Legal vs Ethical

There’s been a lot of talk in the atheist community lately about what is acceptable behavior, especially when it comes to speech. There are a lot of arguments that people have used to justify themselves, but a particularly annoying one is the free speech argument: “Free speech! I can say whatever I want, because it’s legal!”

Well, yes, you can say most anything without consequences from the government. But that’s setting the bar for behavior pretty damn low.  Is that really all you want your behavior to be? Legal? What about, you know, ethical? Legality is the minimum standard of behavior. We shouldn’t be striving to behave legally; we should be striving to behave ethically, and most of the time, that means exceeding the legal standards.

Atheist get a lot of shit about how we’re amoral. And we know it’s shit. But when we start saying that we can act however we want, as long as it’s legal, we’re failing our own movement. We need to do better than that. We need to actually think about whether an action is ethical – how much harm it will do to others, and how much benefit. Before we speak, we need to think if we’re treating the other person like an actual human being. We need to think about our individual privilege, whatever it may be, and make sure we’re not abusing it. We need to ask ourselves if we are being bigots, whether it be intentionally or unintentionally.

It’s unacceptable to excuse things like Redditgate or anything said on #mencallmethings or calling things “retarded” or any variant thereof, simply because they’re legal. Be better than that. Recognize that it’s not ethical, and it’s intellectually dishonest. It’s treating others like objects or lesser humans. If you hate something, if you hate someone, go on the attack without relying on bigotry. You can say critical things to someone without being unethical. Hell, you can verbally eviscerate someone without being unethical. Just treat them like an equal human being while you do it.  Because we are better than that.

So act like it.

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Posted on January 6, 2012, in Atheism, feminism, Privilege, Reasoning, Social Justice. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Ethical behavior may be illegal.

    Note, also, that speech may be truthful but not useful; in other words, we cannot decide the righteousness of an action without considering the context. I do not argue that morality is relative, but that moral judgments are contextual (and imperfect).

    • speakingupanyway

      I was going to go into how ethical and legal behavior sometimes don’t line up, but it seemed like too much of a tangent. You’re right – the law isn’t always ethical. Sometimes the law is downright immoral. And I agree with you on the other points. I just didn’t know how to articulate it well. 🙂

  2. Too right…free speech is not a blank check to say anything one wants without consequence.

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