Saturday, December 18, 2010

Dialog on the Decalogue

This Belief Blog article finally allows me to focus on one topic, and it’s a firestarter. There’s always been controversy surrounding the Ten Commandments, almost always the version called the Ethical Decalogue, not the Ritual one that includes prohibiting boiling a baby goat in its mother’s milk. But even the basic ten we’re moderately familiar with seem to either spread out things unnecessarily into multiple categories of the same act or add on commandments about proper worship as if it also constitutes ethics, when most people today I imagine wouldn’t agree that non believers in "God" can still be ethical even if they don’t follow the Ten Commandments.

The first 3-4 commandments, depending on versions, cover proper religious observances, such as not worshipping other gods besides the Creator, not taking the Lord’s name “in vain” and observing the Sabbath. I’m probably not going out on a limb here in saying most reasonable people would not consider these ethical, but more discipline of religious practice. For a believer in God, these could be considered ethical tenets, of course. But if you try to say something to the effect that “The United States’ Constitution was based on the Ten Commandments”, I challenge you to point out where it says we are required to observe the Sabbath or not use the name of God inappropriately. Not to mention the constitution in general was founded on the idea of proper governance of a country instead of proper religious praxis. The Declaration of Independence has more in common with advocating the less monotheistic commandments than the Constitution does, especially at face value.

The author notes that there is some supposed uniqueness and difficulty of parallel in other cultures with the Biblical commandment of honoring your parents. But I can’t imagine that the spirit of filial piety you find in Confucianism is so radically different from the Abrahamic faiths’ notions. I’m reminded of Family Guy, where the Pope noted in an early episode, “The bible says honor thy father, it never said anything about liking him,” This concisely expresses what the basic idea of the commandment is, and what is reflected in a larger way by David Hazony. He speculates that if we extended the scope of the commandments to more everyday considerations, they would become more relevant. But it’s not as if everyone can take all of these stipulations seriously. I can’t say I’m following all the Decalogue because I don’t have a day I hold holy, nor a deity (singular or plural) to worship and by association, I don’t see any reason to have laws determining whether I’ve offended their sensibilities or not.

When you consider admonishments to not murder, steal, lie or commit adultery, there are common grounds across cultures and faiths. There is still a dissonance between what one could point out as the extension of the prohibitions (since only a few are imperative instead of restrictive) into the realm of thought. Jesus teaches this philosophy by advocating that one should not speak in anger against anyone, lest you commit murder in your heart and not looking at someone with lust, otherwise you commit adultery in your heart. Oddly enough, he doesn’t seem to confront lying and stealing directly. The closest he comes to the extremities of deceit is advocating that you don’t take oaths, which is something of a controversy in jurisprudence today with some Christians, if I’m not mistaken. In that sense, he is saying that you should strive not to lie in any sense, be it in conversation with or in promises you make to people. And he doesn’t seem to confront theft at all. Some scholars have posited that the original commandment was against abduction of persons, not against stealing of property. But one can still consider these commandments in their behavior centered forms as holding ethical values that even nontheists can find agreement with theists on.

There are difficulties sometimes, particularly with translation of the commandment against murder, which is many times translated as prohibiting any killing, which, by any child’s logic would already be a problem by observation of previous events in the bible; like God killing every person on the planet except Noah’s family, not to mention the mandate to kill virtually everyone in Canaan to reclaim the promised land for the Israelites.

The extension of each of these commandments would have to be context-sensitive, especially with the first four, only relevant to those who have faith in deities. And even prohibitions against lying and stealing can be said to have been broken in the Bible, so we require nuanced understandings of prohibitions instead against false witness/oath and abduction of persons, permitting the ethical consideration of “white lies” and “virtuous piracy,” Both Immanuel Kant with the categorical imperative and Jesus in his primary focus on love as ethics both make more sense in considering ethics.

In Kant’s case, the Ten Commandments were probably at least unnecessary when considering ethics as a primarily rational discipline. The categorical imperative strategy he employs enables one to conclude necessarily that we should make certain rules, because making their inverse permissible would cause logical contradictions. His basic example is that we cannot create a law that lying is always permissible since it would render truth’s reality null and void because we would never be sure if anyone was absolutely telling the truth.

With Jesus, we have a similar basis for all ethics in considering people as ourselves and loving them accordingly. Lying, stealing and even killing could be considered permissible, albeit in very extenuating circumstances beyond normal occurrence, as long as our basic goal in mind is love for our fellow human. But this stipulation could be taken to extremes in what can be pointed out as similar ends in mind with means of genocide and eugenics to reach them. With this in mind, there is a second consideration of others as ourselves. Ethics shouldn’t simply be for love of our fellow human and advancing the greatest amount of human happiness, because a strict utilitarian perspective without qualifications or limits leads to the very thing we’d condemn on the grounds of inhumanity and lack of empathy. So both love and empathy/compassion drive ethics in a balanced and yet consistent fashion without excess or deficiency. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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