It is often claimed, not only by believing Jews and Christians but also by some atheists and agnostics, that the ten commandments, as formulated in Exodus 20 of the Bible, constitute an ethical program which it is wise for people and nations to follow. Many voices in the political debate lament that the social problems of the day largely are the result of an abandonment of these commandments and that, in order to successfully combat the ills of society, people in general and, perhaps especially, political and economic leaders need to subject themselves to these ancient but ever-so-valid rules.
We strongly disagree with this sort of claims, on two grounds. First, because our metaphysics differs from the one espoused in the biblical commandments: we do not believe in the existence of any god(s). Second, because we think that if commandments are to be used, they need to be expressed differently than the ones of the Bible. Both of these points will be elaborated upon in this essay, as we take a closer look at each of the ten rules (in this essay quoted from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible). It bears noting that we do not analyze Jewish or Christian ethics taken as wholes, but that we solely assess the ten commandments. Of course, these constitute an essential part of Jewish and Christian ethics, and so any criticism directed against the commandments notably affects the evaluation of the whole ethical systems of Judaism and Christianity, in an indirect manner. Furthermore, we will evaluate the ten commandments both from the perspective of personal ethics (i.e., as guides to personal decisions, without there being legislation) and law (i.e., as guides to legislation).
Our task here is to offer a critique of a certain
set of ethical rules, which, naturally, does not reveal whether we are
of the opinion that there are better alternatives. After all, even if a
certain set of rules is found to be undesirable in many ways, it may be
the case that there is no better alternative and, so, the original set
of rules are preferable by default. However, we are of the opinion that
there are better alternatives, although we differ somewhat on which alternative
is best. (Fredrik considers himself a socialist and anarcho-syndicalist;
and Niclas considers himself a libertarian, on rule-utilitarian grounds.)
At the end, we present a selection of links which, among other things,
contain our own alternative views of ethics, which we think superior to
the ten commandments.
The first commandment
1. The factual presumption of this, the very first commandment, is that there exist gods, one of which is Jahve (who utters the commandments). We do not think there is good evidence for such beliefs, for reasons we have outlined elsewhere, and if there are no god(s), then this commandment cannot be held to contain anything of ethical relevance at all, since its crucially presupposes theism.
2. If, however, one for some reason thinks theism true, and if one advocates the ten commandments on the grounds that they make up an ethical code, this very first commandment is problematic, on at least two grounds. First, it seems to present, on such a reading, the view that the existence of god(s) is a normative issue, not an issue of fact. That is to say, it commands us to believe in the existence of god(s) and to submit to one of these, Jahve - lest we are to be considered immoral. But how can one be required to hold a certain belief? We hold that an honest, non-chosen belief or non-belief stands outside the realm of moral judgement. (For more on this argument, see Niclas Berggren's essay "A Note on the Concept of Belief".) Second, this reading points us to Plato's dilemma, which states: 'How are we to understand the idea that God wills us to do what is good?' There are two answers we could give to this question:
A God wills us to do what is good because certain acts are good, and he wishes such actions to be performed.
B An act is good only because God wills it.
None of the alternatives are satisfactory for the theist. If A holds, then ethics is independent of God's existence and God cannot be said to be necessary for ethics, and if B holds such that something is good by virtue of the fact that God wills it, then the assertion that God wills us to perform good acts just reduces to the unenlightening assertion that God wills us to do what he wills us to do. And how can that form the basis of ethics?
3. In the political realm, this commandment cannot form the basis of legislation in democratic states, since it implies the abandonment of freedom of religion. This we would consider highly undesirable, as we adhere strongly to the right of every individual to belong to any religion, and thus worship any god(s) they desire, or no religion at all without any opposition from the state.
In conclusion, the first commandment builds on
false premises and an unsatisfactory view of beliefs and ethics; and hence,
it must be rejected.
The second commandment
Ex. 20:7: "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain."
We wish first to point out that this commandment reveals that if the Jewish and/or Christian versions of theism hold true (which we think is not the case), then this deity called Jahve must be considered immature and, quite frankly, cruel. Otherwise, why would he - supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent - care about how little humans treat his name, and why would he stipulate guilt on the part of someone who takes his name in vain? And if this commandment has to do with ethics, if anything, it contains an unpleasant view of morality, a view which has been referred to as "morality at gunpoint." Rather than explaining why a certain manner of behavior - in this case, to avoid taking God's name in vain - is a good means to fulfill an ethical goal, it simply mandates that it shall not be done. No explanation. Simply: "do this, or else…"
Aside from this, it seems odd to assert that this
decree (put as a threat, no less) has much to do with ethics - unless one
defines ethics in accordance with point B above and says that ethics is
that which God has commanded. But we already showed this to be an empty
motivation. And again, this commandment presupposes the existence of Jahve,
and since we do not think this presupposition true, we asseverate that
this commandment can have nothing in it of ethical relevance. It also seems
useless, and in all circumstances undesirable, as law.
