Dennis Prager put up a terrible argument for the Ten Commandments in 2014 that Aron Ra, prominent atheist, replied to in 2015. Prager’s argument deserves commentary above Aron’s evisceration, however, because of how totally dishonest his core premise is. Prager seriously wants to assert that the Ten Commandments would produce an ethical world and are responsible for the civilizational progress since the Enlightenment, ignoring the role of so many civilizations and intellectual strands in that progress. As Ra points out, if the Ten Commandments led inexorably to democracy and the end of slavery, it wouldn’t have needed to take thousands of years for that to happen, and there would have been no need for an Enlightenment to push back against both the aristocracy and the church.
Prager’s argument is stupid both because of omission and commission. Both what the Ten Commandments don’t say and what they do say aren’t sufficient or interesting enough.
Error of Commission and Trivial Argument
Prager seriously asks us to imagine a world where we didn’t murder or steal, where we honored our parents and the laws, and where we didn’t lie. He points out that such a world would be safe, having no need of soldiers, and would be happy.
To which I have to say: No shit.
We can transmute Prager’s statement to the idea, “Man, wouldn’t it be nice if people got along?” or “Bro, what if people were just moral?”
One can only respond to this level of insight by saying, “Well, they’re not”. Just saying it doesn’t make it so. A reasonable conclusion might be that just having the Ten Commandments, or even enforcing them, isn’t sufficient to make people moral. Maybe there’s a lot more to it. Maybe all that actual complexity and hard work is what matters, not just the trivial insights that it’s wrong to murder people.
But, of course, the Ten Commandments are not a perfectly constrained and exhaustively complete guide to morality. The first four about not worshiping other Gods, not having graven images, not taking the Lord’s name in vain, and honoring the Sabbath day, are not at all essential to morality. People believe that for their private faith-based reasons, but none of those are moral guides. Even if we generously put aside the fact that real human beings often have hurt and killed each other, whether directly or through a theocratic legal apparatus, for violating these rules, to speak nothing of those who have merely annoyed or insulted or emotionally blackmailed others for not complying with the first four Commandments, these Commandments still are arbitrary restrictions having nothing to do per se with ethics. In particular, the strict Sabbath requirements are silly and obtrusive. A society doesn’t need to have a strict day of rest: a mere social agreement, from both law and custom, to allow people a reasonable work-life balance is enough. If people work sixteen hour days six days a week but have a relaxing Sabbath, that isn’t close to enough for human health. And it’s certainly not necessary or beneficial to prevent people from driving cars, or working on a novel, or cooking a meal, or doing whatever they please on their days off.
The remaining commandments to not lie or bear false witness, not steal, not commit adultery, not covet and not kill are fine, putting aside the Bible and many people in Abrahamanic faiths having offered excuses for all these things for a moment. (Don’t worry, we’ll get back to the ugly rest of the Bible). I’d argue that coveting something is totally benign if you don’t act on it, but for the sake of argument, I’ll grant that it’s healthy to not want stuff other people have.
And the great irony of Prager’s video? There’s another part of the Bible that has a moral maxim that is pretty dang good. Jesus offers in Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12 that you should “Do to others what you would want them to do to you”. In Luke 10:25-28, Jesus confirms that this is a good idea when he approves someone else saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as you love yourself”. Putting aside that worshiping an entity that you don’t know exists isn’t really necessary for ethics and has some potential downsides, the golden rule plus the love for others is way, way better than the Ten Commandments. The golden rule teaches you not to oppress others, because you wouldn’t want to be oppressed. It tells you to listen when others speak, because you wouldn’t want to be ignored. It tells you not to interrupt others without cause, not to beat or assault or abuse, not to steal or murder, not to disrespect your parents (or your children), because you wouldn’t want any of those things done to you.
The golden rule in my mind is a minimalist rule: I think you can go beyond what a person might reasonably want or expect or imagine. I think the Hebrew man the Good Samaritan saved probably didn’t expect that the Good Samaritan would have gone so far and wouldn’t have “wanted” it. I also think you have to be careful with the golden rule: for example, sometimes someone with low self-esteem might think that others might not want to be helped because they themselves don’t think they deserve help and are embarrassed as a result. The golden rule requires careful thought and really trying to evaluate a situation from multiple perspectives… which is of course one of its main advantages, when practiced. Jesus, like the Buddha, unsurprisingly gave his disciples moral maxims that not only worked as good rules of thumb but also tended to make people who followed them more and more introspective, empathetic and practiced as moral agents. The Ten Commandments have none of those advantages.
In Aron’s video, he quotes someone offering what he in other places frequently suggests as a universal maxim. To paraphrase: Behavior that tends to improve human health, well-being, and happiness, and/or diminish suffering and harm, is moral, and behavior that does the opposite is immoral. This is effectively what Baruch Spinoza and the Dalai Lama both came up with as well. I personally would add that we are responsible for the predictable consequences of our actions. The nice thing about the golden rule, though, is that it allows us to instantly gauge if we are being hypocrites and it lets us contextualize human health and well-being using our own personal experience as a viscerally apparent gauge. So even if we decide to say that we have four maxims now, that’s still infinitely better than the Ten Commandments.
Spinoza demolishing Dennis’ later bullshit about how you need to have an omnipresent watcher to stop doing bad things.
