Saturday, December 29, 2007

My "New Ten Commandments" (second edition)

After drafting the first version of this, on Wednesday (December 26), and publishing a slightly revised version the next day, I have continued to think about and revise it. I put a few changes into Thursday's post later the same day and yesterday (complete with footnotes, which became harder and harder to read). I decided to go with "editions" instead and not use footnotes. And I have restored Thursday's post to the way it was when I first published it.

Though chastened initially "to recognize [the list's] inadequacy," I'm feeling better and better about it now, especially since I've received some strong endorsements from friends privately.

In his chapter on "the moral Zeitgeist" (German for "spirit of the times"), Richard Dawkins discusses how moral values have become more enlightened over time, with huge changes over only a few decades in the "consensus" on such things as slavery and female suffrage. And he suggests that "One way to express our consensual ethics is as a 'New Ten Commandments.'" [p. 263 of The God Delusion]
Intrigued by this suggestion, I tried to identify what my own ten might be. Here's my first revised (second) edition:
  1. In all things, try to do no harm.
  2. This rule, adapted from the Hippocratic Oath traditionally taken by physicians, could usefully guide us to refrain from harming others and from making matters worse in all kinds of cases, including how we contribute to environmental degradation. We do harm, for example, when we make an unnecessary trip or use a vehicle that consumes excessive amounts of fuel. Or waste water, which is more and more evidently a limited resource. Or have too many children....
  3. Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.
  4. The negative version of "The Golden Rule," apparently formulated by Confucius, has always seemed to me less meddlesome and more practically useful than the version generally attributed to Jesus. Not that a mindful application of the positive version is bad.
  5. Don't rush to judgment but give everyone the benefit of an open mind; don't convict an accused person if you have reasonable doubt as to the person's guilt.
  6. This one applies everyday, but especially if you should find yourself on a jury, where you may be required to watch adversaries far more interested in winning your vote than in administering justice. In this regard I recommend Jim Rix's excellent book on the criminal justice system, Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out.
  7. Formulate laws as if you didn't know what your position in the pecking order would be.
  8. This one I paraphrased from the unique contribution to political philosophy of Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921-1990). Ever since I heard of it a few years ago, I've considered something like this to be essential for a just society. Of course, in America at present, laws are written largely to benefit lobbyists (whose money helps secure them a high position in the pecking order).
  9. Treat all living creatures humanely.
  10. Not just "all others," for we too are living creatures. Alas, I follow this one far from perfectly, for I am not a vegan. The best I can say for myself is that I do not kill other animals for profit or sport, I brake for animals on the roadway, I take good care of our dog, I feed and water the birds that visit our yard, I refrain from killing snakes (even poisonous ones), and I pause for a moment before eating the flesh of another animal to acknowledge the injustice of the way it was raised and that it was killed to indulge the taste of humans. I have profound respect for those who follow this principle to the extent of eating no animal flesh.
  11. Always be willing to revise your beliefs according to evidence and reason.
  12. This one can help keep us honest with ourselves and remind us to resist superstition and magical thinking. Life in a complex world requires realistic thinking.
  13. Do not indoctrinate your children, but teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, how to generate new ideas, and how to disagree with you.
  14. I adapted this one from four items Dawkins says he would try to find room for in his list [p. 264; he didn't mention creative thinking]. Ancient superstitions and bad advice are perpetuated by indoctrination and the suppression of critical and creative thinking (and their effective use together).
  15. Support your country when it is right, oppose it when it is wrong.
  16. The absolutist credo of a certain kind of patriot has long been condemned for its arrogance and brutality. It is time to move on to try to establish a just world order.
  17. Question authority; challenge authority that appears illegitimate or contrary to reason.
  18. A principle such as this is essential to counteract false authority (such as that claimed by religious leaders for their ancient scriptures or by political cheats who wangle their way to become "leaders" or "deciders"). The principle also destroys the excuse, "But I was just following orders."
  19. Thou shalt not bow down and worship likely non-existent "God."Originally stated, "Thou shalt not bow down and worship an unlikely god." I realized that I needed to be clearer what I meant by "unlikely," as well as clearer that I was referring to the capitalized God (or Yahweh or Allah or whatever) of received religious doctrine. Let one new commandment suffice to dispatch the first three of ancient Mosaic Law:
    I. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
    II. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
    III. Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. [– Exodus 20:3–7, King James Version]
I acknowledged in the first version that "The Mosaic commandments were mostly prohibitive; I've tended toward the prohibitive myself," but I don't feel that that is a defect. Nevertheless, I still want to address the "natural tension" between the "do no harm" prohibition-type list and the "live a good life" prescriptive list. For example, what about the use of time? Dawkins would include in his list (p. 164) a commandment such as "Value the future on a timescale longer than your own." And what about reading? Do we read at all, and what do we read?...And what do we watch on television? Where do we get our "news"?....

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