Apologies for the break in blogging recently, have been a little busy. Was watching TV last night and came across one of those ubiquitous ‘the Top Ten ____s of all time!’ shows. This reminded me of probably the most famous example of this genre, the Ten Commandments.
Now, the Ten Commandments are quite popular among the fans of Abraham, who at least claim to constitute about half of the world’s human population. But what’s interesting is that as well as this, there are plenty of non-Abrahamists, or people lukewarm about Abrahamism, who nevertheless say that this collection of instructions are in some sense ‘a good guide’ to morality, a good expression of ‘moral basics’, or even ‘the foundations of our civilisation’ (meaning that in a good way).
This seems odd to me, since the Ten Commandments actually seem a very good example of an immoral document, one that gives very bad moral advice. Indeed, I think society would be much improved if they ceased to be anybody’s ‘moral basics’. So I thought I’d briefly explain why I think they’re so wrong.
The first four commandments, of course, are all about worshipping God, which I think is, on balance, a bad idea. I won’t go into that too much. It’s commandments 5-10 that really promise a moral-as-opposed-to-religious guide to life.
Commandment 5 is ‘respect your parents’. Now, I’m all in favour of respecting people, including your parents, but that’s obviously not what this means. If we look at what this has meant across history, and what it has to mean to have any content (i.e. beyond ‘respect your parents oh and also everyone else too’), what it really means is ‘defer to your parents’ judgement, even when they’re making decisions about your life, not theirs’. It means, in effect, ‘let someone else control your life, and keep the resentment and frustration scrunched up deep inside’. That’s an immoral principle.
Commandment 6 is ‘do not murder’. Now again, I’m not in favour of murder. But what’s ‘murder’? The commandment is not, as its often misquoted, ‘do not kill’. That would be rather spectacularly inconsistent with all the killing that comes before and after it in the scriptures in question. And if murder isn’t simply ‘bad killing’, i.e. if this commandment is not just the tautology ‘don’t kill when you shouldn’t kill’, it’s an endorsement of a certain way of distinguishing ‘good killing’ from ‘bad killing’ – and the ‘good killing’ includes war, execution, and slaughter for food.
Now, that to me seems appalling, and certainly worse even than the somewhat utopian ‘do no violence at all, I mean really’ that comes up sometimes in religious texts (most notably in various Indian ones). What it essentially means is ‘deciding when and when not to kill is the prerogative of the law, the judges, the military leaders, the government – in short, of the authorities’. That’s an immoral principle.
Commandment 7 is ‘do not committ adultery’. Now first off, the historical bulk of adultery has been perfectly ok. A contract that someone is forced into signing is void; consequently if people are compelled, explicitly or by social pressure, into marriage (either to a specific person or just to someone or other), they have every right to try and find in whatever place the love and freedom that they lost.
Secondly, it’s appalling to see this principle ranked above the principle ‘do not commit rape’ – indeed the latter principle not only doesn’t appear in these scriptures, but could not be written, since the word for it did not exist. Our use of the word ‘rape’ to mean ‘forcing unwanted sex on someone’ is a wrestling of the word away from its original meaning, namely ‘forcing unwanted sex on someone you don’t own’.
So this commandment tells us – you do not own your body. It is more important to respect the rights of spouses to monogamy than to respect any individual’s right to bodily integrity.
Commandment 8 is ‘do not steal’. Again, what I object to is principally the ‘taxonomy’ the way that actions are categorised. I don’t think that ‘stealing’ as standardly defined is wrong. I think that depriving people of what they need or of what they’ve personally earned (earned in the sense of suffered and strived to get) is wrong, and I think it’s wrong to needlessly break the trust of individuals or violate their privacy. All of these cover some cases of ‘stealing’ – but many cases they leave out, and many cases they require. That is, often meeting people’s needs, promoting fairness, etc. requires violating property rights. And often, mere convenience or whim does.
Commandment 9 is ‘do not lie’, which is perhaps the one I can most get behind. Honesty is good. But I’d still offer a reservation – the value of honesty is often more to those in authority than to those outside it. Deception is often necessary for those without other forms of strength – because it’s so subtle, and so hard to fight. A condemnation of dishonesty per se, without reference to any particular forms, smacks of the desire to ‘see clearly’ everything that’s going on, so that there be no dark places in which to hide.
Finally, commandment 10 is ‘don’t be envious of what your neighbour owns’ (let’s set aside that this ‘owning’ includes slaves, wives, and animals). This is double-edged. Aspect 1, which is fairly good, is to caution us against measuring ourselves by what we own, and by comparison with others, since this sort of mentality tends to be destructive and anxious. Aspect 2, which is not good, is to tell us to be content with our lot even if we have very little and someone else has a ridiculous amount.
It’s not just that one is good and one not – it’s that aspect 2. class-ifies aspect 1. It says: virtuous contentment, non-attachment to material things – for those without such things. After all, if I’ve got more stuff than my neighbour, I’m not likely to be too envious am I? So this commandment is a nice idea, twisted into a form of class conflict.
So that, in conclusion, is what I think of the Ten Commandments: they say that you should accept your lot, obey your parents, respect property rights, care more about monogamy than about consent, and let the authorities decide when and who to kill. Oh, and worship God, they’re quite keen on that. All of this sounds apalling to me.
It might be said that I’m ignoring the context, or the original audience, or the many scholarly disputes over the interpretation of the Ten Commandments. Of course I am – so does everyone else. The average person who expresses support for them isn’t expressing support for a scholarly analysis of the contextualised customs of an ancient Middle-Eastern tribe – they’re expressing support for the ahistorical, abstract, Eternal Truths handed from God to Moses and handed to that person by received wisdom. That’s what’s interesting to talk about, surely? I’m not an anthropologist, after all.