Atheist's Ten Commandments: Survival based Ethics

This really didn't work out the first time I tried so I've shortened it to basically the cliff notes of a much longer piece over at ragged trousered philosopher, enjoy

http://www.fullmoon.nu/book/chap.php?id=TenCommandments

1 THOU SHALT HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME.

This is obviously an instruction - a literal commandment - rather than a behavioural proposition. Why? Because there is no attempt at either a pain or pleasure proposition. It is not even possible to create a rational pleasure proposition from the instruction and if we attempt to construct a pain proposition, the best we can do is assume that either it means:

Don't worship other Gods because it hurts me.
or
Don't worship other Gods because, if you do, I'll hurt you.

We'll reject the second because it's a straightforward threat. There is nothing ethical about that. It would be pure egoism. For the time being, we'll give the Superbeing the benefit of the ethical doubt.

Which leaves us with the argument that human worship of other Gods hurts this one.

For reasons unconnected with ethics, it is ludicrous to suggest that anything we could do could actually cause real harm to a superbeing capable of creating this universe. But we'll leave that to one side and take his "request" at face value. Presumably the pain we cause by worshipping other Gods is similar to the pain of disapproval experienced by Islamic Fundamentalists who dislike the Satanic Verses. If so the relevant question is how "avoidable" is the forbidden praying.

An omniscient being is, of course, able to see what is going on everywhere all the time. What we don't know, and the bible remains silent on, is whether this particular omniscient being is compelled to see it all. If so, however, that would constitute a significant weakness in a being who is also alleged to be omnipotent. Again, there are two possibilities:

Either disapproved praying is avoidable and any resulting pain can be avoided which would mean that the behaviour is not SBE negative; It might even be beneficial - SBE positive - if the other Gods being prayed to are more attentive and more responsive to the penitent's prayers.

Alternatively, their God is not omnipotent. If so, and it really does suffer pain as a result of human worship of other Gods, then it would need to present at least an argument for why such behaviour caused pain. Jealousy certainly doesn't provide ethical grounds for feeling pain and, in the absence of any other argument there is no obvious satisfactory reason to accept the pain as relevant for SBE.

Strike 1. The first commandment fails the SBE test.

2 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:
and
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

Oh boy!

Right then, where is the pain proposition?

Clearly this commandment is closely associated with the first and casts doubt upon our earlier charity (in assuming that the first commandment wasn't just an ego trip). Here their God is apparently making a quite explicit threat of the kind we postulated and charitably rejected in regard to the first commandment

Nor is there any other obvious possible reason for the prohibition. The pain proposition is simple and similar to the first.

"Making graven images, or bowing down before them causes me pain and, if you do it, I'll make sure I don't just hurt you in return, I'll carry on punishing your families for up to 4 generations"

The same avoidability arguments we used above apply. This commandment is unequivocally SBE negative and constitutes overt bullying.

Strike Two.


3 THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THE LORD THY GOD IN VAIN

At first glance, this appears to be more of the same. Egotistical bullying nonsense. But we're trying to be charitable. Suppose that we view God as a "help desk". Calling him up other than when necessary might dilute his attention from problems that really need solving. Such unnecessary calls are a waste of his "bandwidth". Of course, the omnipotence attribute rears its head at this point, because if he was truly omnipotent, bandwidth wouldn't be limited.

It is possible, even probable, therefore, that this commandment is unethical for the same reasons as 1 & 2. But it is also just barely possible that it is a practical requirement. We'll stay neutral on 3.


4 REMEMBER THE SABBATH DAY, TO KEEP IT HOLY.
SIX DAYS SHALT THOU LABOUR, AND DO ALL THY WORK:
BUT THE SEVENTH DAY IS THE SABBATH OF THE LORD THY GOD: IN IT THOU SHALT NOT DO ANY WORK, THOU, NOR THY SON, NOR THY DAUGHTER, THY MANSERVANT, NOR THY MAIDSERVANT, NOR THY CATTLE, NOR THY STRANGER THAT IS WITHIN THY GATES:

Again, this one can be construed in two ways. First as a egotistical demand requiring his subjects to spend all day worshipping their creator. This would be unethical as above. However, I'm inclined to view this command as the first ever victory for the working classes! The instruction could equally be construed as "Chill out, take some time off. It'll do you good." rather than "spend at least one day a week worshipping me".

I would argue that this is the first of the exceptions I mentioned above. This isn't a pain proposition at all. It's a pleasure proposition. Take the day off. Relax. Enjoy. One might argue that, today, the insistence on the day off being "the sabbath" is an unnecessary restriction, but in the context of its time, it represents a significant breakthrough, perhaps the first historical reference to leisure time - which we all recognise, today, as being at least as valuable as good quality productivity.

I'm giving that one the thumbs up. That's one up for God. So, after four commandments, he's 2:1 down with one score draw.

