What the Ten Commandments do

Mangan brings to our attention the newly-fashioned “Ten Commandments for Atheists”:

Somebody came up with the idea of a Ten Commandments for atheists. Here it is:

  • Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.
  • Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true.
  • The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world.
  • Every person has the right to control over their body.
  • God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life.
  • Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them.
  • Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective.
  • We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations.
  • There is no one right way to live.
  • Leave the world a better place than you found it.

I am struck by the same thing Mangan was, that this list and Moses’ seem designed to do entirely different things.  Reading the Decalogue afresh, it’s clearly designed to order a society, not to provide general ethical principles like the atheist list (mostly) does.  Notice that the atheist commandments don’t mention any particular social station or forbid any particular act.  It does nothing to render social interactions smooth or predictable.  By contrast, the Decalogue is concerned with guaranteeing paternity (no adultery), parental authority (honoring parents), and property rights (no stealing).  Even the law against lying (“bearing false witness”) sounds like it has the reliable administration of justice mostly in mind.  The Decalogue begins by establishing the public cult and ends with safeguards against subversion by the rival socialist cult (no coveting).  There’s no attempt within the Commandments themselves to summarize the natural law or to give general principles that ground it.  Christians wanting to expound the natural law often organized it around the cardinal virtues or deadly sins (cf. Aquinas, Dante) rather than the second tablet.  When Jesus formulated principles on which the Law is based, He gave with two, both in the Torah but neither precisely corresponding to one of the Ten Commandments.  The point of the Ten Commandments is to translate the general principles of loving God and neighbor into particular duties, or rather to engineer a society that does this translating for us.

For why this is a necessary function, see Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

9 Responses

  1. Several of their ethical “directives” contradict each other, which shows the peril of trying to create general ethical principles from nothing.

  2. “Christians wanting to expound the natural law often organized it around the cardinal virtues or deadly sins”
    St Thomas tried to harmonize the “virtue” ethics of Aristotle with the “law” or “command” theory that had previously characterised Jewish and most Christian ethical theories. This is well expressed by his maxim, “Non enim Deus a nobis offenditur nisi ex eo quod contra nostrum bonum agimus” We only offend god, when we act contrary to our own good (ScG III. 122)
    In her 1958 paper, Modern Moral Philosophy, Miss Anscombe sought to show, I believe successfully, that, without a “law” theory of ethics, the concept of “moral obligation” is an empty category.

  3. […] Source: Throne and Altar […]

  4. To what authority does the compiler of these “commandments” appeal? He can only appeal to his own and I could draw up a list saying the exact opposite under my own “authority” which would be equally valid. The whole concept of morality for an atheist is ludicrous. Atheists need only two golden rules when dealing with any situation-what’s in this for me? and can I get way with it? Anything else is merely sanctimonious nonsense.

  5. Mickvet wrote, “The whole concept of morality for an atheist is ludicrous…”

    Not necessarily, as Miss Anscombe points out, “One man – a philosopher – may say that since justice is a virtue, and injustice a vice, and virtues and vices are built up by the performances of the action in which they are instanced, an act of injustice will tend to make a man bad; and essentially the flourishing of a man qua man consists in his being good (e.g. in virtues); but for any X to which such terms apply, X needs what makes it flourish, so a man needs, or ought to perform, only virtuous actions; and even if, as it must be admitted may happen, he flourishes less, or not at all, in inessentials, by avoiding injustice, his life is spoiled in essentials by not avoiding injustice – so he still needs to perform only just actions. That is roughly how Plato and Aristotle talk”

    She adds, however, “but it can be seen that philosophically there is a huge gap, at present unfillable as far as we are concerned, which needs to be filled by an account of human nature, human action, the type of characteristic a virtue is, and above all of human “flourishing.””

    Whether and to what extent this gap can be bridged remains to be seen.

  6. Michael, what I mean is that if an atheist truly understands the meaning of his position, a godless accidental, chance existence devoid of any possible meaning or purpose, the notion of morality should be no more than a post-Christian residue inhibiting him from the only worthwhile (?) activity of his brief, absurd existence-the pursuit of his chosen pleasure. With no God and no purpose, there can be no account of human nature for there would be no human nature. Likewise, notions such as justice and love would be utterly meaningless.

  7. The sort of “virtue ethics” that Miss Anscombe describes are pre-Christian and Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus are very much of a piece in their analysis.

    It was onl with St Thomas in the 12th century that Christians seriously tried to harmonize the “Law ethics” of the OT & NT with virtue ethics.

    The real problem for the atheist is, as Miss Anscombe points out that “In present-day philosophy an explanation is required how an unjust man is a bad man, or an unjust action a bad one; to give such an explanation belongs to ethics; but it cannot even be begun until we are equipped with a sound philosophy of psychology. For the proof that an unjust man is a bad man would require a positive account of justice as a “virtue.” This part of the subject-matter of ethics, is however, completely closed to us until we have an account of what type of characteristic a virtue is – a problem, not of ethics, but of conceptual analysis – and how it relates to the actions in which it is instanced: a matter which I think Aristotle did not succeed in really making clear.” Neither, I would add, did the Scholastics who adopted his analysis.
    Those words were written in 1958 and we are not much further forward

  8. […] liked this one from Bonald on the Atheist 10 Commandments a lot. It is quite interesting, and I think quite prescriptive, to note how far the 100% Authentic, […]

  9. […] liked this one from Bonald on the Atheist 10 Commandments a lot. It is quite interesting, and I think quite prescriptive, to note how far the 100% Authentic, […]

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