The question I am not going to answer today is: How do you convey (instill) morality or ethics in children without theology?

The first hypothesis for examination is that presented in Robert A. Heinlein's last work To Sail Beyond the Sunset. The novel begins as a biography of the authors matriarch, Maureen. (It is commonly understood that the author realized that Sail would be his last work, and used the remainder of the novel to tie up loose ends elsewhere in his universes) This first portion of the book starts with Maureen's childhood, and one of the first anecdotes related is a discussion between Maureen and her father about good behaviour, the Ten Commandments, and Mrs. Grundy. Maureen is not very old, and is already having trouble with the Commandments. While explaining how sometimes he barters with his neighbours, and sometimes he waits patiently for payment in any form, and cautioning her not to tell her mother, he throws her questions back at her, giving her a homework assignment. He tells her to write up a workable set of commandments for her life, and to report back when she is done.

This was, of course, a dirty trick. Such an assigment is unlikely to be completed, and is even less likely to result in a short list. It does provide a partial solution to the question not being answered in this piece. The children must determine their own morality, and ethics, if they are to have any. The role of parents in this is to provide a suitable environment for this, and to guide. Peer groups and the unwashed masses bear significantly less of this burden of responsibility.

I have attempted this assignment myself. In my envisioning, the most straightforward way to do this is to ennumerate the acts which cannot be justified. As these can be identified they are designated sins, and their doing is prohibited. It seemed simple, but quickly proved otherwise. With no background or foundation, it is very difficult to identify what cannot ever have a rational justification. Rape (non-consensual sexual intercourse) seems to be the only easy one, and it's only easy because of my birth culture. I have a hunch that there are plenty of places I could have been born on this planet, in the same year I was born, that do not have such a strong compunction against that. This hunch is based on the prevalence of observable behaviours such as FGM, female infanticde, sutee, dowry murder, and other barbaric acts in various countries. Beyond those, it gets harder. Murder (the intentional killing of another sentient being) is justifiable, either in time of war, or in self-defense. Theft isn't wrong but it can cause trouble if it is not regulated. And that explanation, once regulation is defined more broadly than an act of government, covers a broad span of offenses or potential sins. Many bad things aren't bad in moderation, or so it seems anyway. The introduction of situationalist ethics to the mix all but finishes off this approach to the problem. Well, except for rape.

The very idea of non-consensuality spawns it's own ethical hypothesis, as well as a brief aside. Is it wrong to dream of things which are themselves determined to be wrong? What about to write stories, music, or plays about bad things? George Orwell coined a word for it in the Newspeak dialect he invented for 1984. The mere conception of ungood ideas (those not approved by Big Brother) was punishible as thoughtcrime. I hold that imagining prohibited acts should not itself be prohibited, as they do no harm and may do some good by allowing an outlet for forbidden ideas and feelings. Unfortunately this is all difficult to explain quickly to, say, a law enforcement official who views "force fantasy" material on the WWW, or a high school principal who reads a student's diary entry about how he would slowly kill and dismember his tormenters (who are, of course, his peers). And please don't ask about virtual child pornography. Nonetheless, the institution of thoughtcrime is not a good idea for any society which believes itself free.

Consensuality is a tricky concept itself. The idea that a being can give permission to another being to do otherwise prohibited things complicates our arguments. (The use of simulated non-consent in role-playing is not a ) Further complicating the matter is that most cultures hold that their children cannot give consent, and in fact it is by an age before which beings cannot consent to sex and marriage that these cultures define childhood. Consent to, say, harm children has to be given by their parents, as the law holds they are not yet able to understand the consequences of their actions. And similarly, if you take a sick pet to a veterinarian, you give permission for any minor injury or discomfort that the creature may undergo during treatment. Obviously, having to spend the time convincing children, cats, and dogs of the importance of blood tests or vaccination would slow down, if not make impossible, medical proceedures which are now routine and which may well increase their quality of life. The BDSM community guideline of "Keep it safe, sane, and consensual." may in fact be a practical ethic, expandable to all behaviour, if only simple communicable definitions for safe and sane could be recorded.

Rather than say what not to do, several traditions try instead to suggest what to do. The idea of "right thought" and "right action" are very common in various Buddhist sects, and a nondenominational California church, the ULC, proclaims it's only theology (on the front page of it's WWW site) to be "Do only that which is right." More recently they have added a disclaimer to the brief explanation which follows. It now reads "Every person has the natural right (and the responsibility) to peacefully determine what is right." (emphasis theirs). It seems they are aware of how flexible a word "right" is. Plato recorded more than one book's worth of arguments on this very topic, and Aristotle did not refrain from commenting. It should be noted that discussion continued well into the 20 C on these topics, and did not stop with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintanance, which does look into it a bit. And it also suggests a way for a father to teach his son about the world: to put him on the back of a touring bike and drive cross country.