Reflections on Ethics 14
Earlier, I criticized the biblical ten commandments and gave them a failing grade as a guide to morality. But their failure was recognized from the time they were written. The proof is the book of Leviticus with countless laws from God beyond the ten on stone tablets.
A rudimentary search on the Internet will come up with any number of lists of ten or more rules to replace the ten commandments. This is my own attempt. In doing so, I have tried to:
- stay within the original framework
- avoid reference to a specific set of religious beliefs
- eliminate the negative, accentuate the positive
I don't regard these as commandments. They are just suggestions or guidelines. They are not perfect, staying within the themes established by the original ten ensures that. But I think they are useful.
1. Follow your own religious beliefs and respect the right of others to follow theirs.
The original "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" was a commandment specifically directed at the Jewish people. It did not deny the existence of other gods, or of other religious beliefs. It just said that Jews should follow the Jewish god. This revision respects that intention.
2. Take enjoyment in works of art and culture.
The second commandment "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" was the most difficult to find an equivalent for. It forbids an entire area of the arts. I consider the arts are to be enjoyed, whether as an artist or a spectator.
3. Speak civilly.
"Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain" does not come close to covering the full range of offensive language.
4. Rest from your labors.
"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy" suggests we should take a break solely for religious purposes. Taking a break from work is excellent advice, but you should be free to make your own decision about the use of your leisure time, and the scheduling of that time off.
5. Act such that you merit honour.
The problem with the fifth commandment, "Honour thy father and thy mother" is that it requires you to give someone honour, whether they deserve it or not. This revision suggests how you should conduct your life rather than providing an order for blind obedience.
6. Respect human life.
How do we combine a blanket injunction against taking life with the reality that it is sometimes necessary to do so? Self defense is an acceptable reason for most of us, whether at the individual level, or in the case of wars, at the national level. If we are guided by respect for human life, including our own, then perhaps the conundrum is resolved.
7. Honor the commitments you have made with your spouse.
Is this not better as a guide to married life than the biblical injunction against adultery? Particularly when the biblical context for adultery was quite different from today's meaning.
8. Respect the right of others to their possessions.
Really, there is nothing wrong with "Thou shalt not steal." This formulation is just to change it to the positive rather than the negative.
9. Tell the truth.
Again, I have little quibble with "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." I have just made it a positive guide rather than a negative, and widened the range of things to be honest about.
10. Be reasonable in your desires for material things.
I make no secret of the fact I find the tenth commandment totally alien to human nature. We all covet. There is no way around it. But, we should not allow that covetousness become our ruling passion.