more “harm.” You are right, Confucian ethics are all about example, not law. And the example they, the parents, would be concerned about here is protecting their son over against a mere property claim of the camera owner. If they failed to “cherish the young,” they would be failing in a more severe manner than if they failed to return someone else’s property. Now, if the claim about the child is just made up, then they are acting immorally. But if the child’s situation is as they claim, then Confucius would sympathize; though, in the end, it might still be correct for them to return the camera. My point was that it was justified for them to try to keep the camera; it was not justified for them to renege on the compromise reached.
FYI: I discuss ancient Chinese thought in a varity of ways on my site. Stop by and chat:


Sam 02.27.06 at 3:01 pm

Bro Bartleby,
I would not draw the East v. West line quite so starkly (re: 103). After all in the US it is fairly common practice that a wife cannot be compelled to testify against a husband. Family trumps law?


Bro. Bartleby 02.27.06 at 3:55 pm


I think the point is that in the West (modern secular governments) we create laws, then that is the standard that we all adhere to, the ‘logic’ behind the testimony of a wife against her husband is that ‘the law’ understands that the testimony by its very nature can be suspect. This is very different than say honor killing, where laws are ignored because ‘honor/blood’ is the standard.


Bro. Bartleby 02.27.06 at 4:17 pm

Bro. Sam,

I’ve lived in Chinese communities (as well as other Asian communities) for most of my life, and it boggles my mind to imagine Chinese parents willingly losing face because of the wants (or childish demands) of their son. Barebones Confucianism ‘demands’ son abide by parent abide by ruler; teaching is then in reverse, ruler is teacher to parents who are teacher to children. A failure of one is a failure of all. In general, I find that in Chinese families the children ‘revolve’ around the parent’s wants, whereas in the West, the parents ‘revolve’ around the child’s wants.


Elliott 02.27.06 at 10:25 pm

Oh for crying out loud! Some things are just wrong, like taking things that don’t belong to you and harming a child. Things that are wrong are not less wrong if they inconvenience you to rectify! Gee, it’s really hard to reanimate a dead person, so murder is ok?

Doesn’t matter if you’re sick, on vacation, poor, rich, Confucian, Christian, atheist, etc.

Perhaps my remote Idaho community is a throwback to another age, but the belief in responsibility towards others is operative here, amongst Pagan, non-religious, and Christian alike.

And I am glad not to live under the brainless NJ law that thinks no theft has occurred if no attempt has been made to find the owner. Think about it: I find an expensive car that I know is not mine, and I take it home with me–that’s theft in my book. Or, the guy didn’t tell you he was married, so it’s not adultery?

And to claim that you have to be religious (or irreligious) to be moral is just being snotty.


Bro. Bartleby 02.28.06 at 12:46 pm

“And to claim that you have to be religious (or irreligious) to be moral is just being snotty.”

Alas, we are the product of our heredity and history, and from Day 1 of recorded history clans/tribes/groups/societies have some sort of belief system that surrounds a God or gods, and from those recorded beginnings (prior to written, we see in cave painting images of bull and bear worship cults), we see the progression of moral teachings. Only in recent history do we have evidence of ‘non-religious’ folks, and I think it would be disingenuous for these folks to disregard their own heredity and history, which includes the development of morality by religions (including the philosophies/religions of those Greek guys in togas).

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