Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Moral Uselessness of the 10 Commandments

Christians are always telling us how necessary their god is for morality, as if man needed an invisible magic being to tell him what's right and what's wrong. For this, they love the 10 commandments found in the 20th chapter of the book of Exodus. According to believers, the 10 commandments formulate the bedrock of the ultimate standard in morality. Like them, we are expected to assume that the content of the 10 commandments was not developed by human beings and subsequently attributed to their god. On the contrary, we are supposed to believe that they were delivered to us just as the storybook tells us: from the divine creator of the universe itself to the rest of humanity by way of a man named Moses who encountered this supernatural being in the form of a talking tumbleweed on the summit of Mt. Sinai some 3500 ago, give or take a few centuries.

The 10 commandments are predominantly prohibitive in nature. They dwell on telling us what not to do, not what we should do. Debates over the appropriateness or sufficiency of the 10 commandments are waged from internet chatrooms to the chambers of the US Supreme Court. It seems, however, that many of these debates often miss the point of morality to begin with. Many people, including Christians, seem to view morality as a punitive restraint, a penalty which man is obliged to bear for being man. So it is natural that they would endorse a standard informed by prohibitions backed by personal threats and psychological sanctions.

Contrary to this punitive conception of morality is the conception which I have adopted, a view of morality which never loses sight of the facts underlying man's objective need for morality. Man needs morality because he faces a fundamental alternative, and because of this he needs values in order to live. Since man does not automatically know what is of value to his life or which course of action will enable him to achieve and/or protect those values, he needs a code of values which guides his choices and actions. "The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live." (Atlas Shrugged) Essentially, according to my worldview, morality is the application of reason to the task of living, a rational code which takes account of man's profound need for values. A morality suitable for man needs therefore to be useful to man, but this is precisely where the 10 commandments fail as a standard of morality fit for my life.

To understand this, let's take a look at them:

1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
5. Honor thy father and thy mother.
6. Thou shalt not kill.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8. Thou shalt not steal.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness.
10. Thou shalt not covet.

Regarding the first commandment, I have no gods before me whatsoever, since I have no god-belief. So the prohibition of other gods is morally useless for me.

Regarding the second commandment, I don’t worship graven images in the first place, such as little statues of Mary or Jesus on a cross. So this prohibition is morally useless for me.

What of the third commandment? Since I have no god-belief, I obviously cannot take the name of my god in vain, since I have no god. This commandment is thus morally useless to me.

The fourth commandment demands that I set “the Sabbath day” aside for rest. (Originally this was Saturday, but for Christians this is typically Sunday.) It is essentially a prohibition against working on that day. In other words, it is a prohibition against producing values on a specific day of the week, which is utterly arbitrary. In fact, this is completely contrary to morality, for morality is all about achieving and protecting values. This commandment is thus morally useless to me.

The fifth commandment is at best superfluous, and it misses the point to boot. I honor my parents because of the honor they have earned, not because I’m commanded to. Moreover, like love, genuine honor is not subject to commands; it has to be earned to be real. This commandment is thus morally useless to me.

The sixth commandment prohibits killing. Ostensibly this means killing other human beings (some Christians say it means premeditated murder or homicide outside of dire self-defense). But since I have no desire or intention to kill another human being, this commandment is morally useless to me.

The seventh commandment prohibits adultery. But since I have no intention of cheating on my wife, this commandment is morally useless to me.

The eighth commandment prohibits stealing. But again, I have no intention of stealing anything from anyone since I neither pursue nor accept the unearned, either in values or in spirit. This commandment is therefore morally useless to me.

The ninth commandment prohibits lying. But since I have no intention of faking reality, either to myself or to others, then this commandment is also morally useless to me.