The third commandment
Ex. 20:8-11: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it."
We generally feel that ethics is the formulation of which actions that are good and which actions that are bad on the basis of a detection of how best to fulfill ethical goals, e.g., the satisfaction of human needs. In order to make people accept a certain ethical code, therefore, we think it best if one can provide sound reasons for why the proposed code is beneficial for the satisfaction of human needs. This commandment, like most of the others, simply states a rule, without explaining why it would be in our interest, as humans, to adhere to it. This must be considered unsatisfactory and, we posit, at odds with the idea of there being a perfect God behind it.
However, unlike the first two commandments, this one can be discussed rationally without recourse to a God. That is, even if one rejects theism, it cannot be ruled out that good reasons could be given for why it is the best interest of people in general to take a specific day off once a week. But we have not encountered such reasons.
First, this commandment is formulated in a destructively strict manner: it states a rule without exceptions. In fact, even Jesus agreed with this criticism (as is clear from, e.g., Matt. 12:1-8)! For instance, most people, ourselves included, wish for hospital staff, such as surgeons and nurses, to be allowed to work on, say, Sundays. How such work - or, for that matter, any other work - could be viewed as immoral, solely because it takes place on a certain day, escapes us. Even if one thinks it morally obligatory to take every seventh day off, we see no rational basis at all for making any particular day of the week - such as Saturday or Sunday - "holy". But we see no reason why people should be forced to take any day off against their will. The commandment clearly states that one day every week each and everyone must not perform any work at all. We question why individuals should feel any guilt for working seven days a week. We want to point out that we do not deny people the right to rest from work. What we argue against is the idea that people should be prohibited from working if they desire to do so.
Hence, the third commandment must be considered
undesirable as part of an acceptable ethical code, both on the personal
and on the societal level.
The fourth commandment
Ex. 20:12: "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God gives you."
This commandment also entails the unpleasant view of morality of the second commandment, in that it links a certain type of prescribed behavior to a reward (i.e., "do this, or you will not get the reward"). Instead of trying to cause people to desire to honor their parents, they are enjoined to do so, lest they be without long life. But we think that a useful and followed ethic must build on something else than a theistic metaphysics which takes recourse to unsubstantiated commandments, of the sort expressed in this commandment. Otherwise, on a change of metaphysics, people see no reason to follow a (possibly good) rule..
Here, too, it is possible to hold that it is morally
required of one to honor one's parents even if one rejects theism. This,
of course, can hardly constitute grounds for legislation, but is it a good
rule for one's private life? As before, we think the rule to be too strictly
formulated: while we agree that it is certainly good that people treat
each other with respect (but this not only applies to children with regard
to their parents), this cannot always be thought to be good (e.g., in the
case of child abuse or incest or in the case where the parents urge their
children to violate some other commandment(s)). So, in all, this commandment
could be put much better and cannot, for that reason, be considered an
essential part of a good ethical system. Also, it seems untractable to
legislate on the basis of this rule: how could it be observed to what degree
children honor their parents?
The fifth commandment
Ex. 20:13: "You shall not kill."
This ostensibly straightforward commandment is generally to our satisfaction, but it could be formulated in a better way. Its main problem is that it specifies a rule without offering guidance as to its interpretation. For instance, it is made clear elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible that it is alright to execute people for different crimes and in wars; it is not made clear how to handle active or passive euthanasia; and it only seems to apply to human beings - but it can be questioned on what grounds this exemption of other animals is made. We are not saying that a rule prohibiting killing should necessarily be applied to (all) other animals, but we think that a richer discussion is necessary for any rule against killing to be fully respectable.
We also do not think that an acceptable ethics should contain an absolute prohibition of all killing; rather, it should specify circumstances under which it is indeed morally right to allow killing. For instance, in the realm of medical ethics, we think that a "quality of life" standard is commendable rather than a "life is holy" standard of the form expressed in the fifth commandment. This means that in our opinion it may, under special circumstances, be morally acceptable to carry out abortions and euthanasia. Hence, we reject any absolute interpretation of this commandment.
This is clearly a rule which not only needs to apply to the private realm of ethics, but it also needs to form the basis for legislation.
Lastly, virtually all cultures have had a moral
code which prohibits murder, and hence, perhaps this, the most useful of
the commandments, is not in any way special to the Jewish or Christian
religions. And the reason for this is that, unlike most of the other commandments,
this one, properly interpreted, is useful for the attainment of general
well-being, which is obvious.
The sixth commandment
Ex. 20:14: "You shall not commit adultery."
