Why the Ten Commandments are a cop-out

October 10, 2007 | By | 11 Replies More

Cop-out:  a feebly transparent excuse or explanation for refusing to face up to something. 

We constantly hear that the Ten Commandments are the highest achievement of moral law.  We even hear this claim from public officials who can’t even name the Commandments.  They want to hang the Commandments everywhere, as though their display will cause bad people to stop being so BAD. Despite this barrage of pro-Commandment spin from conservatives, the Ten Commandments are horribly lacking in moral guidance

For instance, (I’ll refer to the Catholic version of the Ten Commandments), the first four Commandments have nothing to do with morality.  The vague Commandment against “murder” has lots of problems.    And speaking of vagueness, does the Commandment against adultery prohibit the serial monogamy prevalent in most of the Western world that honors the Commandments?  No stealing?  Tell that to the big banks and financial institutions that own Congress and the rest of America. How could the poor steal when they themselves are so often victims of predatory lenders?  No lying?  Are you kidding?  We’d be killing each other if we always told the truth.   And I’ve always wondered about the alleged harm caused by coveting.  Maybe we need more coveting and fewer bad acts. 

Consider also that violating a Commandment often doesn’t correlate with harm.  Even though lies often prevent us from knowing the truth, consider whether an occasional lie can sometimes spare someone needless pain.  Consider whether adultery is sometimes a symptom that one of the participants is engaged in a horribly dysfunctional relationship that should be ended.  And what about when I covet my neighbor’s wholesome and generous qualities and I then set out to act more like him or her?

But there’s a bigger problem with the Commanments: what does love got to do with any of them?  Where is tiniest hint of generosity or patience in the Commandments of the Old Testament?  How are these Commandments any improvement over the Golden Rule, which long pre-dated the Commandments?

Sam Harris has suggested that it would be quite easy to improve the holy Commandments

Consider the possibility of improving the Ten Commandments. This would appear to be setting the bar rather high, as these are the only passages in the Bible that the Creator of the universe felt the need to physically write himself. But take a look good look at commandment #2. No graven images? Doesn’t this seem like something less than the-second-most-important-point-upon-which-to- admonish-all-future-generations-of-human-beings? Remember those Muslims who recently rioted by the hundreds of thousands over cartoons? Many people wondered just what got them so riled up. Well, here it is. Was all that pious mayhem nothing more than egregious, medieval stupidity? Yes, come to think of it, it was nothing more than egregious, medieval stupidity. Almost any precept we’d put in place of this prohibition against graven images would augment the wisdom of the Bible (Don’t pretend to know things you don’t know? Don’t mistreat children? Avoid trans fats?). Could we live with all the resulting problems due to proliferating graven images? We’d manage-somehow.

When Christians tout their Commandments, they usually speak as though Bible thumpers are the only organizations with a meaningful set of moral rules.  How incredibly not true.  Although they aren’t “commandments,” compare the lists of Buddhists and Secular Humanists, for example.  

When I first started Dangerous Intersection (about 1 1/2 years ago), I tried to create a new improved set of Ten Commandments. I still like some of my ideas, though I’m afraid that some of these are much too wordy.  Someday, I might try to trim these down to something more eloquent.   It is difficult, however, to compile the important lessons of life into a mere ten sentences.  Packing a lot of ideas clearly into only a few words is the plight of every writer.

Ben Franklin cheated by coming up with 13 “virtues.”  He developed this list of thirteen virtues when he was only 20 (in 1726) and continued to practice them throughout his life.  I like Franklin’s list of virtues because they are simply worded and they make good sense:

1. “TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”
2. “SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”
3. “ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”
4. “RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”
5. “FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”
6. “INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”
7. “SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”
8. “JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”
9. “MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”
10. “CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”
11. “TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”
12. “CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”
13. “HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

[Note:  “venery” is the pursuit of or indulgence in sexual pleasure.]

I’ll mention one other well-honed list of moral precepts that has impressed me: the Desiderata.   I learned of this list when I was a teen-ager in the 1970’s because the list took the form of a pop song entitled The Desiderata.  It’s origins are not entirely clear, but the advice is thoughtful.  Here is an excerpt:

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let not this blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Compared to the top-down heavy-handed Commandments, the lists of Ben Franklin and the Desiderata appear to be written by people who seem to know and trust other human beings. And that is how it should be.  Those who dish out advice on how to get along with others should be the sorts of people who strive to see goodness in others and try to overlook human foibles. The styles of each of these lists of advice reveals much about the authors’ attitudes toward other people.  Whenever the list takes the form of “commandments,” it reveals that the author thinks of other people as untrustworthy and that others need to be bossed around as though they were unruly children or dogs.

It seems to me that there is no substitute for articulating one’s own set of rules for living.  No one fully speaks for anyone else.  Each person needs to build his or her own bridge across his or her lifespan.  To be authentic and worthwhile, this bridge-building takes much effort; throughout one’s life it will remain a work-in-progress.

Even thoughtful and good-hearted people will only agree with each other regarding the most general principles.  To assume otherwise, that anyone–including ancient people–have figured out all of the meaningful advice (much less commandments) for living one’s life is a cop-out, an abdication of personal responsibility.  It is an desperate attempt at a concept George Lakoff labels objectivism:

“There is a major folk theory in our society according to which being objective is being fair, and human judgment is subject to error or likely to be biased.   Consequently decisions concerning people should be made on ‘objective’ grounds as often as possible.  It is the major way that people who make decisions avoid blame.   If there are ‘objective’ criteria on which to base a decision, then one cannot be blamed for being biased, and consequently one cannot be criticized, demoted, fired, or sued.”

[Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind, Preface, p. xiv, (1987).]