The tenth commandment prohibits coveting, which I find to be the most curious of all the commandments. One online dictionary defines ‘covet’ as “to desire wrongfully, inordinately, or without due regard for the rights of others.” But since I recognize each individual’s fundamental rights, I do not take actions in social contexts “wrongly, inordinately, or without due regard for the rights of others.” And again, since I do not pursue the unearned, a command prohibiting wrongful and inordinate desires is of no moral use to me. Even more, I do not see how simply desiring something can pose a threat to the rights of others. So long as I am not taking action which violates another’s individual rights, what exactly is the problem here? It appears to be an arbitrary restriction, perhaps the foothold of a slippery slope argument. ("If you covet, then you're going to... and... and..." etc.) So this commandment is also morally useless to me; it does not guide the choices that I do need to make in order to live, but instead worries fallaciously about what appears to be a non-existent harm.

A rational individual clearly needs something better than all this. The commandments only tell us how not to live; they do not tell us how to live, which is what a moral code should do. They say nothing about values, neither man's need for them nor the proper way of achieving them, and apparently takes values completely for granted. Several of the prohibitions could be summarized by an injunction against the infringement of individual rights, a fundamental principle which would also prohibit involuntary servitude. But from what I can tell, the bible does not lay out a theory of individual rights to begin with. Then again, theists are often prone to confusing morality with social theory; morality focuses on the individual and the choices he makes for his life, while a suitable social theory applies moral principles in defining the limits of one's actions in the context of interpersonal relationships.

A list of prohibitions is not a substitute for one's need of a code of values which will guide the choices and actions he will make, and a list of prohibitions against choices he has no desire to make in the first place will not compensate for the omission of the former. Moreover, a rational individual by definition is one who guides his choices and actions according to rational principles, as opposed to threats from imaginary supernatural beings. He has no need for a list of injunctions telling him what an invisible magic being doesn't want him to do. The 10 commandments do not tell us what we should do or why, so in the final analysis they are morally useless.

by Dawson Bethrick


Zachary Moore said...

And this is to say nothing of the fact that it is only in Exodus 34 that we find a decalogue explicitly titled "The Ten Commandments." But these (unhappily for the Christian) represent an earlier Yahwistic (and thus, more cultic) set of religious guidelines, which focus more prominently on cultic festivals and Temple worship. The last of these is, strangely enough, "you shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk," which is most reasonably interpreted as a prohibition against mixing meat and dairy in the same meal. To which one of my favorite questions to Christians who champion the Ten Commandments is, "Eaten any good cheeseburgers lately?"

architect said...

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Martin said...

Since when was Antony Flew "the world's greatest atheist"? And how does one get to be "the world's greatest atheist" anyway? Is there some contest? The Nationwide Freestyle Blasphemy Challenge, or something?

I think I know spam when I see it. And while we're on a topic thread about morals, perhaps we could discuss the morality of comment spam. In the meantime, it's up to Dawson whether he wants to keep your crap ad for your stupid book up here. I for one will not be ordering.

PastorL5 said...

You have a well written post here, but unfortunately miss the mark in a couple of points. If you allow me the time I'd like to explain those to you:

1. Your presupposition that because you have no intention of committing one of these acts (i.e. lying) doesn't mean that you still aren't held accountable for the acts that you will or will not do. Obviously at some point in your life you made the MORAL decision to not be a liar or murderer but does that necessarily mean that the commandment is rendered useless? I don't think so.
2. Also, just because you don't believe in God doesn't mean He doesn't exist. I understand that you may not think there is sufficient (or really any) evidence that God doesn't exist, but just because you can't see Him doesn't mean He's not there. I like the example of a young kid who said "I may never see 1 billion dollars, but it doesn't mean it doesn't exist."

3. Finally, if you read the New Testament (which is given as a supplement to the Old Testament) you will realize that these "prohibitions" as you call them are moral mandates given to us by God. Also remember that in the Old Testament there is more talk about God's Love, Compassion, and Mercy than any other subject. God does command us to not do certain things, but He also commands us to do other things (most importantly love Him and others as we love ourselves).

Thanks for reading, feel free to contact me with your counterpoints.

