Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Crowdsourcing the Ten Commandments

What to my wondering inbox should appear but a press release about the winning entries in a contest to crowdsource a secular ten commandments, run by a collaboration of several different atheist groups. The numbers involved give a sense of the sheer scale of this undertaking: almost 3000 entries were received! More than 6000 votes were cast to select the ten finalists! The prize was a whopping $10,000, split ten ways!

Numbers aside, let's contemplate the results, along with the explanations provided by the winning contestants for their entries:

I. Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence. Why?  It is essential in order for us to be able to collaboratively work together to find common solutions to pressing world problems. 
II. Strive to understand what is most likely to be true, not to believe what you wish to be true. Why? We're more likely to believe what we wish to be true over what we wish not to be true, regardless of veracity. If we’re interested in learning the truth, then we need to actively separate our beliefs from our desires. 
III. The scientific method is the most reliable way of understanding the natural world. Why? Every time humans have questions this method is used to solve them. If we don't know, we don't know but instead of making up the answer we use this method to reach a conclusion/answer. 
IV. Every person has the right to control over their body. Why? This includes a person"s right to not be murdered, raped, imprisoned without just cause (violating another person's rights), kidnapped, attacked, tortured, etc. This also protects a person's freedom of speech and freedom to dress and represent themselves as they so choose. 
V. God is not necessary to be a good person or to live a full and meaningful life. Why? When one does a good deed it isn't because God tells one to do a good deed, but because one simply wants to be good person. As Human beings we are capable of defining our own, different, meanings for our lives, with or without a god. 
VI. Be mindful of the consequences of all your actions and recognize that you must take responsibility for them. Why? It may sound obvious, but negligence and refusal to take responsibility are an immense source of harm in the world, from interpersonal relations to Global issues. 
VII. Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated. Think about their perspective. Why? If everyone did their best to carry this out as far as it can go, everyone would get along much better. 
VIII. We have the responsibility to consider others, including future generations. Why? As human beings, we have great power. As Voltaire noted "With great power comes great responsibility." To not consider others would be selfish and petty. We have demonstrated the ability to be magnanimous, are rapidly becoming more so, and will be even more so in the near future. 
IX. There is no one right way to live. Why? If you look, even a little, you find many cultures living in moral societies that are fundamentally different, with only a few very basic principles being adhered to between them. Just because one group is different, does not mean they are wrong. 
X. Leave the world a better place than you found it. Why? The Japanese concept of Kaizen teaches that small incremental improvements can have a profound effect over time. We should all strive to leave the world better than we found it be it through relieving the suffering of others, creating works of art, or passing along knowledge.

(This list is copied from the press-release email, and the explanations from the website. This is a service to make the list more intelligible, as on the site commandment I is repeated three times in place of others shown here.)

What amazes me is how many of these entries assume some kind of higher objective standard, something that can impose obligations and and allow for judgment and comparison between alternatives.

I. Be open-minded. Is that open-minded according to my own assessment, or is there some external standard of open-mindedness I should be conforming to?

II.What is truth?

III. How, exactly, does this assertion rise to the level of a commandment? And what is the standard of reliability?

IV. Every person, but who defines personhood? My children have a right to be treated with dignity, but they don't have a right to control over their own bodies, or diapers would never be changed and medicine would never be taken. My throat is sore -- is this my own body rebelling against my right to control it?

V. A good person? What is good? Can we agree on what is good, and if so, does that make the good an ideal outside of oneself to which we can conform? If all goods conform to this ideal of good, could it be that this highest good is what we call God?

VI. What obligation does being mindful of consequences and taking responsibility for them entail? Any psycho can know the consequences of his action and be willing to acknowledge them.

VII. A subjective standard like this doesn't give a lot of guidance when dealing with people with low self esteem.

VIII. Where does this responsibility come from? Who imposes it?

IX. It strikes me that IX negates the rest of the list, and indeed the whole undertaking, because if there is no right way to live, then what is the point of developing secular commandments in the first place? The gloss on IX is interesting: if all these "fundamentally different" moralities have "only a a few very basic principles being adhered to between them", are these commandments an attempt to highlight those basic principles? Are those basic principles the right way to live? Is the corollary of "no one right way to live", "no one wrong way to live"? Why is this not this first item on the list?

X. Better according to whose standards? Your own? What if your version of leaving the world a better place conflicts with someone else's version? Better than what?

Even Fight Club has a more consistent code than this.


Sparky said...

How can you find meaning in your life if your life objectively has no meaning?

I've yet to find an answer that didn't imply you had to lie to yourself in order to accept it. At that point you're no better than the "hypocritical" Christians you despise so much.

Reason without a reason. Purpose without a purpose. It makes no sense.

mrsdarwin said...

I was wondering why the organizers didn't try to parallel the structure of the Ten Commandments, and as I thought about it I realized: all of these secular commandments rely on extrinsic meanings. Leave the world a better place? What is better? We have responsibility? Where does it come from? How is it to be carried out? The scientific method? What is that? You can understand the words "scientific" and "method" and not know the meaning of this form of inquiry.

The Ten Commandments, by contrast, are intrinsic. You shall not lie. If you understand each separate word, you understand the commandment. Don't lie. You shall not commit adultery. This is not "Strive to be the best spouse you can be." It's clearly defined: Don't commit adultery.

Even the three commandments dealing with God are directly prescriptive and contain their meaning within themselves: You shall have no gods before me. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Keep holy the Sabbath. These have aspects of mental interpretation, but they have a straightforward physical component. Don't pay homage to idols. Don't commit the physical act of speaking God's name in vain. Keep holy the sabbath at church. It isn't until the last two commandments about coveting, a mental act, that we are removed from the realm of the physical. and these commandments are related to their physical manifestions, adultery and theft.

There is an elegance and structure and practical heft to the Ten Commandments that this secular bundle of fluff cannot even approach.

Brandon said...

Related to that intrinsic/extrinsic distinction, I think, is the old view, found in Aquinas and others, that the Ten Commandments lay out the basic principles of civic friendship, i.e., the bonds that create a society (in this case a society specially consecrated to God). They identify, indirectly, a definite and specific common good you can build a society around -- involving the worship of God and the memory of his works, respect for parents, for human life, for marriage, for justice in word (no lying) and deed (no theft), and each person being self-restrained for the good of others (no coveting). Yes, there are other kinds of acts necessary, but with a few quick commandments we already have the essentials of a real community painted out. In the secular list, the closest we get to a definite common good you can build a community around is scientific method and control over one's own body, and maybe a vague general concern with future generations. (That it's put in those terms is interesting in itself; not specific children, but the abstract concept of future generations.) In a sense, what we get in this list as an anti-community: IV, VII, and IX are all about not having something in common, and all the others, as you note, are very vague.

I also think it's interesting just how differently VII is from the Golden Rule of which it is a verbal echo but only distant descendant: the Golden Rule was itself a "summary of the law and the prophets", but VII is nothing but a matter of recognizing the obvious fact that you have to consider other perspectives to get along with people.

Jenny said...

I broke commandment IV this morning when the baby vigorously objected to me cleaning up the yogurt she had smeared all over her face.