If we interpret this commandment as saying that sexual intercourse is only to be allowed within the confinements of marriage, then we think it clearly unadvisable to include it in a code of ethics. First, we do not think that marriage is a necessary requirement for engaging in sexual activities. For the latter to be morally acceptable, we hold that they take place voluntarily on the part of all those affected. If this prerequisite is met, then any type of sexual activity is ethically acceptable to us. However, we think that if a promise of sexual monogamy (or of something else) has been made between two parties, whether in a marriage or in some other form of agreement, then such a promise needs to be kept. But if two parties agree that one or both may engage in sexual activities outside of the relationship, then that is also morally right, in our view.
This commandment, like most others, is in any
case unsuitable as the basis for legislation, both because it is practically
difficult to enforce for a judicial system and because it deals with issues
of private morality, which we feel should not be regulated in law, even
if it was practically possible.
The seventh commandment
Ex. 20:15: "You shall not steal."
Our analysis of this commandment largely follows that of the fifth commandment. In essence, we think that under most, but not all, circumstances, it is morally wrong to take the possessions of others without their consent. We can identify the following two exceptions: in some cases of starvation (such as when a child which would otherwise die may be morally right in stealing a loaf of bread from a billionaire) and in the case of taxation (which means that we reject anarco-capitalism, which considers the takings of any part of the material means of the citizens immoral, in principle). Again, we see that the particular formulation of this commandment is insufficiently precise for it to make good ethics.
This rule, like the one prohibiting killing, can
also be found in almost all cultures, and hence any precise reference to
this commandment is not necessary for this socially beneficial rule (sufficiently
specified) to prevail.
The eighth commandment
Ex. 20:16: "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."
This we regard as a decent ethical rule, in most,
but not all, circumstances. We do consider it morally wrong to lie in the
general case, but unlike this absolute rule, and, say, the Kantian idea
of the categorical imperative, we think that lying is acceptable in cases
where the gains from doing so greatly outweigh the losses (e.g., when it
is possible to prevent crimes by lying on their behalf). Like some other
commandments, then, this one contains a sound ethical idea, albeit expressed
The ninth commandment
Ex. 20:17: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house."
First, we deem this commandment to be useless
as the basis for legislation, as it deals with coveting the house
of someone else - and how can laws deal with the mere desires of citizens?
Second, as a rule in the private sphere, we regard it as sound in cases
where the coveting is of a jealous nature (although we do not consider
it suitable for legislation). But if one covets one's neighbor's house
on the basis of a general desire to better one's own position, and if one
is inspired to work hard and honestly to obtain what one's neighbor already
has obtained, then this rule is not very good at all. So again, this commandment
has an element of ethical attractiveness in it, but it is not specified
precisely enough for us to find it wholly applicable to relevant ethical
The tenth commandment
Ex. 20:17: "[Y]ou shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor's."
This commandment is really the same as the ninth
commandment, and our comments above apply here as well.
After having considered the ten commandments of the Hebrew Bible in some detail, we have found that the rather common assertion, that people and societies need to "return" to these rules if they are to flourish in proper ways, is clearly untenable. And this our critique of the commandments does not only stem from a genuine dissatisfaction with most of them, but also from a reflection on what rules that are needed instead. That is to say, even if some elements of the commandments are somewhat acceptable (such as the injunctions against killing, stealing, and lying, at least in most cases), as a set, they certainly do not constitute a complete ethical system. To mention a few examples, discussing such matters as cruelty to animals, rape within marriages, incest, and physical abuse of others, seems vital for any acceptable, minimum code of ethics. Here, the ten commandments falter by not including these matters. But, clearly, they also falter in themselves. It should also be noted that almost all societies (inspired by, e.g., Buddha and Confucius, as well as many Greek and Roman philosophers) have incorporated the good ethical rules against killing, stealing, and lying - so the claim that there is a need for a Biblical base for good ethics does not hold water for this reason as well.
The table below presents our assessments of each
of the commandments, where "Absurd" refers to a commandment being without
ethical relevance, where "OK?" makes a rule hard to assess: under some
circumstances it is acceptable, but certainly not generally, and where
"Good" means that, in general, the rule is an important part of an ethical
|Commandment #||Assessment||Basis for legislation?|
|First: "...have no other gods..."||Absurd||No|
|Second: "...not take the name of the LORD your God in vain..."||Absurd||No|
|Third: "Remember the sabbath day..."||Absurd||No|
|Fourth: "Honor your father..."||OK?||No|
|Fifth: "...not kill."||Good||Yes|
|Sixth: "...not commit adultery."||OK?||No|
|Seventh: "...not steal."||Good||Yes|
|Eighth: "...not bear false witness..."||Good||No|
|Ninth: "...not covet your neighbor's house"||OK?||No|
|Tenth: "...not covet your neighbor's wife..."||OK?||No|
In total, three of the commandments we deem absurd, four possibly OK, and three good. And only in two cases do we consider the commandments relevant for legislation. Consequently, it does not do, in our view, to advance the view that the ten commandments, as a set, are vital for the prevalence of a sound ethics. On what constitutes such an ethics in more detail, feel free to visit the links and read the books we list below.
First, some Internet resources: