Commandments 2.0

For this recent Palm Sunday Erika Hall published a single-serving Tumblr blog proposing an update to the Decalogue she titled ‘The Fresh Ten Commandments’:

Since the original ten commandments seem somewhat narrow and obsolete (too much focus on livestock, servants, and jealous god issues), here is a modest first draft of a fresh set.

Erika isn’t (by far!) the first to attempt to update these guidelines from on high, so I thought it would be interesting to collect a few here, starting with ‘The Fresh Ten’:

The Fresh Ten

  1. You shall treat all people with respect regardless of race, color, creed, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age, or national origin.
  2. You shall not kill, assault, nor intimidate with threats of physical violence.
  3. You shall not rape, sexually coerce, nor intimidate with threats of sexual violence.
  4. You shall cultivate intellectual curiosity, be open to new ideas, and respect the scientific method.
  5. You shall not cheat, nor cheat others out of what is rightfully theirs.
  6. You shall not lie, deceive, nor spread lies about others.
  7. You shall not steal, that is to say take or use what rightfully belongs to another person in a manner that causes harm. (Stealing is a trickier concept than it once was. How do you say yes to Fair Use and no to software patents?)
  8. You shall keep your promises.
  9. You shall not waste natural resources nor pollute the shared environment.
  10. You shall take responsibility for your actions and their consequences.

For reference, here are The Ten Commandments as they are presented in the King James Bible:

Rembrandt — Moses with the Ten Commandments

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honour thy father and thy mother.
  6. Thou shalt not kill.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. Thou shalt not steal.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  10. Thou shalt not covet.

(Specifically, thou shouldst not be coveting thy neighbour’s house, and also, 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.)

Earlier this year philosopher Alain de Botton proposed his own set of ‘Ten Virtues for the Modern Age’.

There’s no scientific answer to being virtuous, but the key thing is to have some kind of list on which to flex our ethical muscles. It reminds us that we all need to work at being good, just as we work at anything else that really matters.

Ten Virtues for the Modern Age —

This is his ‘Manifesto for Atheists’:

Ten Virtues for the Modern Age:

  1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark; accepting that reversals are normal; remembering that human nature is, in the end, tough. Not frightening others with your fears.
  2. Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person. The courage to become someone else and look back at yourself with honesty.
  3. Patience Patience. We lose our temper because we believe that things should be perfect. We’ve grown so good in some areas (putting men on the moon etc.), we’re ever less able to deal with things that still insist on going wrong; like traffic, government, other people… We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.
  4. Sacrifice. We’re hardwired to seek our own advantage but also have a miraculous ability, very occasionally, to forego our own satisfactions in the name of someone or something else. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.
  5. Politeness. Politeness has a bad name. We often assume it’s about being ‘fake’ (which is meant to be bad) as opposed to ‘really ourselves’ (which is meant to be good). However, given what we’re really like deep down, we should spare others too much exposure to our deeper selves. We need to learn manners, which aren’t evil – they are the necessary internal rules of civilisation. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.
  6. Humour. Seeing the funny sides of situations and of oneself doesn’t sound very serious, but it is integral to wisdom, because it’s a sign that one is able to put a benevolent finger on the gap between what we want to happen and what life can actually provide; what we dream of being and what we actually are, what we hope other people will be like and what they are actually like. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled. It’s one of the best things we can do with our sadness.
  7. Self-awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.
  8. Forgiveness. Forgiveness means a long memory of all the times when we wouldn’t have got through life without someone cutting us some slack. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.
  9. Hope. The way the world is now is only a pale shadow of what it could one day be. We’re still only at the beginning of history. As you get older, despair becomes far easier, almost reflex (whereas in adolescence, it was still cool and adventurous). Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
  10. Confidence. The greatest projects and schemes die for no grander reasons than that we don’t dare. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.

In this vein, Philosophy Bites (one of my favourite podcasts) had an interesting discussion with de Botton about ‘Atheism 2.0’ and what we can learn from religions. This is the theme of his 2012 book Religion for Atheists, in which de Botton put forwards the case that “Religions are in the end too complex, wise and fascinating to be abandoned simply to those who happen actually to believe in them.”

