I've previously used the example of magic sticks, although amazingly it's now more than a thought experiment:
Above: life imitates blogs. An actual magic stick that someone is selling. I'm mostly just pissed off that I didn't do it when I first blogged about it. But mine will be better. Note that at $20, mine is $5 cheaper too. But every bit as magical.
So here's the rub. Let's say I'm a magic stick atheist, and I think they're just inert pieces of wood, but a bunch of other people believe the magic sticks have special powers and are willing to give me large sums of money for them. Hey, maybe I'm wrong; who am I to force my beliefs on others? (Christians have said that to me enough times, and suddenly it's making a lot of sense.)
So I would like to get in on the magic stick business. I'm not kidding. This is no longer a thought experiment. I'm going to make one and put it up for sale online. I'll link to it from this post and from a new one once I do it.
Moral questions raised:
- Is it immoral for me to take advantage of someone else's different ideas about the value of the product? The answer to this is a clear no (disagree? go here for more). The bottom line is that maybe $20 is worth more to me than what I consider merely a piece of wood, but to them, $20 is worth much less than a powerful totem. You might even argue that the more money I can drain away from these goofy people and use to support skeptical causes, the better! And the best part is, the magic-stick-buying-goofball is sure they got a good deal, because hey, magic stick for twenty smackeroos! What a steal! After all, who am I to force my beliefs on them? Right, Christians? (If you're religious and run across this post and it makes you angry, I sincerely invite you to try to explain in the comments what I'm doing wrong here.)
Whoa there progressives, settle down! Remember every $20 I part from a Christian buying one of my magic sticks is $20 that does not go into this woman's campaign chest, and goes to a pro-Separation secular humanist. And those other magic sticks might actually be made by Christians who believe in them. Feel better now?
- Complication: what if they don't know I'm a magic stick atheist? Is it immoral then? If they don't ask, I'm not going to tell them. Let's turn the tables here to see if the golden rule applies to my actions. Let's say I have a disease that's treatable, but with an expensive drug. Somehow I find someone who has a (verifiably real) stash of this drug. Would I really care whether she believes it works? Not in the slightest. Golden rule upheld.
- Additional complication: what if they do ask me, and I lie? Now I admit it's getting complicated. Golden rule test: after I buy the drugs, the lady who sold them to me says, "Ha ha sucker, I'm a homeopath and I just sold you a bunch of worthless big pharma poison." I still don't care that she doesn't believe or even that she lied to me, since I got what I wanted; golden rule upheld again. However, people who buy "magic" things often don't think this way, and want to buy them from other people who believe the same things. So, following the golden rule here is not the same as treating people how they want to be treated - a situation which, by the way, happens far more than anyone would like to admit. As in, most of the time.
But are we obligated to indulge people's irrationality by offering information that doesn't really make a difference? That is, what if there's a weird guy who comes to my clinic and says I can't use a reflex hammer on him that's ever been near a magnet; if I lie and tell him "we always protect our hammers from magnets" while winking at my attending physician, am I doing something wrong? If that's okay (which I think it is, because his concern is ridiculous) then why would it not be okay to tell observant Jews there's no pork in the food you're selling them even though there is? Swine flesh won't really hurt them any more than magnets. If there's an answer here that doesn't honestly reduce to "more people have believed in one of them for longer", then I don't know what it is. (On a related note, here's a post about the use of a meaningless word to get a scholarship, that some might find deceptive.)
- Final complication: even if I lie and get lots of money and they're none the wiser, I will still be reinforcing their worldview by trading under these pretenses.
As stated above, there are now real people, selling real magic sticks! (Most proximately, H/T to Vorjack at Unreasonable Faith). And how do we know the seller isn't already an atheist who is fleecing Christians and giving money to secular causes?
In this case there's a clear answer. These other magic sticks are highly immoral, and the reason is obvious. I should be getting magic stick royalties, and I'm not.