In a prior essay I criticized the ten commandments as being negative, incomplete, and generally deficient. Smugly, I claimed that I could do a better job and promised to do just that in a subsequent essay. Well, not having any training whatsoever in moral philosophy, I found this to be much more difficult than I had imagined. But a promise is a promise, so here is my layman’s first attempt at outlining a better moral code.
I certainly haven’t changed my mind about the original ten commandments. They were the product of a people who simply thought their god was better than the gods of their neighboring tribes. Half of the verbiage of the commandments is devoted to demanding allegiance to the Hebrew god. The other half, basically is a sketching of some basic societal rules. In my view they are embarrassingly simplistic and incomplete. Many Christians tacitly recognize these deficiencies when they assert that the commandments were “fulfilled” by Christ and essentially replaced by his admonition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the so-called Golden Rule. This rule of reciprocity has a very long history, much longer than its attribution to Jesus in the first century CE, and it’s OK as far as it goes. But there are any number of situations of moral concern where the Golden Rule simply doesn’t help to resolve the matter. How do you deal with such thorny issues as assisted suicide or abortion rights, for example, if all you’ve got is the Golden Rule?
Before attempting to identify the elements of a moral code, I thought I should address a couple of possible objections to the very idea of delineating a moral code.
The first objection relates to the concept of free will. If, as I believe, our actions are not free but instead are compelled by all of the physical conditions of our circumstances, then why does it even make sense to talk about moral obligations? If all of our behavior is simply part of a chain of events that do not involve any action over which we have freedom of choice, is there really any meaning to the concept of morality? To state this yet another way, a judgment of whether or not a particular behavior should be considered moral arguably depends on the idea of freedom of choice. But I don’t think this is precisely correct. Without belaboring this point, I think freedom of choice goes to the question of blame or praise but not to the question of moral propriety. The latter, in my view, has to do with the consequences of that behavior rather than with its causes. In short, the consideration of the moral propriety of a given behavior should be based not on what caused it but on the impact that it has on the social order.
The second objection is a more conventional one. It relates to whether it is possible to identify moral standards that are universal or whether all morality is essentially relative to a particular situation, circumstance, or cultural environment. It is certainly the case that some behavioral standards are relative in the sense that they apply to certain circumstances or social environments and would not be applicable were other conditions in place. At the risk of being imprecise or technically inconsistent, I am talking about relatively common circumstances, not hypothetical ones that place the participants in dilemmas of an extreme nature. In the more general case I believe there are standards of behavior that have universal application.
In trying to structure a moral code, I decided to use the terminology of obligations rather than actions. Arguably these are internal states, not physical behavior. I realize that that goes against my bias in favor of materialism. However, I believe that the language of internal, “mental” states can serve more efficiently as a shorthand for describing moral standards.
Having said all that, here, in no particular order, is a first attempt at outlining such a code.
1. Integrity. Be true to yourself and be true to others. Keep your word, both to others and to yourself. Nothing makes me feel better about myself than when I am honest about myself to myself as well as to others. Nothing makes me feel worse than when I fail that test, either relative to others or to myself.
2. Responsibility. Fulfill the obligations that you have toward others. Society charges most of us with responsibility for the care and well-being of certain others. This obligation encompasses helping others to avoid pain and suffering. [For someone who rejects the notion of freedom of choice, the idea of personal responsibility may seem contradictory. However, the sense of responsibility, whether illusory or not, is, I believe, foundational to informing our actions. Without it we fail others as well as ourselves.]
3. Carpe diem. Take advantage of what this life has to offer; it’s the only one you have. To pass up what you could accomplish in this life in expectation of a future life is a “sin.”
4. Respect. Give others the respect they deserve as fellow humans. Everyone deserves the dignity of their humanity, irrespective of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation. This obligation encompasses compassion and tolerance. It also includes respect for others’ freedom of action and freedom from interference, as well as respect for their property.
5. Stewardship. Earth promises to be our only home for the foreseeable future. Do not do anything to jeopardize that home. Where possible, we have an obligation not only to maintain but to improve our home both for ourselves and for our descendants.
6. Advancement of understanding. Contribute to a better understanding of the human condition. We all have an opportunity to contribute to our understanding of the world and of the meaning of our lives. We have an obligation to exercise that opportunity.
As I admitted, this was much more difficult than I thought it was going to be. Perhaps these obligations are too generic or too bland to be meaningful. I hope not. Perhaps, too, I have omitted important obligations. I am certainly open to comments or suggestions.
© 2014 John M. Phillips