In sum, it seems to me that when people embrace a set of rules as “the” rules, they are trying to find a simple way to excuse themselves from responsibility.  They want to believe that they are OK, simply by the fact that they go to church and refrain from having sex with the neighbor’s spouse.   Too bad the Bible doesn’t have an “Eleventh Commandment” that reads thus:  “The pits of hell are full of people who carefully obey the Ten Commandments.”


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Category: Good and Evil, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (11)

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  1. Kyleaxe says:

    How about a list of commandments that are based on ecology? Like

    "Don't pollute the earth" and " Don't make entire species go extinct"

    and " Recognize global warming threatens all life on the planet". How about one banning nuclear bombs?

  2. xxxx says:

    are you people unawares that the ten commandments are chisled in stone and were handed down directly from god to moses?

    are you prepared to chisel all your new ones (expensive, time consuming, environmentally detrimental) and who are you going to hand them down to?

  3. xxxx says:

    one other question:

    are you starting at commandment number 11?

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    xxxx: I don't believe all that stuff about about a big sentient ghostly Being intervening in the natural state of affairs on Earth. I don't believe any supernatural Being chistled out any stone tablets, so I don't even try to explain it.

    And how can a ghostly Being hold or carve a heavy stone tablet anyway? Did he use the same trick Casper the Friendly Ghost used to open doors (even though Casper could also glide through walls)?

    Do you believe everything in the Bible as literal truth? Do you, for instance, believe in unicorns? They are mentioned in the Bible at Numbers 23:22 (check out the other "science" lessons in the Bible here).

  5. xxxx says:

    chisled or not, i have no problem if you start your commandments at #11. OK?

  6. Xiaogou says:

    I just wonder if anyone figured out yet that the Ten Commandments in questions were not for people of the United States of America. It was given over to another group of people for them to follow that they may be close to God. While it looks cool in the movie with Charleston Hesston, it actually has nothing to do with people who are not of that racial descent. For the Ten Commandments to have any meaning in our lives, we would have to be hereditarily God’s chosen people, offer animal sacrifices and worship God on the Sabbath which runs from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday (among other things.)

    All this effort that goes into the legislation for the Ten Commandments and the money spent on this controversy and maintaining monuments to the Ten Commandments in the United States is wasted. Those resources and time could have been better spent on the homeless and education. That would serve the United State of America better.

    The only reason for the Ten Commandments being in public places and such is to make those who are doing it to feel that they are “good” and working for the good of the people. But, I wish they would be truthful and let their lives and actions reflect their goodness instead of making up smokescreens such as going to church and putting up monuments to the Ten Commandments.

    I believe, and I don’t think there is anyone who would agree with me on this, that we, as a people in a nation for the people, need to give up on this entire dividing people by labels thing. We are a people that can develop a better set of rules for life based on ethics not on dogma, but we all need to work on this together. Until then we need to develop strong personal ethics that does not do any harm, physically or mentally. I added in the mental thing as people say ‘this isn’t hurting anyone (physically)’, but is causing irreparable mental harm.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    "are you people unawares that the ten commandments are chisled in stone and were handed down directly from god to moses?"

    Yeah, about those alleged stone tablets, supposedly carved by God. Where are they?

  8. Joe says:


    You're mixed up man. Where do you think our laws come from? How is "Thou shalt not murder" vague? It sounds pretty clear to me. Is it vague because there's no reasons why you shouldn't murder mentioned along with it? You're saying that we shouldn't have a set of rules because people break them anyways? Nobody ever said that the Commandments were to stop bad people from doing bad things, They are a list of God's rules for us to strive for. How are they not moral? Do you think that order in society is just magical? Where is this "Golden Rule" written down. Who wrote it? You probably break the law every day (i.e. double parking, speeding, etc.). It doesn't mean you should do those things. Eric, get over yourself and your need to be in control of everything before it's too late. Things would make much more sense if you just humbled yourself and came to the realization that you're not in charge of your destiny.

    God Bless You

  9. Joe,

    Here's the problem. What is murder? Why is it when the state orders you (as a soldier) to shoot someone dead in battle, that is not murder? It is intentional homicide. The vagaries enter in because of the special circumstances which surround the definition of the thing discussed. And since Yahweh rewarded some of the biggest murderers in history—Saul, David, Joshua, Abraham, Solomon, Samson—and did more than a little murdering himself, just what does it mean to say you shouldn't murder?

    Granted, our laws come from the ten commandments. But also Hammurabi's Code, Roman jurisprudence (which was not at all based on Hebrew law) and many other sources. All the great civilizations of the past had legal codes of some sort, even those predating the whole Moses on the mountain schtick.

    So when you discuss sources, do your homework.

  10. Dan Klarmann says:

    Keep in mind that the 10 commandments are abridged and (mis)translated from only one of the two tablets brought down from the mountain. All 10 are excerpted from Exodus 20. What of all the laws on the second tablet, Exodus 21? Rules for multiple marriage, fair treatment of local slaves (as distinct from foreign slaves), and other such issues?

    If someone posts the 10 commandments, I want to claim equal time for the full text of both tablets!

    The putative time of Moses came a few generations after Hammurabi, who had literally carved similar laws into stone. A stone you can go see in a museum. Moses, a literate prince, would have known of this code.

  11. grumpypilgrim says:

    Also keep in mind that, according to the Bible, the "Ten Commandments" are actually a list of more than ten rules, meaning that God wasn't very good at math. Moreover, as a result of God's innumeracy, there are actually *three different lists* of "Ten Commandments" — one made by Jews, one made by Catholics and one made by Protestants.

    Oh, and speaking of Catholics & Protestants, keep in mind that Jesus routinely breached the ten OT Commandments, and that this was one reason why the Jews condemned him. So, if you're a Christian, those commandments aren't quite as binding as today's evangelicals claim they are.

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