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.”