Vegas Ethics

Who says Las Vegas has no standards of decency?

“FOR SHAME!” blared an ad last week in USA Today from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. It came after photos emerged of Britain’s partying Prince Harry doing various things that certainly could be called shameful. But of course, his behavior wasn’t the ad’s target. Its outrage was directed solely at those who’d sold the photos.

“To those who traded in their pledge to their Vegas brethren, we deplore you!” The ad said. It urged everyone else to boycott those who had sinned against the city’s Prime Directive. (“We are calling on you, the defenders of what happens in Vegas staying in its rightful place — in Vegas.”) In a separate statement, an agency official, Cathy Tull, continued the theme. “Las Vegas is a place to celebrate adult freedom, freedom that even celebrities and royals can enjoy,” she intoned. “For everyone’s sake, it’s important that ‘What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.’ “

(Read about it here.)

Yes, it’s pretty laughable: a display of moral indignation from a city that epitomizes moral squalor. But it’s revealing, too — as it always is — to see the hopelessly lame attempts men make to construct a code of ethics cut off from its Source. In the case of Vegas, the code is an echo of its (supposedly) defunct mob days, omerta — “whatever ya do, ya don’t squeal.” But really now: The whole point of the town is self-indulgence. So if you can make money selling Prince Harry photos, why not?

Outside of Vegas, though, the broader culture has made its own attempts, and they’re equally lame. There’s no God, they say — at least none like the one with all those buzzkill Commandments — so each of us is free to do whatever he wants. (After hearing an atheist’s arguments, a yokel in a Jonathan Swift story cuts to the bottom line: “Why, if it be as you say, I can drink, and whore, and defy the parson!”) But wait: We still have to have some rules or things will be a big mess. OK, then how about this: Consenting adults have the right to do whatever they want so long as they don’t interfere with anyone else’s rights. That’ll work, right?

But then come the inevitable questions. If all the old moral rules (the God-based kind) aren’t binding on us, what’s so magical about consent? Or, for that matter, adulthood? What does it even mean to have a “right?” What’s its moral force? What’s its source of authority? Isn’t it just noble-sounding window dressing for a society-wide deal where each of us gets to indulge his personal desires? Well, then, since I’m devoting my life to self-indulgence anyway, why should I stop at violating someone else’s “rights” if I want to? For the sake of society? Why should I care? Because I might be punished if I do? Does that matter if I think I can get away with it? And anyway, why worry about consequences sometime in the future when I care a whole lot more about what I can get now?

And on and on. There’s no way around those questions when a society refuses to recognize God. There’s no way to answer them authoritatively without the ultimate Authority.

So it turns out that Vegas ethics, laughable as they are, really aren’t more laughable than what the larger culture has been trying to do. Not that we should believe in God because we want a sense of moral order: That would be getting things backward. But when we’re tempted to imagine that we can set up our own moral order without Him, it’s a good idea to look straight on at where that leads. Sneak preview: We go bust. You can bet on it.

About the Author

Matt Kaufman

Matt Kaufman has been a columnist for Boundless since the site’s founding in 1998, and did a stint as editor in 2002-2003. He’s also a former staffer and current contributing editor for Focus on the Family Citizen magazine. Matt is a freelance writer/editor who spent some years in Colorado, but gave up the mountains for the cornfields: He now lives in his hometown of Urbana, home of the University of Illinois. His house is a five minute drive from the one where he grew up, and he enjoys daily walks around the park where he used to play baseball.