Morality and the 10 Commandments

From the IAmAnAtheist.com comment form:

Here is a good example of why the 10 Commandments are all you need as the root of your tree of morality. Here are the questions from a CNN article on ethical questions, with the answers from the 10 Commandments:

1. If something at a yard sale is far more valuable than the posted price, do I have to let the seller know?

No. There is no commandment against this.

2. Is it considered stealing to take pens from a bank? What about extra napkins from a fast-food restaurant?

No. This is not stealing since those items are free.

3. If a charity sends me free address labels and I don’t make a contribution, is it OK to use them?

Same as #2.

4. Is it unfair to move into better (open) seats at a sporting event or a concert?

Yes. This is both stealing because you are taking something you didn’t pay for and coveting because you desire more expensive seats.

5. My boss gave me credit for a project on which a colleague did most of the work. Should i accept the praise?

No, this is the sin of pride.

6. Is it OK to fantasize about someone else when I’m with my partner?

No. You shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife.

7. Am I obligated to lend money to friends and family?

Yes. Honor thy father and mother.

8. If someone tells an offensive joke, is it my responsibility to speak up about it?

Yes. Do not take the Lord’s name in vain.

9. Is it ever OK to sneak a peek at your child’s e-mail?

Yes. Honor thy father and mother.

10. My boss asked me to cover for him on his expense report by saying I was at a meal when I wasn’t. Should I do it?

No. Thou shalt not spread false witness.

I found the original CNN article, and I don’t necessarily agree with their answers (#1 in particular — by Q2). However, I’ll confine my discussion to your answers.

I appreciate that you want to use the 10 Commandments as the basis for your morality. There is nothing wrong with that in principle. In practice, though, it is full of pitfalls, many of which you fell into.

For example, the 10 Commandments are too general to apply to many specific situations, as is demonstrated by your answer to #8. You seem to be assuming that all offensive jokes take God’s name in vain. And even if that were the case, the question is about whether you should speak up when confronted with such a joke, not about whether telling the joke is ethical.

Even the commandment against stealing is not unambiguous. You’re saying that it’s not stealing to take something that doesn’t have a price tag attached to it. But if, for example, I went into McDonalds and loaded a shopping bag with all of their napkins, wouldn’t that be unethical?

Some of your answers seem to require a huge stretch before you can grab on to a commandment. You should loan money to your friends and family because you should honor your father and mother? At the very least, that answer requires some significant explaining.

In your first answer, you also seem to imply that things that are not in the Ten Commandments are therefore not unethical. I’m sure we can think of many examples of things not covered by 10C that you would consider wrong or sinful.

Your answer to #5 doesn’t even refer to the 10C, but to the seven deadly sins. This makes me question how thoroughly you have thought through your own moral system.

We can go into any of these answers in detail if you like (and I’d appreciate it if readers left comments on any of these questions that they found particularly interesting), but I think you see my main point: the Ten Commandments are not a sufficient basis for morality.

Posted on June 3, 2010 at 7:30 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: Morality · Tagged with: 

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments via RSS

  1. Written by Middlemet
    on June 3, 2010 at 7:52 am
    Reply · Permalink

    2. Stealing pens from banks. I’ve never thought those were for taking. I thought they were there as a convenience to customers who might not have their own handy.

    That one is just an aside, though. The one I really wanted to talk about was the “Is it OK to sneak a peak at your child’s email.” I think I might find, within the context of a 10C framework, the idea that if you as a parent request to see your child’s email, then the child under the HonorC might be required to present it. That’s a different kettle of fish, though, from doing it without their knowledge. Just because a child has to honor you doesn’t mean you get an ethical carte blanche to violate their trust and privacy. You could justify all sorts of wacky parental behavior with that kind of logic.

  2. Written by NFQ
    on June 3, 2010 at 9:03 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Wow, this is really fascinating. In particular, I am intrigued by the first response statement, “No. There is no commandment against this.” What’s surprising to me is that the exact same response could have been given to many of the other ethical dilemmas, but this commenter was willing to stretch the context of the commandments to make them fit vaguely similar situations. There is no commandment about speaking up against offensive jokes. There is not even a commandment about offensive jokes. The commandments certainly have nothing to say about email! (Also, of course, “honor your father and mother” might mean, “offer to show them your emails,” but I don’t see how it means “Mom and Dad, snoop away!”) There is no commandment explicitly linking “honor” to “lend money,” and no commandment equating “father and mother” with “entire extended family plus friends.” There is no commandment about having fantasies about someone who is not your spouse if you don’t actually want those fantasies to come true in reality.

    I think it’s pretty clear that this comment submitter is reading a lot of their own context and interpretation into the commandments in order to apply them to these questions — illustrating the very point they are trying to refute. The commandments are anything but sufficient.

  3. Written by Leah
    on June 15, 2010 at 4:57 pm
    Reply · Permalink

    I’m not sure this is a fair criticism. To put it in math geek terms (my native tongue), I don’t think most religious people make the argument that the 10 Commandments are a complete basis set for morality (i.e. you cannot derive every true moral theorem from them alone).

    In fact, Christians would definitely argue that the Old Testament (home of the 10 commandments) is incomplete, since Jesus establishes a new Covenant that is different from the one previously applied to the Jews.

    CNN is just doing sloppy reporting.

Subscribe to comments via RSS

Leave a Reply