Ethics: 3 Demandments & 1 Corollary

Given my post on bibliographic violence and to set up for a forthcoming post responding to a colleague’s response to it, I’m moving this from my personal blog so that it is on record here since I’ll probably reference it in the future. I’d say that I have an abiding interest in ethics but I find that statement silly. We should all have an underlying interest in ethics that suffuses our everyday lives. What follows is not a brainy theoretical discussion of ethics; rather, it’s a simple, personal moral compass.

I started jokingly talking about these in the various places where I blather, so I figure I should probably commit them to writing since I think I’ve finally solidified them. People often ask atheists, and militant agnostics like myself, about their moral codes. When it came up in family conversation a while ago, it challenged me to think of something simple and coherent.

The short answer: empathy. To quote my Twitter friend, KT Haché (@papierhache) “there’s not enough empathy in the world and it’s unfortunately devalued.” They are correct; I sometimes see so little empathy in the way people treat each other that it depresses me. Unfortunately, I have no idea how one teaches empathy, if that’s even possible. I don’t know, I think I just learned empathy by watching my mother. Toward that end, maybe it is something that one picks up being seeing (feeling) other people do it.

Looking back, I have to say that my mom has been a great influence on my moral compass. As I’ve frequently said, she is the only person with a bigger bleeding heart than me. I have always admired how she regarded people, even strangers from afar. I remember her saying things like, “people just want to live, agreeably and justly.” So here goes, this is what guides me; my 3 Demandments1 as it were:

  1. Don’t be a jerk.
  2. Empathize.
  3. Be excellent to each other.2

Corollary: You are allowed to defend yourself. In the course of defending yourself, it is occasionally alright to be snarky, to be angry, and even to be unkind. Although perhaps it’s a good idea to let these three ideas keep you from going off the deep end without warrant. In any case, just remember that when you are finished delivering a rhetorical beatdown, put an equally proportional amount of positive goodness back into the world somewhere.

Above all: always pay it forward. The gift must keep moving. This is the 4th demandment, actually.

They are not exceptionally profound but they are easy, simple things that I try to keep in mind. In researching the 3rd one, I ran across the amazing Kate Beaton demonstrating all four with exquisite grace.

Thus to end on the injunction of a positive right: be excellent to each other.


1. Pop culture reference #1, fans of 1980s wrestling, of all ironic things.
2. Pop culture reference #2, fans of mediocre minor cult films.

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