Dennis further goes on to indicate that no one has created a system better than the Ten Commandments. That is straightforwardly false. Aside from Spinoza and the Dalai Lama in Ethics for the New Millennium, and aside from Aron Ra’s point about the Code of Hammurabi, there’s also Kant’s categorical imperative and deontological ethics, Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism, and Aristotle’s virtue ethics. All of these systems are far more complete and far more coherent than the Ten Commandments.
In contrast to the golden rule’s flexibility, or to the flexibility of any of the other perfectly secular ethical systems, the Ten Commandments are fixed and proscriptive. They tell you what to not do but not what to do. That’s useless on multiple levels.
This kid wrote something better than the Ten Commandments.
But it’s the omissions that the Ten Commandments make that are so awful. And even Prager has to quietly (and dishonestly) concede this. He mentions that we’d comply with the law in a good world, but putting aside the obvious and not-at-all-trivial case where the law is unjust, the Ten Commandments don’t say anything of the sort, or even try to distinguish between the need to follow a law and to follow one’s conscience and/or faith. (It’s almost like the Ten Commandments were part of a brutal state theocracy and never intended to be used in pluralist democratic societies!) The Ten Commandments don’t say anything about democracy or civic participation. They don’t tell you not to assault, or not to rape. They don’t tell you how to raise your children, or even tell you not to abuse or molest your children. They say nothing about animals. They don’t tell you not to enslave or abduct. They don’t tell you not to discriminate against those of different faiths or races or ethnicities or sexual orientations or sexes. They don’t tell you how to treat LGBTQ people. Michael Vick and Jared Fogle would have done nothing wrong under the Ten Commandments. They sure as fuck would have under any ethical system worth mentioning.
“Okay”, a Christian apologist might add, “but of course you should add the rest of the Bible, Old and New Testament, to give the Commandments context. Prager may be being a bit reductivist, but he’s still basically right”.
But there’s a reason why people like Prager duck out from the rest of the Bible. The Ten Commandments seem to be a nice core that lets you ignore the proscriptions about eating pork and owls and shellfish, or ignore the repeated and direct passages condoning and indeed precisely regulating slavery, or say you should stone people.
I often find Aron Ra to be too militant for my tastes, but he’s flat out right when he says that if you followed even a fraction of the rules of the Bible you would be imprisoned in virtually every country on the planet.
Prager wants to credit the Ten Commandments for democracy, the end to slavery, the expansion of women’s rights, and so forth, but not one of those things are stated or even implied in the Ten Commandments. Again, the golden rule would indeed have indicated all of these things taken to its logical conclusion. The Ten Commandments wouldn’t.
People like Prager wonder why we fight them so hard when they just say “Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t kill?”
It’s because of what always comes next. Christians of Prager’s ilk, that want to ground morality in God, almost never stop with the idea that we should be nice to each other. They want to say that we shouldn’t have gay marriage, or even that homosexuality should be punished by death. They want to argue that we should restrict the rights of Muslims, or that we should bomb certain countries. They want to push creationism into the science class, whitewash the history in history class, and destroy the independent thinking and critical analysis aspects of everything from civics to philosophy. Prager himself tried to defend why it’s okay to oppose gay marriage, with arguments ranging from a fallacious appeal to authority to a fallacious appeal to tradition! It was men like him who supported segregation, men like him who supported slavery, men like him who opposed the eight hour day and who supported eight-year-olds laboring in factories.
All too often, Christians don’t get why others fight them so hard on the Ten Commandments or the golden rule or the more benign aspects of the Bible. I can understand why it’d feel like one’s faith is being picked on as a result. But this is why: the rest of us, from Buddhists to atheists to agnostics to Muslims to Jews to Rastafarians to Hindus to Sikhs, know what’s coming next.
The fact is that Prager really doesn’t have the ability to think beyond the trivialities of “What if we just didn’t kill each other?” He doesn’t want to do the hard work of finding a moral code and philosophical appeals that work in concert with human psychology, just social institutions, proper education, healthy communities, critical thinking and a robust and ethical science and academy, and so many other accomplishments to actually produce ethical outcomes.
The worst part?
Prager knows it.
The most illustrative part of the video is where he says, without a trace of self-awareness or irony, that people have found ways of rationalizing their way into bad behavior no matter ethical systems.
Yes, and that applies to you too, Dennis. It applies to your dogma. It applies to Christianity. It applies to Judaism. It applies to every faith. Even if an omnipotent and omniscient being with transcendent kindness and patience (i.e. not the God of the Bible) appeared to us all and told us how to live, that would still be its opinion. Such a being would, if it respected us, make arguments as to why we should accept its proclamations and commandments, giving us a rich understanding of our consequences, our psychology, and our actual aspirations and needs.
Your Commandments tell children to honor their parents, without mentioning what form that honor should take and when that commandment should end (should I stop my parent if they are going to commit a crime? commit murder? abuse a sibling?), but they don’t tell parents how to raise their children to be fair, decent beings. Whole books of child psychology have been written on that score, and we still don’t have perfect answers. (How odd that God decided to leave out the most elementally important aspect of the human species: how to raise children so they’re decent in the first place).
Unfortunately, all indications are that such a being is not going to appear any time soon.
So we have to do that work ourselves.
Stop getting in the way by bringing up barbaric and outdated commandments given by an apparently fictitious author in fictitious circumstances.
Start trying to find out the actual causes of bad outcomes and figure out ways of averting them.