With a somewhat different perspective Sam Harris gave a TED talk in 2010 to argue that, in fact, science can answer moral questions.

Do not swallow your moral code in tablet form
Christopher Hitchens

Wikipedia has — of course — a page of Ten Commandment alternatives. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling and others have attempted their own versions, as you would expect. I particularly like Hitchens’ eighth commandment: “Turn off that fucking cell phone.”

Here is the late great Hitch critiquing the original commandments and providing his own in a video produced for Vanity Fair:

Pastafarianism’s “Eight I’d Really Rather You Didn’ts” are also good for a giggle.

Richard Dawkins published a list of alternative commandments in The God Delusion:

  1. Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.
  2. In all things, strive to cause no harm.
  3. Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
  4. Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
  5. Live life with a sense of joy and wonder.
  6. Always seek to be learning something new.
  7. Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
  8. Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
  9. Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
  10. Question everything.

This list wasn’t written by Dawkins however. He says it was discovered after a brief web search for ‘New Ten Commandments’:

The whole point is that it is the sort of list that any ordinary, decent person today would come up with. Not everybody would home in on exactly the same list of ten.

He does have a few suggestions of his own however, adding:

  • Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else) and leave others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business.
  • Do not discriminate or oppress on the basis of sex, race or (as far as possible) species.
  • Do not indoctrinate your children. Teach them how to think for themselves, how to evaluate evidence, and how to disagree with you.
  • Value the future on a timescale longer than your own.

I particularly like that final one.

Though it’s a little out of place here, I do also appreciate Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Asimov later added a ‘zeroth’ law, to precede the others:

  1. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Bertrand Russell published two sets of ten commandments. The first set were personal guidelines published in Everyman magazine in 1930. The second were written specifically for teachers and were published in the New York Times Magazine in 1951.

Bertrand Russell — My Ten Commandments

Bertrand Russell

  1. Do not lie to yourself.
  2. Do not lie to other people unless they are exercising tyranny.
  3. When you think it is your duty to inflict pain, scrutinize your reasons closely.
  4. When you desire power, examine yourself closely as to why you deserve it.
  5. When you have power, use it to build up people, not to constrict them.
  6. Do not attempt to live without vanity, since this is impossible, but choose the right audience from which to seek admiration.
  7. Do not think of yourself as a wholly self-contained unit.
  8. Be reliable.
  9. Be just.
  10. Be good-natured.

Bertrand Russell — A Liberal Decalogue

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worthwhile to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that is happiness.

(via Phil Ebersole’s Blog)

It occurs to me that there might be some merit to creating a crowd-sourced set of commandments — a Commandment Wiki — attached to a voting mechanism. It would be interesting to see which rules people truly valued and wanted to hold themselves and others to.

Don’t be a dick
Wheaton’s Law

There are plenty of common themes in the alternative commandments presented in this post, most of them being variations on the ‘treat each other well and especially try not to kill each other kind of rules.

The more God-fearing commandments are replaced with ideas of protecting our personal freedoms and thinking more about our responsibilities to the future of our planet and humanity as a whole.

Which to me seems like nothing but a positive shift in our thinking.

Anyway, I’ll let Kurt Vonnegut give the final words of advice to humanity as a whole:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
Kurt Vonnegut


2 thoughts on “Commandments 2.0

  1. Fascinating stuff, and quite a different mix of commandments although many follow the same themes. I also think it’s interesting that ‘Do unto others as they would do unto you’ (and variants thereof) is a concept that originates in the Old Testament (/Torah/Quran), is somewhat simplified by Jesus (and his followers) in the New Testament, yet 2000 years later is a strong underpinning of so much of society, etiquette and even the law.

    (Please don’t perceive this comment as preaching or Bible-bashing, I promise you that’s not my intention!)

    • No, I’m quite interested to hear any feedback. There’s nothing unique about this particular commandment however — it’s The Golden Rule of many cultures.

      I saw you shared this post on Twitter too. Thanks. :)

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