September 27, 2005

Fire Engines and Ethics

While driving home from work on Friday, I looked in my rear-view mirror to see 4 fire engines with lights flashing and sirens blaring. Traffic was heavy - it has been so since Katrina brought an influx of 10,000 to 20,000 evacuees and emergency personnel to this area. Fortunately, there was 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 many of the drivers were making no attempt to let the fire engines by.

In asking myself why I had pulled to the shoulder, 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 was probably in the back of my mind somewhere as I pulled over. In fact, the primary reason I pulled over had nothing to do with the law. 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, 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 a fast response. 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 reflect on the probability that the overwhelming majority of my fellow drivers during this incident profess their Christianity (based on population statistics for this area), I am somewhat confused. As the atheist, I am supposed to be the one without morals. These other drivers, most of whom would identify as Christians, ignored the legal and moral/ethical implications of the situation. How can it be that the atheist demonstrated a higher level of morality?

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 is possible that empathy is a better motivator for ethical behavior than one's fear of imaginary supernatural beings?