The Ten Commandments: A Re-Examination

By John "Birdman" Bryant


The Ten Commandments have been around for at least 3500 years, and even in the present day you will hear people assert that they provide a good basis for morality, or even that they are the only moral code necessary. While I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that anything which has lasted as long as 3500 years must have something important to it, I am not so optimistic as to think that the Big Ten are quite as immutable as some of the pundits and pulpiteers seem to believe. For one thing, the first four commandments are theological; so if you are an atheist as I am, then the most you can hope to salvage as a general moral code is the final six, which for future reference I list below:

(5) Honor your parents.

(6) No murder.

(7) No adultery.

(8) No stealing.

(9) No lying.

(10) No coveting.

From this, however, we must eliminate (10), since coveting is a feeling, and is thus not something we can control in any significant sense: If we strongly desire our neighbor's whatever, then the only way we can voluntarily stop desiring it is to put a bullet in our brain or equivalent, and no reasonable person is going to accept that as a commandment.

This, then, leaves us with the Big Five. And while most people recognize the importance of these commandments, the ugly fact is that the Big Five leave out a lot. And, what is worse, they are ambiguous -- an important point in view of the frequently-made claim that Christianity in general, and the Big Ten in particular, constitute an "absolute morality".

The worst case for ambiguity is the no-lying commandment. Obviously, if you swear on the Old and New Testaments as we do today, or on the testicles as we did in former times (yes, testament comes from this practice: presumably you were swearing on your most important part, which just might be cut off if you lied), then you ought to tell the truth; but the question is, are you obligated to tell the truth when Auntie Dear asks your opinion of her Carmen Miranda hat (OK, guys, read him his rights!) My own personal experience in this area is informative: One time I told my grandmother -- just to be nice -- how much I liked her German potato salad (truth was, I didn't really like it that much). And what happened? Why, every time I visited her, I was served more of that damn salad. Speaking of eating your words ... . Murder is also a problem case. As I have pointed out in other essays, human life is actually valued much like a commodity: When it is rare, it is valued; and when abundant, it is not. We see this reflected in such heavily-populated countries as China, where having more than one child is illegal and women are often forcibly aborted; in Japan, where suicide is an honored exit from life; in Colombia, where a murder can be purchased for about $100; and in Brazil, where street urchins are actually hunted and killed as a public service by the police. And we see the same thesis reflected in lightly-populated America, where suicide hotlines abound, where even an injury can result in huge damage awards, where the handicapped and crack babies are treated like royalty, and where abortion protesters spring up like mushrooms after a rain. The point here is that the variation in the value of human life causes a variation in the importance of murder, even to the point of making murder desirable rather than forbidden. Score one for relative morality.

But relativistic morals do not end here, for there are always conceivable circumstances in which the Big Five can be violated: You wouldn't honor your parents if they were murderers; you'd be happy to lie or steal if it would save your life; and you'd even be happy to commit adultery if the cuckold enjoyed watching and you enjoyed being watched.

All of which is to say that the Big Five is somewhat of a flop. However, they may be salvaged after a fashion if we are willing to accept them as guidelines which apply to most cases, rather than absolutes chiseled in stone (Hey, I thought chiseling was illegal! -- and now you know why coins have milled edges: When they were made of gold, chiselers would chisel the edges off and "make their pile"). That, of course, will annoy the Absolutists no end, who like to joke that the Mosaic law does indeed contain the Ten Commandments and not the Ten Suggestions; but the joke, of course, is on them.

But even going as far as the Five Suggestions is not enuf. For one thing, they are awkwardly stated; and for another, they are not sufficiently comprehensive. Consider stealing, for example, and let us restate it as

(A) Do not take what is not yours.

This includes taking physical property, but also includes taking such intangibles as information (as in cheating on a test or the improper acquisition of intellectual property), experiences (adultery, rape, privacy violation) and human life (murder, kidnapping, freedom, time). This, however, demonstrates that the Big Five were not sufficiently comprehensive, and that murder and adultery are logically a part of stealing. Given this analysis, we are left with only one other commandment besides (A) and (5), namely

(B) No lying

whose ambiguity we have already discussed, but whose general wisdom we do not question. A and B, however, are really special instances of the rule

(X) Do not harm others without provocation.

