The Ten Commandments are Deeply Immoral

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.

6 Responses to “The Ten Commandments are Deeply Immoral”

  1. Gabriel Says:

    “care more about monogamy than about consent”

    Who said anything about monogamy?

    More seriously, your analysis of no. 5 reveals you to be opposed to all civilized life for rather indistinctly defined reasons, of broadly the sort that a1 5 year old spotty “libertarian” might poverbially vomit out after being caught looking at deviant sexual material by his appalled mother (or some such). Hyper-super-duper individualism is OK for hermits and louche wannabe intellectuals with trust funds, but it’s not sturdy enough to tear down western ethics I’m afraid.

    Moving on, your attack on comandment 6 is actually quite neat and clever. The translation point is more interesting than you may realise, for the Hebrew root verb here (R,Tz,H-) is also used to describe the accidental killers for which the Mosaic code provides cities of refuge (and accordingly forbids any punishment of them). Anyway, I’ve wondered about the precise meaning of the commandment for a while and your formula expesses what I was vaguely groping towards pretty well. Naturally we disagree with your normative judgment, though I understand only too well the attractions of anarchist ethics.

    Hope finals went well and all that. I was hoping you might have some comments about Honduras.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “your analysis of no. 5 reveals you to be opposed to all civilized life for rather indistinctly defined reasons…Hyper-super-duper individualism”
    It’s not hyper-super-duper individualism to be against, say, arranged marriages, or parents being able to decide your career path. I mean, I don’t think this is a commandment aimed at 10-year-olds, is it? Children don’t have enough autonomy for it to be worth addressing a code of laws to them. So I figure this is meant to apply throughout life, to people old enough to make their own decisions.

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    And regarding Honduras, as I recall I found nothing to object to in this article.

  4. Gabriel Says:

    “to people old enough to make their own decisions.”

    Such decisions as whether to support their parents in old age or toss them out into the street, or to work hard at university so their parents can see them graduate or just hang around snorting a lot of coke, or invest money in granchildren to continue the family line vs. a third flat screen TV, those sort of decisions.

    In any case, I can’t see any problem in parents mapping out a career path; I thought anarchists had a fondness for the apprentice system, but maybe Owen isn’t flavour of the month at the moment. I’ve personally seen no evidence that the meritocratic “everyone must choose their own way in life” ideal makes anyone very happy, or is particularly helpful way of organising resources – socially or ecoomically speaking. On a related note, I know quite a few people who have had arranged marriages and I’d be hard pressed to say they were less happy (or free in any meaningful respect) than people who go on the souless modern whirligig of dating before *settling* at 30.

    But this rather evades the wider point. “Thou Shalt honour thy Father AND thy Mother” (also c.f. Lev 19:2) is a basic principle of civilized life, which properly extends from 13 (the time when the Mosaic code is traditionally thought to become operative) until the death of the relevant parties. It is the lifeblood of continuity, of tradition, of custom, of settled and ordered existence, of, in short, everything that makes for civilized life (for interesting comments I would recommend T.S. Elliot’s “Notes towards a definition of culture”.)

    So, you are right on your own terms to oppose commandment 5, but you perhaps do not realise the magnitude of which you speak. Really the rest of your post is just dross swirling around this central point. “Honour thy father and thy mother” is the pillar of the traditional ethical system (which is not to say it has ever been fully realised in a traditional society). It is an ideal that (unlike, say, the prohibition on adultery)* still commands a great deal of strong emotional attachment among the residents of late-western civilization, but it is also a greatly weakened ideal. It has, of course, been remorselessly attacked by our government and associated forces, as well as being weathered by the social pressures of degenerate late “capitalism”, but has been crumbling since the 1890s at least and is far weaker than people seem to realise.

    We are now a good three or four generations into the pop culture Weltanshcauung, with the upshot that most parents are not only presented with a myriad petty and pathetic (and always relentlessly conformist) “rebellions” from their spoilt ill-educated children, but consider this a normal, even healthy, state of affairs. Even if they don’t they are presenting with cultural institutions that refuse to back them up. Those who want to opt out are forced into counter-cultures, such as Charedi Judaism or the American Home School movement. These are in many ways unsatisfactory choices and have their own perversions associated with them, but if civilization is ever to recover in the Western sphere it will be from their ashes. However, I don’t hold out a great deal of hope and I strongly suspect that in 50 years time everyone will more or less agree with you about the 5th commandment. (This will be the end not the beginning of the process; as Gramsci taught, it is much easier to hollow out an ideal from the inside and let it wilt than attack it head on).

    So you are right, the 5th commandment is a key stone of contention between irreconcilable ethical visions. And you are right to see which way the tide is going. You will win and I will lose … except that the new society being constructed on the ashes of western civilization is just as inimicable to what you crave as what I mourn, perhaps, in a sense, even more so. When we’re both 50, though, muttering “what brave new world is this, that has such people in it” I will be able to look back and say I did what I could to stop the tide and you, if you’re honest, will have to admit that, in as much as you actions had any effect, it was to help usher in the new society, blinded to what you were doing by your search for intellectual vanities.

    Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.

    P.S. Thanks for the article. Interesting, I suppose, though not up to disgesting the full scale of the shift in global affairs hinging around this issue.

    *If David Blunkett had been caught spitting on his Mother, I very much doubt anyone would have argued that it was “a private matter”.

  5. apostate Says:

    Being no fan of the ten commandments, I wouldn’t disagree too much, but for theft and dishonesty, you do seem to be picking nits and seeming to want to find something immoral in all the commandments, even if they are banal and common-sensical.

    I actually find that to be a bigger indictment of them: in the most charitable interpretation of them, they turn out to be no more than common sense rules laid down with little specificity, so that any complex moral fruit they are to bear has to necessarily be derived from them through the application of ordinary human interpretive and ethical effort, rendering them largely useless.

    The second biggest indictment is that so much time is wasted on worshiping God, which is a morally neutral exercise, at best.

    The third biggest indictment is all that they leave out (such as rape, as you point out).

    As a moral guide, they are at best incomplete and confusing.

    Gabriel is romanticizing tradition and parental authority. Good to know that he personally hasn’t witnessed the unhappiness resulting from arranged marriages (or the carefully cultivated repression of self that leads to apparent contentment in many such unions) and that he doesn’t find individual choice that important since many people aren’t always happy with their choices.

    It’s still true that self-determination and lack of authoritarian forces in one’s life are the two major roads to personal fulfillment. Whether you hold that to be more or less important than an orderly society is a question of taste. I think it’s more important. Orderly societies are overrated and besides fulfilling someone’s desire for aesthetic regularity, are largely useless.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “for theft and dishonesty, you do seem to be picking nits”
    I’ll grant this regarding C. 9, I suppose – honesty is a good thing. But I disagree regarding C. 8 – I think theft is right or morally neutral in somewhere close 50% or more of cases.

    “Whether you hold that to be more or less important than an orderly society is a question of taste.”
    Well, I see no reason why a free society can’t also be an orderly, though not traditional one, but ‘orderly’ is such a loose word that I doubt that’s a disagreement. Obviously you’re right about Gabriel’s romanticising of parental authority, no time for any of that nonsense.


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