Friday, June 01, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Which Ten Commandments?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Richard Carrier has an alternative Ten Commandments he’d like the world to consider, apparently on the basis of their utility:

“Unlike the Commandments of Moses, when suitably interpreted, none of these is outdated or antithetical to modern moral or political thought. Every one could be taken up by anyone today, of any creed, to some extent.”

Well, why not? Let’s take these babies out for a spin and see how they compare to the real deal.

Anyone of Any Creed ...

  1. Trust good character more than promises.
  2. Do not speak falsely.
  3. Do good things.
  4. Do not be hasty in making friends, but do not abandon them once made.
  5. Learn to obey before you command.
  6. When giving advice, do not recommend the most pleasing, but the most useful.
  7. Make reason your supreme commander.
  8. Do not associate with people who do bad things.
  9. Honor the gods.
  10. Have regard for your parents.
Tom: Immanuel Can, what on earth makes God’s Ten Commandments given through Moses a better proposition than Solon’s?

Immanuel Can: Good question, Tom.

I’d suggest that the Decalogue is better in all important respects. In fact, we could also say that almost any definite moral system would be better in some way. What Richard Carrier (pace Solon) has done here is to bury a contestable and suspect set of his own personal value judgments inside common language. At some points, he gives you a bunch of blanks, and hopes you’ll mentally fill them in. At others, he puts his own values in as if they were universals. But he really has given you no reason to believe his values are right, nor even to know for certain what those values he espouses actually are.

On the other hand, the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) has definite, specific moral content, and thus is informative.

On Modernity

Tom: The first thing that struck me is his metric. He wants commandments that are entirely in step with “modern moral or political thought”, which makes their content necessarily subjective and personal, as you say. Twenty years ago, modern moral and political thought would not countenance the idea of homosexual marriage. Currently it does, and I suspect 20 years down the road it will admit a greater variety of things we presently (and rightly) consider taboo.

So which decade would Mr. Carrier like us to reference? What exactly is “modern”?

IC: It changes, of course. And since it changes, Mr. Carrier’s “ethics” ask us to hit a moving target. Not only is it moving, but once it moves it eradicates the so-called “ethic” that it replaces. So we ought to ask why he thinks we are duty bound to any ethic at all, since all are in motion, changing, dying, becoming obsolete and being replaced continuously.

But I think there are other problems than the fluidity of modern ethics, and these compound the failure of his proposed list ...

Honoring the Gods

Tom: Well, “Honor the gods” in particular strikes me as a tad dubious when combined with Mr. Carrier’s assertion that each one of Solon’s Ten Commandments “could be taken up by anyone today, of any creed, to some extent”. That phrase “to some extent” has to be pretty elastic if one insists on simultaneously attempting to honor Allah and Jesus, for instance. I mean, are you going to kill the infidel or love him and pray for him? It’s a fairly significant difference in strategy.

Mr. Carrier is able to make statements like this, I suspect, because he has no idea that the “gods” have different things to say.

IC: Quite true: they do. That’s why the famous “Euthyphro Problem” so perplexed Socrates: he couldn’t figure out why the gods would approve of different things from each other. But that’s another point.

Value-Laden Language

My issues with Mr. Carrier’s proposal would begin with his value-laden language. He uses words like “good”, “bad”, “value” and “useful” without defining them at all. Then, secondly, he imposes moral duties without saying why they even exist for him — let alone for us.

Tom: How can I let that just lie there? Please, carry on.

IC: Well, what I mean is this: if you don’t believe that things like “good” and “bad” are objective properties that God defines, then you owe it to your readers to say “good for what” or “bad according to whose account of badness”. Likewise, if you say “value”, you need to say who values it, and why you think they should value it. If you say “useful”, then you need to say toward what end it is useful, so people can see if they agree with the end you have in mind … and so on.

Secondly, if you want to tell people they “should” or “do not”, or whatever, then you owe it to them to say what the source of any such obligation is.

So Carrier says, “Do good things.” No definition of “good”. No explanation of “things”. No justification of why you owe anyone to choose those things if they don’t please you.

Asking What and Why

Tom: That is a problem. His first commandment, “Trust good character”, for instance, is pretty much useless without some concept of what “good” is. And you mentioned his third commandment, which is equally nullified by his inability to appeal to anything outside his own opinion set.

So his worldview, imported from Solon, far from being applicable to “anyone today, of any creed, to some extent”, is useless without some agreed-upon standard.

But he’s clearly assuming anyone right-minded agrees with him, when there’s no basis at all to assume that.

