Home > Religion > The Ten Commandments: A Moral Guide?

The Ten Commandments: A Moral Guide?

January 27th, 2008

On last week’s Bill Maher, the conservative guest on the show made the old “ten commandments” argument: “Who’s gonna argue [against the idea] that the ten commandments are a pretty good way to lead your life, and if more people did do that, the world would be a better place?” Indeed, many Christians talk about the ten commandments like they are morality embodied in ten lines. If children’s morals are lagging, then post the ten commandments in their school room, and it’ll make a difference. Our entire legal and moral codes are based upon the ten commandments, we are told.

However, the ten commandments don’t really live up to their billing–not if you take a closer look at them and think about it a little.

The first five commandments are very simple to summarize: respect and obey authority, especially the church. The first four in particular are all about establishing the church as the ultimate authority, none others, and you better take them seriously:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; Do not have any other gods before Me

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

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy

Honor your father and your mother

The first four are, in short, “don’t disrespect God (or by extension the church in general) in word or action.” The last is about obeying parents, which in essence says to respect authority–and let’s not forget the form of address required when addressing church authorities.

Still, how do any of these address morality? The first four simply establish the authority of the church; that’s no moral guide. At best, it tells the user to follow the church, and obey it. The fifth commandment says to obey your real parents or the church-as-parents. It is, in essence, suggesting simply to replace your own moral judgment with that of another. This is not morality, it is submission. It does not teach you about right and wrong; on the contrary, it tells you to leave those matters to someone else.

The last five commandments are where the more “morality-based” directives lie:

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

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.

So what moral directives are there here? Don’t kill, commit adultery, steal, lie, or covet.

Look at the first four of those: don’t kill, sleep with another’s spouse, steal, or lie. What kind of moral guides are these? Sound ones, most would agree–but general ones, to be sure. Here’s the question, though: do they serve as a special moral guidance, one which you can base an entire moral system upon, as people claim they do?

I would argue not, based upon the fact that these four things would be so obvious to any member of almost any society of any time period that they would go without saying (though many societies would have their usual exceptions). In other words, the ten commandments are wholly unnecessary to establish these moral rules. I mean, think about it: before Moses came down the mountain, did people think these things were moral? Upon seeing Moses come down, did everyone peer at the tablets and exclaim, “Oh, thou shalt not steal! Dang, all these years I thought that stealing was moral!”

So how do these commandments set down a moral code by “establishing” rules that are already apparent and obvious?

The real cutting edge of morality lies not with the obvious rules, it lies in the complex moral situations. If killing one innocent person will save the lives of twenty other innocent persons, is it moral to kill the one? Is it moral to steal food if it is the only way to feed a starving child? May one lie if it saves a life?

These commandments are far too blunt and dull a tool to address the questions with which people truly need moral guidance.

That leaves the last one: coveting. This is the one which makes the most sense to me–it essentially warns one not to envy others, which is good moral advice, and something which is not so obvious.

Of course, this particular commandment is soiled by the reference to a neighbor’s slaves, which essentially puts god’s seal of approval on the ownership of human beings. Something which, in my opinion, has done as much damage as suppressing envy could alleviate.

In the end, I think the ten commandments are really a lot less valuable as a moral guide than they are cracked up to be. In fact, I would point more to a passage from the Qur’an as a far better moral guide, though it too has its limitations:

Worship only God

Be kind, honorable and humble to one’s parents

Be neither miserly nor wasteful in one’s expenditure

Do not engage in ‘mercy killings’ [of children] for fear of starvation

Do not commit adultery

Do not kill unjustly

Care for orphaned children

Keep one’s promises

Be honest and fair in one’s interactions

Do not be arrogant in one’s claims or beliefs

Here, we get the “worship god” directive, and the mercy killings of children which addresses a different time and culture (well, admittedly, some places on Earth today might still need to address this, but hopefully not many). But the other commandments set rules and principles that are much more far-reaching in terms of what moral situations they cover. Certainly, a lot of fundamentalists could learn from the last one on that list.

One might argue that the ten commandments simply are the standard-bearer for the morality expressed in the entire bible; that, to find one’s moral guidance, read the whole bible and take value from all the lessons enclosed.

The problem with that is that one could extract a lot of very bad moral guidance from reading all the bible. What should one make, for example, of these passages?

Happy shall they be who take your little ones
And dash them against the rock! –Psalms 137:8-9

Their infants also will be dashed in pieces before their eyes.
Their houses will be ransacked, and their wives raped. …
Their bows will dash the young men in pieces;
and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb.
Their eyes will not spare children. –Isaiah 13:15-18

And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? […]
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones,
and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him,
keep alive for yourselves. –Numbers 31:7-18

The obvious answer to that is to discriminate as you read, to weed out the bad parts. There are several problems with that; the first problem which comes to mind is the parts of the Bible which are bad but not clearly so. Surely one would see Moses’ order to kill male children and take the young girls as slaves and know immediately that one should not adopt this as a moral guide. (Well, most people would, at least.) But what about moral directives in the bible which either are bad but not clearly so, or which play to pre-existing prejudices, like the ones against homosexuality?

