The Skeptic’s Dilemma

Let’s conduct a thought experiment about an ethical dilemma.

For the sake of argument, in this story you are a world traveller and you have the resources and contacts to go anywhere on Earth for any amount of time.

Eventually your travels take you to a place that is furthest away from modern civilization… perhaps the interior of a vast rainforest or an isolated island in the Pacific far away from shipping lanes. Upon arrival you discover a village full of wonderful, generous, but unsophisticated people. They greet you and invite to their ceremony where they worship and provide offerings to their God Alistair, whom they report can make fire from his fist and reveal what the afterlife looks like.

Intrigued, you follow them to their worshipping spot, where out of a hut pops a man who appears to be from your home country. He holds up a Zippo lighter and the villagers drop to their knees. He pulls out a smartphone and plays a video on it and the villagers gasp in awe. (Before you ask, he has a solar powered charger.)

“Kneel before me and offer your tributes!” he demands.

One by one the villagers give him 10% of their food, backing away on all fours as to not anger Alistair. You notice he has so much food that some of it is rotting by his hut, which is the biggest in the village. You also notice that the prettiest girl who’s also fresh out of adolescence has been made his wife. Alistair is clearly taking advantage and living it up at the expense of these kind and hospitable people.

What do you do? You could play along, offering Alistair 10% of your rations and address him as “My Lord” which would endear you to the tribe and make for a pleasant stay. You could confront him or tell the villagers how they’re being taken for a ride, which might backfire on you since Alistair holds sway over their hearts and minds and could order them to kill you for your blasphemy if they don’t believe you. Or you could follow his example and take your own lighter and smartphone and go to the next village to live like royalty at the expense of those people.

Which choice is the most ethical?

I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret about skeptics. If you’ve been a skeptic long enough, and had enough frustrating conversations with people who insist on believing something to the detriment of their own interests, eventually you begin to say to yourself, “To Hell with these rubes! If they’re not going to listen to reason, I may as well start my own psychic hotline/television ministry/Bigfoot research center/Homeopathy shop and take their money since they are determined to throw it away! And I’ll be awesome at it because I know how the trick is done!”

Fortunately, most of us are ethical enough that it never goes further than mere ranting. But not everyone… which is why these places exist in the first place.