This latter rule, however, simply forbids what is generally known as 'wrong acts', ie, it does not include a command to perform positive good. Most moralists, however, believe that people should perform acts of positive good, which would then be covered by the following rule:

(Y) Do good, but without being a 'do-gooder', ie, without being someone who performs acts whose intention is good, but which are unwelcome by the recipients.

Such a rule would then cover Commandment 5, "Honor your parents", which is the only one of the Big Five that requires a positive act. (X) and (Y) do not cover all acts, however, for there is another category that must also be included:

(Z) Know your obligations and fulfill them.

This rule comprehends a sort of no-man's land in between forbidden acts and mandatory positive acts, and thereby poses some difficulty because it is significantly open-ended and indefinite: How do we know what our obligations are to someone who gives us a lagniappe, someone who is our parent or guardian, someone who saves our life, and all shades and variations in between? There is really no answer we can give to this except to suggest that one's obligation is what he feels. (The interested reader may wish to consult my extensive discussion of obligation which is found in my book The Most Powerful Idea Ever Discovered.)

But can (X), (Y) and (Z) be condensed into a single behavioral rule? The answer is Yes, and that rule is the Golden Rule:

(XYZ) Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

As it happens, however, (X), (Y) and (Z) omit three other important rules. One of these is what I call the Rule of Manners:

(P) Mind your manners.

While it could be argued that minding one's manners is a positive act included under (Z), at the very least it is a unique case that requires special discussion. In particular, because many consider manners and morals to be completely separate, such people would think it incomprehensible that manners should be a moral imperative. In fact, however, manners are as much at the root of civilization as morals. In particular, manners are the sine qua non for getting along with others, and thus it is impossible for people to work together (or to build and maintain a civilization together) without manners.

Part of the problem of including manners as a subset of morals is that manners are variable according to culture; but this constitutes an objection only to those who (mistakenly) think that morals are absolutes, and manners are relatives. As we have shown above, morals are often relative according to situation, tho it is true that morals are much more constant across cultural lines than are manners. But manners themselves have a significant constancy irrespective of culture: One does not spit on the host's floor; one does not shake his fist in another's face; one does not ignore another who is addressing him; and so on. But even if one argues that manners are relatives and morals absolutes, one cannot deny that the need to exhibit the manners appropriate to the social environment is itself a moral imperative. A second behavioral rule not comprehended by the Golden Rule is what I call the Rule of Blame:

(Q) Do not blame others when you can blame yourself.

This rule is important because it is unlikely that we can change others, while it is always within our power to change ourselves, even if difficult. That is, when we can blame ourselves, it is not only useless to blame others, but worse than useless, because it gets us nowhere and solves no problem.

The third behavioral rule not comprehended by the Golden Rule is what I call the Rule of Survival:

(R) Do whatever you must to survive -- after all, nothing else matters if you don't.

This commandment evidently trumps all others. However, it is not quite accurate as stated, since sometimes one ranks someone else's survival over his own, eg, that of his spouse or family. Thus the rule is more accurately if more awkwardly stated as

(R') Do whatever you must to insure the survival of yourself and/or those for whom you care.

This rule, we may note, embraces not merely self, family and friends, but -- in appropriate circumstances -- comrades, race or nation as well.

Evidently this rule is both right and important, and yet it is also troubling. In particular, it has the ring of another rule which has become infamous because of its abuse, namely, the Marxian dictum of 'From each, according to his abilities; to each, according to his needs.' The problem with the Marxian dictum is that it provides no objective standard for deciding the difference between 'wants' and 'needs', with the result that the powerful people in Marxist states have many needs that most others would call wants, but which still get satisfied, while those without power have a great many needs that the powerful people call wants, and which therefore do NOT get satisfied. The Rule of Survival, then, is like the Marxian dictum by seeming to say that you can do any damn thing you please as long as you consider it necessary for survival, including accumulating wealth and living in luxury. Even worse, this rule seems to wipe out all other moral rules, since it makes survival take precedence over all else. This, however, means that the Rule of Survival is actually a META-rule (ie, a rule about rules), which dictates that under certain circumstances, the rules of morality are suspended. But what circumstances are those? Roughly speaking, they are 'extreme circumstances' -- an unfortunately vague concept, but one that cannot really be made more precise. Thus we may reformulate the Rule of Survival as the Moral Meta-Rule:

(MMR) The rules of ordinary morality may be suspended in extraordinary circumstances, generally those in which one's survival is at stake.

Among the general public, if not philosophers themselves, there is widespread agreement with the MMR. One of the most commonplace statements of agreement is the assertion that "All's fair in love and war", where, as we all know, love is merely a special case of war. But in spite of this, there is counterveiling pressure NOT to suspend the ordinary rules of morality, even in the case of personal survival, because personal survival is often intimately linked to community survival, as in the case of the soldiers who must die so the community can live. In such cases, it is generally agreed that personal survival does not trump the ordinary rules of morality, tho difficulties arise when questions are raised, for example, about whether the soldier's mission has anything to do with community survival -- questions raised most forcefully during the Vietnam War, but ones which have begun to be asked about almost every war.

Besides the above, there are other difficulties in the MMR. One of the most publicized recent cases concerns a defense of torture in cases of terrorism; and another is the question of the right of conquest, which is behind all military adventurism such as that presently engaged in by Israel against the Palestinians, and the United States against Iraq. Another difficulty with the MMR is that opponents may also suspend morality, which means that conflicts can become nasty indeed. This, in fact, is the reason why there are 'rules of war' such as the Geneva Conventions: The point is to keep the nasty business of war within certain 'acceptable' boundaries so that it does not become 'all out war' in which innocent civilians are made to suffer.

It is possible to throw some light on the controversy surrounding the MMR by considering Anatole France's cynical remark that, "The law, in the majesty of its equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor from sleeping under bridges." More generally, the concern reflected here is that of the political Left, which typically regards the circumstances of the Poor and Downtrodden as an emergency, no matter how well-off the P&D actually are. But the Right is often as guilty as the Left in this regard, particularly in its tendency to foment wars, including the War on This and the War on That, which are inevitably said to represent Dire Emergencies, and hence require a suspension of morality, law, belief, and enemies from lampposts. To which I say, A plague on both their houses.

The light which the above examples throw on the MMR controversy is that there exists what might be called the Moral Scale, one extreme of which -- the Poverty End -- represents the circumstance of fighting for one's very survival, and the other extreme -- the Luxury End -- represents the circumstance that one's survival is guaranteed. The difference between the two is that there is no difficulty for people at the Luxury End in behaving morally, while it is impossible for people at the Poverty End to do so; and that people who are located at spots in between will find it possible to behave morally in varying degrees according to their location on the scale. Here, then, is the moral divide between the rich, who don't mind being forbidden from sleeping under bridges, and the poor, who may find it a necessity.

We can explain the Morality Scale in a somewhat more lucid way by recognizing that the tension between morality (toward the Luxury End) and survival (toward the Poverty End) is really a tension between the desires of the individual and the desires of the community. The immediate (as opposed to long-term) desire of the individual is to take all and give nothing to others (the selfish, or capitalist philosophy); the immediate desire of the community (inasmuch as it can be said to have a desire) is to take all and leave the individual with nothing (the selfless, or socialist, way). The only resolution to this impasse is to allow something to the individual and something to the community, and the happiest resolution -- as the struggle between capitalism and communism has indubitably shown -- is to allow most to go to the individual.

Now having characterized the Moral Scale as representing the tension between the interests of the individual and the interests of the community, we can see that immoral acts are actually a form of risk-taking, where one risks the condemnation of the community and the chance that it will take reprisals (as in firebombing the perpetrator's house or sending him to jail), and where the potential risk is weighed against the potential reward. Thus when an individual finds himself near the Poverty End of the scale, the risk associated with immorality is small relative to the reward; while if he is near the Luxury End, the relative attractions of risk and reward are reversed. Or to put it in terms of our earlier example, the poor will violate customary morality by sleeping under bridges because to not do so will be risky by threatening their survival, while being caught and punished -- even if unpleasant -- will not; and similarly, the rich will not sleep under bridges because there is no reward (and in fact, there is a negative one) for taking such a risk.

The above analysis is helpful in understanding a phenomenon which is often remarked on, but little understood: Liberal guilt. When one is located near the Luxury End of the Morality Scale, as liberals usually are, one can afford to observe the highest refinements of morality, particularly including philanthropy. This might not be so bad if it were not for the fact that liberals have persuaded the government to behave philanthropically with the money of people who are not necessarily clustered in the same area of the morality scale as the liberals. But then there are none so blind to their mistakes as those who believe they are doing good.

The bottom line, then, is that morality varies not only by individual, but also by social class, with more of it in the upper classes than the lower, who are less inclined to it because it imposes a cost that they may feel they cannot afford. On the other hand, however, morality is the key to getting along with others; so that it is only the upper classes who are sufficiently moral to create a stable and workable society. Accordingly, no matter how much the Left may invoke the MMR as a justification for the bad behavior of the canaille, the only way genuine 'justice' can be obtained is in a moral society that is birthed and cared for by an upper class in the ancient tradition of noblesse oblige.

But if the above is true as far as it goes, there is yet another important factor to consider, namely, that humanity is on the cusp of an Age of Abundance -- an age brought on not by 'caring' socialism, but rather by 'uncaring' capitalism. This is difficult for many in the present day to see, what with the overweening presence of Third-World poverty and the massive debt of consumer-age credit-carders; and yet advances in science and technology make it clear that, if the world can just keep from blowing itself up, abundance is right around the corner. Abundance, however -- or wealth, or whatever you wish to call it -- is the key to morality by making morality 'affordable'; so if the world's economies can just provide enuf people with some base level of wealth, then the Morality Scale, in a relativistic acceleration toward the future, becomes foreshortened like a ruler approaching the speed of light in a Lorenz transformation, so that rich and poor not only cease to be significantly separated, but everyone is pushed toward the Luxury End, and hence toward moral behavior.

So maybe money can buy happiness after all.

IN CONCLUSION, then, we have identified what we believe to be the Four Great Rules of human behavior: The Golden Rule, the Rule of Manners, the Rule of Blame, and the Moral Meta-Rule, or just the Big Four for short. Furthermore, we have teased out of the Golden Rule that it not only forbids the bad, but also requires the good. Thus in one fell swoop (or perhaps one swell poop) not only have we pared down the Big Ten and filled out its missing parts, but we have added three new moral imperatives which are just as important as any of the Big Five: The Rule of Manners, the Rule of Blame and the Moral Meta-Rule. I'd say that's a pretty decent result for an afternoon's work.



In the present paper we have avoided discussing certain facts which are also relevant to morality, but are somewhat peripheral. These include the fact that our moral concerns may be more intense when they involve persons close to us emotionally -- ie, that our morality may be different in some sense for those close to us than for others more distant. This means not only that we behave toward friends differently from family, and strangers differently from friends, but that our morality will also be different in encounters with foreigners (whom we kill sometimes), animals (which we can kill any time) and ETs (who may want to kill us). The principal controversy in such cases has been the matter of where to draw the line between 'us' and 'them', and has found expresson in the faceoffs between nationalists and internationalists, various racial rights advocates who champion their group against those who proclaim that 'there is no race but the human race', animal rightists who hold that 'animals are people too', and even UFO believers, who champion ETs. The important thing here is that, by defining 'others' differently, we change our morality in some sense, and this makes clear once again that morality is neither universal nor absolute, but rather is relative to our condition.



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