Not to mention that, ultimately, when trying to sell the bible as the ultimate moral guide, it does not help when you have to tell people to ignore a great deal of clearly immoral and even barbaric stuff that is liberally mixed into the text.

And then there’s the readability issue. How many people have you heard say they gave up when they got to all the “begats”? Even if you’re able to skip over such parts, that’s an awful lot of reading to do. I wonder if anyone has extracted all the parts they believe contain the useful moral parts? And I wonder how long such an extract would be.

In short, why rely on a moral guide when one must labor so hard to get through it and wind up with so much horrific baggage at the end? Why not simply extract the valuable lessons and leave the bad stuff behind? Would that not be a better road to building morality? In fact, that is pretty much what Thomas Jefferson did–he thought that the ethical teachings of Jesus were beyond compare, but loathed the parts of the bible which he thought contributed to dogma and superstition–so he edited the bible and kept the parts he thought were valuable.

But, returning to the idea of the short-list moral guide, what rules would be far more useful than the ten commandments? It’s not hard to make a list that’s a lot better, but what would be the optimal list of ten moral rules that would truly lead lead one through moral crises and help establish a solid personal moral code?

Here is an impromptu attempt at such a list:

Forgive others their wrongs and focus more on the wrongs you have committed

Show compassion, sympathy, and kindness at every opportunity

Know that others have different views and try to understand them

Help others when they need and will accept help; be willing to sacrifice for others

Do not be arrogant

Use reason: seek knowledge, question information given to you, and think for yourself; always allow for the possibility that you may be wrong

Reign in your fear, anger, envy, greed, and jealousy; recognize them and do not act on them

Take responsibility for your actions, and do not use the actions of others to excuse yourself

Always try to work for the greater good, but first, do no harm

If you must judge others, judge them by their actions alone

See anything wrong with the list above? Have any other ideas? When it comes down to it, there’s no reason to limit it to just ten.

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  1. Tim Kane
    January 27th, 2008 at 15:50 | #1

    The second surah of the Koran starts off like this: “this book is not to be doubted.”

    Of course, if you have to say it…

    As my high school History teacher said of Nixon, if you have to say you’re not a crook.

    Morality is like pornography. We know it when we see it.

    Their should be one commandment: Be upright and moral. And upon failing to do so, don’t worry about it, try again to be upright and moral.

  2. January 27th, 2008 at 17:26 | #2

    You impromptu list smacks of chutzpah after millenniums of consideration by the best minds in religion, but I am sure you just wanted to start a discussion.

    I find the Four Nobel Truths a better guide than a set of rules:
    1) There is suffering
    2) There is a cause to that suffering (craving…an extension of your coveting)
    3) There is an end to the suffering (Nirvana)
    4) There is a way to get to Nirvana. (The 8-fold path).

    So the 8-fold path I would liken more to the commandments, but are more guidelines, allowing for choice instead of blind, dumb obedience (or not).
    1-3 deal with morality): Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood.
    4-6 deal with self control): Right Effort (e.g. exercise), Right Mindfulness (being aware of your surroundings and self), Right Concentration (meditation)
    7-8 deal with wisdom): Right Understanding (of reality), Right (changing of patterns of) thoughts.

  3. Luis
    January 28th, 2008 at 12:44 | #3

    Kevin: I’d certainly agree that the four noble truths and the eight-fold path are far better than the ten commandments, but I would not consider the ten commandments to be the product of “millenniums of consideration by the best minds in religion.” The ten commandments were written at one time, likely by one person, maybe building on what others before had put together. The best minds in religion have, over thousands of years, most likely been held back by this list, or simply acknowledged and exceeded it.

    But the ten commandments as a list? Call it chutzpah if you like, but I think I proved my point: can you really look at my list and not say it blows the ten commandments away as far as being a moral guide? Not that I am saying I am wiser or more knowledgeable than any Christian, but rather that the ten commandments is such a lacking moral beacon that just about anyone could beat it. And that’s what most people do: they build their own set of moral principles, usually based on what they learn. My own list is hardly original; if borrows a lot from many sources. I didn’t make any of that up for the first time ever. But I do believe that if you gave one kid the ten commandments, and another kid my list, then the one with my list would be better equipped. By far.

    And, as you can see from the list and the query at the end of my post, I would not consider the list I made by any means perfect. But better than the ten commandments, absolutely.

    As for the four noble truths and the eight-fold path, let’s admit it: it basically says, “do not covet and do things rightly.” I think not coveting is a good principle, and the eight-fold path gives good clues as to what to do rightly, but not necessarily how–or at least, the “how” part is not easily contained in a short moral guide. Which, of course, brings up the idea of the short moral guide altogether–it does, when you think of it, smack of “the easy way” to being a good person. But it is what a lot of people could utilize along with more intense study and practice.

  4. Steve
    January 29th, 2008 at 03:53 | #4

    Your assessment of the Ten Comandments are completely wrong.
    The first four are how to show respect to our Creator.The fifth one is giving respect to those who clothe and feed you.You honor them by doing what you know is right.The next ones,NO ONE can argue against ,which if you obey them you honor you parents and give GOD due benevolence.

  5. Anonymous
    November 7th, 2010 at 23:46 | #5

    I COMMAND that you respect me…even though there is no verfiable evidence that I even exist.

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