Do others have the right to define what's ethical for me?
KEVIN SMITH is on the board of directors for the Centre of Inquiry, Canada’s premier venue for humanists, skeptics and freethinkers.
As opposed to morals, which are innate within our species, the foundations of ethics begin when we are children. It starts with our parents, who instil in us what is right and wrong. It continues in school — with one too many spats in the playground, we realize that treating others as we want to be treated will go a long way to living in relative peace with one another.
As we mature, other factors shape our behaviour. Culture and religion are two most ingrained into our individual human blueprint and they influence what we embrace as right or wrong, even though these may be different than our neighbour down the street or people on the other side of the globe.
Our codes of conduct are all over the ethical map.
What is good for the Okek’s may be frowned upon by the Jones’s.
Polygamy is abhorrent — or not — depending on your cultural customs. Homosexuality is a sin — or not — depending on your religious beliefs.
So while ethics is a set of individual principles, we need to define them within the public square, by creating laws in order to protect the rights of all citizens. Progressive, democratic societies have enshrined what is essentially secular humanist rights into their legislation.
This framework does not and could not prohibit the personal ethics of individuals or those of multicultural and multi-faith groups as long as the laws, created by all society, are followed.
In fact, it is from these multi-ethics that humans have adopted those that best protect our rights and freedoms, allowing us to live in harmony.
It is critical for the survival of our species that these flexible, pan-human created codes of conduct supersede an assortment of God-given absolutes that serve to benefit a narrow segment of society.
Return from Atheist Ethics to home page