Fire Engines and Ethics

While driving home from work on a Friday afternoon, I looked in my rear-view mirror to see 4 fire engines with lights flashing and sirens blaring. Traffic was heavy, as it usually is at this time of day. Fortunately, there was just enough room for us to move to the shoulder of the road to let the trucks by. At least there would have been room if my fellow drivers had chosen to move over. Sitting on the shoulder of the road, I realized that most of the drivers around me were making no attempt to let the fire engines by. Far be it for them to be momentarily inconvenienced by letting emergency vehicle get where they needed to go.

Why had I pulled over when few others had done so? In asking myself why I had pulled to the shoulder as quickly as I had, two reasons occurred to me. First, I knew it was the law. Drivers are expected to let emergency vehicles by when they have their lights and sirens on. This is a legal issue in that lack of compliance carries penalties. This might have been in the back of my mind somewhere as I pulled over. Still, the primary reason I pulled over had little to do with the law or any fear of punishment for breaking it. I pulled over because it was the right thing to do in an ethical/moral sense.

In putting myself in the shoes of the people who were in trouble and had prompted the emergency response call, I knew that rapid aid might make the difference between life and death or at least between minor and major suffering. If I was in their situation, I would want as fast a response as possible. Thus, I behaved in the way I would want others to behave if my life was on the line - I got the hell out of the way to let the fire trucks by.

As I reflected on the fact that the overwhelming majority of the other drivers who did not pull over during this incident were Christians (this is Mississippi, after all), I found myself feeling somewhat confused. As an atheist, I am supposed to be the one without morals. According to some Christians, I'm supposed to be pure evil. And yet, these other drivers, most of whom would certainly identify as Christians, ignored the legal and moral/ethical implications of the situation. They could not be bothered to delay their commute for a few seconds to benefit someone else. How can it be that the atheist demonstrated moral behavior when many Christians did not?

Empathy refers to one's ability to put oneself in the shoes of others, to view the world from their eyes, to imagine experiencing their plight. My ability (and willingness) to empathize with others is a primary reason I engage in ethical behavior. Is it possible that empathy is a better motivator for ethical behavior than the pursuit of heavenly rewards or fear of supernatural beings? I think so, and I find it unfortunate that some people have come to view things like empathy, compassion, and even basic kindness as weaknesses to be avoided rather than some of what is so great about humanity.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2005. It was revised and expanded in 2018.