Either by design, bias, or because I was not sufficiently clear (always a distinct possibility), a lot of readers seem to have misunderstood the central principle in my post about Damon Fowler, the Louisiana high school senior who singled-handedly bluffed his school out of including a prayer in his graduation ceremonies. Let me clarify.
The post is only incidentally about atheism vs. religion. The ethical issue arose in that context, but it just as easily could have been raised in other circumstances. The ethical values involved here were prudence, tolerance, self-restraint, proportionality, consideration, generosity, and empathy. Fowler’s actions assumed that preventing what he believed was a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on the government favoring one religious belief over another justified ignoring all of these. They don’t, and the same conclusion applies whether we are discussing a technical legal violation, a breaching of organizational rules, or personal misconduct.
Anyone who reads Ethics Alarms knows that I believe that the culture only becomes and stays ethical if all its participants accept the responsibility of flagging and, when necessary, condemning and stopping harmful societal conduct, as well as unethical personal conduct that will be toxic to society if it becomes the norm. Nevertheless, society becomes oppressive and intolerable if every single misstep, offense, violation, possible violation, arguable violation or mistaken judgment is cause for confrontation, conflict and policing, without regard for context and consequences. Indeed, much of the challenge in ethical analysis involves deciding what kind of misconduct matters, even once the question of whether something is misconduct has been settled.
The Daman Fowler matter is related to the ethical dilemma of “snitching.” Reporting misconduct by a co-worker, family member or friend requires a dispassionate calculation of utilitarian considerations. Reporting an isolated firing offense to management—say, borrowing and returning cash from the register— when you know it was an exception to a colleague’s usual conduct, that he won’t do it again, that he is a good worker and is supporting a sick wife and disabled child—may be consistent with the employee’s manual but also a despicable, and unethical act. Reporting the same conduct when you believe it will be repeated and the colleague has a gambling problem, in contrast, is probably the right thing to do. Mixed in to the decision-making process are confounding non-ethical considerations that you have an obligation to put aside. For example, If you dislike the first colleague, or want his job, it would be unethical to let those motives change your decision.
In the abstract, a violation of a law or breach of a constitutional limitation on the scope of government action triggers the duties of citizenship and requires that an individual give notice of the violation to the violator and if no action is taken, report to appropriate authorities. In life, however, that duty is tempered and limited by the circumstances. Is there real harm to an individual, the community, or society generally? Is the likely penalty out of proportion to the conduct? Will innocent parties be injured? What are the likely consequences of not reporting the conduct? Will a simple warning or admonition suffice to address the problem? How does the Golden Rule apply? Are the benefits of reporting clearly, or even arguably, greater than the costs? Can a just result be accomplished with minimum harm?
There are an infinite number of such decisions. For example:
• You are aware that a neighbor, in a “three strikes” jurisdiction, has committed a crime such as having possession of a small amount of marijuana. If he is arrested and convicted, there is a mandatory sentence of 20 years. You are unshakably in favor of drug laws, and believe in strict enforcement. Do you call the police?
• You live in a cul-de-sac with two other homes; one of the families is away. One night, your remaining neighbor hosts a graduation party for his teen-age daughter. Loud music is playing all night, and there is a lot of noise well past 11. You suspect that there is even some under-age drinking, but you are pretty sure you’re your neighbor will be getting all the kids home himself. The ruckus violates the town’s peace and quiet ordinance, and you could justifiably call the police and shut down the party. Do you?
• Your neighbor has a teenage son. It is over the Christmas holidays, and the streets are deserted. He takes his son, who had just turned 15 and has no learner’s permit yet, for his first time behind the wheel, using the deserted back streets, including the one on which you live. Do you report him?
I believe that anyone who would report in any or all of these situations lacks basic ethical instincts, and has adopted a rigid, absolutist attitude toward conduct, rules and punishment. What Damon Foster did was in the same category, though he took pains to distinguish them by emphasizing his “stress” at having to tolerate a few minutes of prayer to a God he didn’t believe in. The result of his actions intimidating the school (and schools are extremely easy to intimidate) was to gratuitously ruin graduation for a large number of the families in the community.
Is it rational for the presence or absence of a prayer to make that big a difference to them? It doesn’t matter. Let’s assume the presence of the prayer was exactly as important to their enjoyment of graduation as the absence of it was important to Damon (though I am certain that in fact the prayer was far more important to them). He has a right to try to stop the prayer for his own comfort, but it would be fair, reasonable, considerate and tolerant not to do so, because he is only one, and the pain caused by his decision will be far more extensive.
Underlying his decision to threaten the school, I believe, was the typical atheist’s antipathy to religion and the religious. At some level, he shares the disrespect and contempt for his religious classmates and their families (as indeed, many of them feel contempt and disrespect for him, as a non-Christian) that the atheist community fosters. This is a bias, and a non-ethical consideration. The absence of empathy, respect, and or the feeling of an obligation of fairness took the Golden Rule out of the decision.
Meanwhile, has removal of the prayer improved anything? It is still a religious community, but now it is an angry religious community. If the town felt negatively toward atheists and non-Christians before, that feeling has only been exacerbated. Many families were upset, spoiling once-in-a-lifetime event that should only leave good memories. Was the cause of religious freedom advanced? I don’t see how. Would the presence of the prayer infringe on Damon’s rights in any genuine or tangible way? He was not pressured to join in; he only had to listen. In real terms, the harm to him was no more than the harm of having to listen to a typical, off-key student commencement musical soloist.
The only argument Damon has to counter the unnecessary harm done by his actions is absolutist: there is an absolute obligation never to accept or tolerate any infraction of law, rules, or ethics, no matter how technical, minor, fleeting, reasonable or harmless, and no matter how disproportional to the harm the consequences of reporting it might be.
If he adopts that philosophy permanently, Damon Fowler will be the kind of person who lives to suppress and constrain the enjoyment of life by others. He may even become a school administrator, suspending, expelling or even arresting students for every possible no-tolerance offense, and giving out strict punishment regardless of the circumstances. Prudence, tolerance, self-restraint, proportionality, consideration, generosity, and empathy. All in all, it’s better to practice these in high school than to enforce gray areas of constitutional law.