Peace, Love, and Soul
Larry D Vinson

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Larry,

Thank you for taking the time to comment on my post.

In regard to your first point, I nowhere argued for or against the view that I am held accountable for the choices and actions which I make in spite of my having no intention to commit the actions prohibited in the 10 commandments. Indeed, I hold myself accountable for my own choices and actions, and even more, reality does. If I choose to eat something that is poisonous (a chosen action), reality will prevail. The fundamental choice which I have made is to govern my choices and actions according to my natural need for values. This is why I need morality: to guide my choices and actions. Telling me what I should not do does not in any way guide me in what I should do. Going by the 10 commandments, one can sit on his butt and rot and he would be “moral.” But that’s because the 10 commandments divorces morality from values and man’s need for them. That is why the 10 commandments are useless, as I explained in my post.

In regard to your second point, again – I have nowhere argued that “God” doesn’t exist simply because I do not believe in “Him,” so I do not see the relevance of this point. Nor did I argue that simply because I do not see “God” that “He” therefore doesn’t exist. I have raised numerous objections against god-belief in other writings of mine, and believers have had notorious difficulty answering them. Then again, I have never seen Geusha, the supreme being of the Lahu tribe, but this does not mean Geusha does not exist. I can imagine Geusha given the descriptions which I have learned from Lahu tribesmen, but again the imaginary is not real. As for your analogy about the billion dollars, I’d say it’s pretty weak. Naturally the kid has seen at least some dollars, so he knows what dollars are and that they exist through empirical means.

In regard to your final point, my post focuses specifically on the 10 commandments, since many Christians point to them as some kind of “standard” when it comes to moral teaching. It does not seek to address other statements made in the Old Testament, such as the ones you have in mind. As a “moral guide,” the 10 commandments fail miserably. With the exception of two of them (which I address in my post), they only tell an individual what not to do, not what he should do. And if he has no intention of doing the things it prohibits in the first place, what guidance does it give him? Blank out.


jerry243 said...

Your logic is intrinsically flawed. Every reason you give for why the 10 commandments are useless is purely arbitrary. What you attempted to do was, apparently, argue reasons for why they are not applicable today, or why they have no value. What you ended up doing was giving reasons for why they are not applicable to *you*. In fact, you ended almost every "reason" with a "to me". Just because you are a "good person", and the non-God-related commandments are already fulfilled (for lack of a better word) by you, does not mean that they don't apply to others. Your title should actually say "Why the 10 commandments are morally useless to me".

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hello Jerry,

Thank you for sharing your opinion.

Unfortunately, your objection is intrinsically flawed. You’re basically saying that my case for the moral uselessness of the ten commandments is annulled on the allegation that they “apply to others,” in which case it would presumably follow that the ten commandments are only useless specifically to me. But this begs the question by assuming that the ten commandments are morally useful at all, which is what your objection would need to prove in order to use it as an objection against my points.

Moreover, when you concede that I am already a good person, you ignore the reasons *why* I am a good person, and those reasons are not owing to some “commandments” (as if good could be commanded into existence; it can’t – try it if you don’t believe me), but due to the fact that I follow a set of rational principles which *are* morally useful. My goodness as a person is not a primary; it is the outcome of adhering to rational principles which guide my choices and actions.

Besides, if I’ve succeeded, as you are apparently acknowledging, that I’ve secured my case for the ten commandments being morally useless specifically to me, then, by virtue of the contextual reasons *why* they are morally useless to me, they would consequently be morally useless to anyone who adopts a rational code of morality, which can only mean, generally, they are morally useless as such. In other words, if the ten commandments are morally useless to me because I adhere to rational moral principles, then by extension they would be morally useless to *anyone* who adheres to rational moral principles. There is no substitute for rational morality, not even commandments attributed to some being which man can only *imagine*.

So I would say in response to your objection that my reasoning rests on solid grounds, and your objection pretty much falls flat on its face.

Anyway, thanks for trying.