Back when I was headteacher (principal) of a small school, children would frequently fall out over their belongings. They would ‘borrow’ or swipe one another’s pens, pencils, erasers, stickers… you name it. Trauma would usually ensue, and much time wasted (theirs and mine) in locating and returning disputed items. It became apparent we needed to take steps to save all this time and trauma, and the cause of these, namely interfering with others’ property. Together, the children and I arrived at one of the most effective rules ever devised: don’t take what isn’t yours.
The rule worked very successfully in school and equally well in life.
While obviously ‘don’t take what isn’t yours’ includes do not steal, it involves so much more: do not do anything that would rob others of their peace of mind or sense of well-being: do not take advantage of someone else, do not (mis)use them for your own pleasure or advancement: do not deprive others of life, liberty or happiness.
Expressed more positively, take only those things that you have earned, won, negotiated, paid for or which have been freely given to you.
Why do this? After all, as Christians are fond of saying, with no God to keep us on the straight and narrow, why should atheists feel any compunction to treat others fairly? From whence comes our moral compass? Certainly it doesn’t come from a non—existent deity. The golden rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, while usually credited to Jesus is a much older principle, predating him by as much as 2000 years.
I would venture to say any such principle comes from within ourselves; it’s part of our nature as social animals. I have no issue with the view it is the result of social conditioning. That it originates or is reinforced by the socialising process we undergo as children does not invalidate the compunction to treat others fairly.
There are those, of course, who have no such compunction, and even those of us who do aren’t always successful in exercising it. The socialising process isn’t wholly effective, 100% of the time. But it’s good enough. It points us in the right direction; it’s an ideal, an aspiration. It’s a good way to be, which is enough in itself. It doesn’t guarantee that the consideration will automatically be reciprocated (though in my experience it makes it more likely) but nonetheless it comes with its own rewards: a sense of integrity, peace of mind, the trust and respect of others. Plus it keeps you out of trouble.