5 HONOUR THY FATHER AND THY MOTHER

And this is the second exception. No ambiguity in this one. This can't benefit his own ego, so the motivation here to bring pleasure to your own parents. Whether they deserve it unconditionally is a moot point in many cases, but, in general, it is a reasonable exhortation to unselfish behaviour.

And suddenly, he's back in the game! We're all square at 2:2

6 THOU SHALT NOT KILL
The pain proposition is obvious. This is the easiest commandment to endorse. The complications (which don't affect our endorsement) are covered in considerably more detail in the body of Chapter Ten (part 2).

God takes the lead by 3:2!

7 THOU SHALT NOT COMMIT ADULTERY

The pain proposition here: Sex outside marriage will hurt the other marriage partner

This is clearly true in most cases. But it is also redundant, in the sense that the more general instruction "Don't hurt your marriage partner" (or anyone else come to that) covers all causes of pain, including adultery. It is also somewhat more flexible because it allows for the possibility that the third party sex might not be painful for the marriage partner. Indeed they might have their own third party arrangements which are approved by their spouse. "Wife swapping" parties are not unethical providing all participants have given tfaic.

With that proviso, however, and given that wife swapping wasn't a serious option in Moses' day, it is not unreasonable to have a working assumption that adultery will, in most cases, not feature faic for all affected parties and thus will tend to cause pain.

God moves into a strong 4:2 lead with only 3 to play.


8 THOU SHALT NOT STEAL

As we mentioned above, this one is uncontroversial (unless you are take a fundamentalist Proudhon line) and it "makes good SBE sense because depriving someone of something they consider they own is a known cause of pain."

God is now assured of an overall victory. The score is 5:2 with only 2 to play.

9 THOU SHALT NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS AGAINST THY NEIGHBOUR

Again, relatively straightforward. No mixed motives. Can't think of a situation (other than a highly artificial one where incriminating one's neighbour is justified because it prevents a worse pain elsewhere) where it could be regarded as reasonable to perjure yourself to the detriment of your neighbour. It's not just good ethical advice, its good practical advice (you have to live with your neighours, so it pays to be on good terms with them as far as humanly possible).

6:2 to God.

Finally

10 THOU SHALT NOT COVET THY NEIGHBOUR'S HOUSE, THOU SHALT NOT COVET THY NEIGHBOUR'S WIFE, NOR HIS MANSERVANT, NOR HIS MAIDSERVANT, NOR HIS OX, NOR HIS ASS, NOR ANY THING THAT IS THY NEIGHBOUR'S

The SBE analysis of this one rather depends on the meaning of the word "Covet". If it simply means "admire", it is difficult to see a problem. If, on the other hand, it means "wish to own" then it's akin to "Thou Shalt Not Steal" (it's equivalent to wanting to steal). The confusion is not helped by the standard translation for covet being "desire" which is itself ambiguous. No man will complain if other men find his wife (or other "property") "desirable". Vice versa for the women and their husbands. Nor will that state cause pain.

To acknowledge that a person or object is "worthy of desire" is surely flattering. Only the attempt to act on that desire is potentially painful and is already outlawed by commandments 7 and 8.

Indeed, on its own, the commandment appears to be defining a "thought crime" which, provided it remains purely in one's thoughts, cannot cause legitimate pain. (the potentially offended party can easily avoid the other one's thoughts!)

Hence, at worst it is trying to define a thought crime with no relevant pain, and at best it describes offences which are covered by other commandments.

We'll stay neutral on that one.

So the overall result is that God wins hands down with 6 decisions in favour of the Mosaic commandments, 2 against and 2 draws.

Wasn't that fun?

Views: 1

Comment by River Otter on April 10, 2009 at 12:55pm
I noticed you haven't posted any commandments C-lo. Well that's okay.

Here are mine, not necessarily in this order. I also might have left some out.

1) Be honest with yourself and others.
2) Appriciate the planet.
3) Treat people as you would want to be treated.
4) Walk a mile in someones shoes before condeming them.
5) Practice safe sex, thou shall NOT go forth and multiply irresponsibly (This one's for Rev.) :)
6) Know that we're not the center of the universe.
7) Education a must.
8) Help others in need.
9) Be kind to other creatures that share the earth.
10) Do your best in what ever you are trying to do.
Comment by Ellimist on April 10, 2009 at 8:18pm
With any luck the blank blankness of my previous post has been remedied, although there is a delicious irony in the atheists ten commandments being a null post.

but since you asked it's only fair if i give you my personal life guidelines...

1.Humans are the universe admiring itself, if you can't find something beautiful you're f-ing up
2.Never forget that your body is much smarter than you
3.Anima Sana In Corpore Sano...food, sleep, exercise will get you through
4. If you think you know what the hell is going on, you're probably full of shit, beware hubris
6. We're in this mayhem together
7. Anything which doesn't harm anybody else is free reign
8. Try anything twice
9. Hang Loose, but arm yourself with whit and charm to diffuse situations as needed
10. Go Placidly Amid the Noise and Confusion

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