Friday, October 31, 2008

The Merits of the 10, er... 3 Commandments

Recently, in the midst of a theological debate, a friend of mine asked me the following question:

"Trent, tell me honestly, do you think the world would be a better or worse place if everyone followed the Ten Commandments."

Now, I thought about this for a bit. I didn't want to answer one way just to be contrary, but I find that my knee-jerk reaction and my pondered reaction were similar. My answer was "worse."

I feel, however, that this requires explanation. The common man is accustomed to think of the 10 Commandments as some sort of codex of essential morality, a sort of fundamental quanta of humanness that proves that its authors were, if not divine, at least nigh-infinitely wise. Never mind that the commandments are just a portion of the law laid down in the old Testament and that, if the Leviticus apologists (who are thick as flies and twice as irritating) are right, would be just as essentially eliminated by a wave of Jesus hand along with the rest of the old law. The people on the submissive end of the victim/victimizer religious dichotomy seem to think that the Ten Commandments are all you'd need to live well, and, to be honest, I find this is not the case.

So let us dissect the 10 Commandments as ethical laws, divorced of the idea of a supernatural lawgiver to give them extra weight. Of course if Yahweh was real we'd want to follow these rules (or at least we should invest in iron chariots, Judges 1:19) but that isn't ethics, that's fear of an omnipotent dictator.

Commandment the First: Do not have any other gods before me.

Inherently meaningless without a 'me' to serve as the God. Also, religious pluralism is ultimately ethically harmless. The only advantage of universal monotheism is an unopposed Priest Caste and, arguably, a bit more societal homogeny. This gives us some wiggle room in regard to the value of cultural diversity but ultimately, this is irrelevant authoritarianism by the Great and Powerful Oz and, in my option, would simply make the world worse off.

Commandment the Second: You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

Often summarized as the 'no graven images' clause, this is again, just religious powerbroking. On one end, yes, it would free up a lot of resources and man-hours currently spent churning out Mary Merch, Plastic Jesuses and Smiling Portraits of Saint Reagan of the Republican party. And if universally applied, then anything that reduces religiosity would be considered a good rule of thumb, but just as you can't legislate morality you can't legislate rationality. This fails as well, stop trying to sabotage the competition and show me some product, Jahova!

Commandment the Third: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

I'm sorry, but at no point has "all must love and speak respectfully of the leader" been a positive social rule. Controlling speech and expression, sweet batter-fried baby Jesus on a spit, that's definitely going to make things worse. What's next? Thought crime?

Commandment the Forth: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

We're four in, and not a single one that controls anything except the means by which one must prostate themselves before supernatural authority and, by extension, its earthly representatives.

Commandment the Fifth: Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Ok, now we're to something resembling ethics. "Be nice to mom and dad". It only took us halfway to the list to hit something of social significance and yet its still pro-authoritarian jackbootery. I love my mother and my father. But they screwed up a lot, and they weren't even that bad as parents go. Should all people honor their parents, no matter how irresponsible, abusive, idiotic, neglectful or criminal they happen to be? Authority that isn't earned isn't ethical, its an open door to abuse and irrational control. So I toss #5 on the chopping block and head into the 'meat' of the commandments.

Commandment the Sixth: You shall not murder.

Sometimes rendered "Thou shalt not kill." Finally, an ethical rule, and one that is nigh-universal in societies the world over. This one gets the thumbs up, and would get a bigger thumbs up if it weren't for the fact that it specifies murder. "Thou shalt not Kill" is a bad translation, since there are plenty of acceptable means of dealing death according to the Bible, they're just not considered murder.

Commandment the Seventh: You shall not commit adultery.

Adultery is a betrayal of one's wife or husband or hufe or wisband or whatnot. Presuming, of course, that's the agreement. I'd say that betraying one's spouse by cheating is bad. It hurts feelings, causes conflicts and can cause issues with children and (other) STDs. But not everyone is in a monogamous relationship. I don't do the 'open relationship' thing personally, but some folks do. And if that's the agreement both spouses aspire to, then considering what they do criminal, not just a bad idea, but criminal, is silly and authoritarian. Can't support it without a lot more clauses, and this is one of the short ones, in both Exodus and Deuteronomy.

Commandment the Eighth: You shall not steal.

The theft of property is all but universally considered a bad idea in terms of societal norms. Gotta agree with that. For those keeping track, that's two.

Commandment the Ninth: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Well, this is often simplified, rather stupidly, to "Thou shalt not Lie". Actually, its an admonition against perjury, or, at the most expansive, lying about one of your own. For the sake of being generous, we'll ignore the 'your neighbor' clauses and assume that everyone, not just the persons in your own particular tribe of G-d fearing shepherds is to be given the benefit of these rules. Defaming others and lying in court are harmful, we have our third rule that yes, would probably make things better if universally applied, provided, of course, the subtle push for tribalism is ignored.

Commandment the Tenth: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Well, I was wrong. Thought Crime wasn't next, it was just coming. Wanting things other people have is a crime. Fantastic.

This sounds like a good idea on the surface. If you don't desire other people's things (insultingly enough wives and slaves are considered things one can own), then you're not going to be tempted to take them by force or trickery. This is often seen as the linchpin of the whole ethos. Don't want, and you won't be tempted to bad action to get. Too bad there are several flaws here. There are so many flaws, in fact, that this, the most unassuming of commandments, requires the largest rebuttal.

Firstly, this rule is impossible to follow. Desire is not something one controls, it happens, and a reasonable approach to modern psychology indicates that this isn't because we're morally corrupt or we're all evil misers waiting to happen. It is because we're wired that way. We want things that will give us advantage. Its our choice what we do with those impulses. This is, in essence, thought crime, and I can't support it solely on that level. Moreover, its presence is used, more often than the monstrous concept of 'original sin' (inherited criminality, would we tolerate that, even for a second, from a mortal authority? Or, more accurately, a mortal authority that doesn't claim to be speaking on the behalf of an immortal authority?) to ensure that everyone is guilty of something all the time. One cannot prove oneself innocent of thought crime, and thus the Church-Complex has something on you all the time. They need only have the will to act on your invisible and intangible wickedness.

But this exercise, which is the idea of everyone, universally, following these rules, actually allows for this prohibition to work, no matter how ridiculous it is in reality. To explain why, even in this scenario, the 10th Commandment is a hideous thing requires a little setup.

There's a lot of talk of why the Soviet Union failed. The most plausible reason, on a fundamental (and probably over-simplified level), that I have heard, however, is that it failed because of a crisis of motivation. With everything under state control, and everyone equal (except for the more-equal party leaders), there was no competition. No reason to stand out and do better than others because the rewards are all equal.

The story goes that a Russian Diplomat was amazed when his lodgings in the US had to be repainted. The painters did the whole place in a day. He marveled that the painters were so quick, since in Russia it would have taken a week or more. He was then informed that, since the painters were paid by the job, they had good reason to get to the next one. Their quality was due to the need to ensure that if their services were ever needed again, they'd be called back. This is the so-called 'enlightened self interest' that the MegaCapitalists like to shout about while they fight over the opportunity to sniff Ayn Rand's panties. Allowed to flourish unchecked, it is just as bad as the extreme in the opposite direction, but as a fundamental human motivation, self-interest and localized group interest (my friends, my spouse, my children, my family, my tribe) cannot be denied except by the most dewy-eyed Pollyanna.

The 10th Commandment takes the Communist system up a notch. It doesn't eliminate rewards and thus undermine the desire to achieve. It instead goes straight to the root of the problem and rips out the very desire to have nice things. What this Commandment dictates is not a sense of security with one's own possessions and position, but a lobotomized lack of desire for anything better. Enacted to its fullest, this Commandment, more than any other, would grind human progress to a halt. Thus, it can't be considered a good or positive thing in my eyes.

If I see my neighbor's car, and its a very nice one, I will want something like it. This doesn't mean I'm going to steal his car. Even without legal ramifications I wouldn't do that, as my ethics are derived from empathy. But wanting that car would, however, make me do what I could, legally, to buy one of my own. Or perhaps a better one, or even a less nice one that is more suited to my needs. This applies to all material goods: houses, livestock and other belongings all in sum total.

I don't count wives or slaves, because ownership of human chattel in any form is fiendish. Once a being reaches a certain point of mental development (I may address this point in a future essay on what it is to be human in regard to abortion rights and transhumanist definitions) a person owns oneself, according to my moral estimation. One needs only the most basic shreds of empathy to come to that sort of conclusion. That said, anyone with the Internet, eyes and at least one functional limb has likely coveted more than a few wives.


What I find most telling is what isn't in the Ten Commandments. Where is "Thou Shaft Not Rape?", "Thou Shaft not Vandalize" or "Thou Shaft Respect Thin Neighbor's Privacy"? Nearly half of the Commandments exist purely to put the Almighty Alcoholic in the tops position with his Codepedendant Mortal spouses. From there we have three universally good ideas (one with qualifications that makes it far less ethically useful) and three ideas that sound sort good on the surface until you really start thinking about them.

The world might yet be a nicer place if everyone followed the Three Commandments (No murder, no stealing and no perjury), but those aren't unique ideas by a long shot.

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