IC: Well, maybe I can rephrase. If I tell some person or people to do something — that is, if I “command” something — then I owe them to provide two things: firstly, I need to say clearly what it is I want them to do; and secondly, I must say why they ought to do it. My instructions must be clear, and so must my authority or warrant for declaring that people should obey my advice.

Has Mr. Carrier (or Solon) got either of these things?

The Superiority of the Real Ten Commandments

Tom: How then are the “Commandments of Moses” superior to this?

IC: Firstly, the authority problem is solved if, as we Christians believe, God himself backs them; and secondly, the clarity problem is solved, not only because the instructions are straightforward in themselves, but because they are also backed up by 66 books of explanatory notes and implications, and we are given the Spirit of God himself as the teacher of them.

How does Carrier’s New Modern Decalogue stack up to that? It fails both points.

Tom: Agreed. I don’t think anyone would look at Carrier’s Ten Commandments and say they’re immoral or utterly worthless. The problem is, as you say, that they lack authority and any sense of what they actually mean, absent the definitions already established by scripture which, for obvious reasons, he might be reluctant to embrace.

Carping About the Details

I’d also love to know how he gets to cherry pick “Honor your father and mother” and reduce it to “have regard for”. Apart from the commands of God, why should we honor our parents? Nietzsche, Marx, the Occupy gang and many moderns would say the last generation is the source of many of our current social problems.

IC: Well, fair enough. I would also say something about his injunction “Make reason your supreme commander”. Here he seems to make what philosophers call a category error, by assuming that “reason” is a type of conclusion, or at least a source of specific kinds of conclusions. But any good philosopher can tell you that “reason” is not that; it’s a mechanism, not a conclusion; and as with all mechanisms, what comes out depends entirely on what goes in. If you start with false premises then reason will lead you to false conclusions. If you start with correct suppositions, then reason is a very fine thing. But reason by itself doesn’t tell us anything.

The Bottom Line

Tom: It seems to me that whatever Mr. Carrier is looking for, Solon’s Ten Commandments are not likely to help him, unless he’s so determined to see the end of whatever remains of the speedily vanishing Christian influence on our society that he simply doesn’t care what replaces it — so long as it is not Bible-based.

IC: There’s not much value in Mr. Carrier’s unenforceable commandments given in language no one really understands. Good thing God’s commands are both authoritative and clear.


  1. Qman's 10 insights concerning Solon's 10 commandments (numbered):

    1. Trust good character more than promises.

    Wrong order of importance. Good character is only certified after you have determined that good promises are indeed kept.

    2. Do not speak falsely.

    Redundant. You won't if you have good character.

    3. Do good things.

    It is a good thing that my bank account is getting bigger!

    4. Do not be hasty in making friends, but do not abandon them once made.

    Drop them like a hot potato if they turn out to be misleading and untrustworthy in their judgment.

    5. Learn to obey before you command.

    If you have learned o honor your mother and you father, you will know how to obey.

    6. When giving advice, do not recommend the most pleasing, but the most useful.

    In war, advise your commander to behead the prisoners since it will make the conquered population toe the line.

    7. Make reason your supreme commander.

    That sounds reasonable, see point 6 above. Or would it be better to follow a compassionate deity?

    8. Do not associate with people who do bad things.

    Mom and Dad will have taught you that much (if you honored them). However, they also have compassion and are interested in prison reform.

    9. Honor the gods.

    Could be dangerous if there is only one jealous God. How do I know, I don't want to get into trouble?

    10. Have regard for your parents.

    I want to do more. I want to honor them.

    1. I especially like your #1 comment, Qman, because recently a lot of people have begun to think that adjectives about character are all we need to produce good people.

      But what we call "character" and "goodness" are two different properties. One can have "good" character in a "bad" cause -- as when someone is a courageous (i.e. a character quality) liar (i.e. bad action), or a dedicated alcoholic, or a consistent tyrant. In each case, the presence of a "good" adjective does not help make the noun any better.

      Character is about the *way* one does something, but the noun is about what one actually *does.* To be "good at keeping bad promises" is to be exceptional at being bad.

      Very astute.

  2. "But he really has given you no reason to believe his values are right"

    "unless he’s so determined to see the end of whatever remains of the speedily vanishing Judeo-Christian influence on our society that he simply doesn’t care what replaces it — so long as it is not Bible-based."

    Richard Carrier has a lot of very detailed writings which establish his moral philosophy as both true and superceding all others. A quick google search will bring up quite a lot of it.

    1. First, my apologies to any readers who find the ensuing response too technical and wordy. The above comment more-or-less makes it unavoidable.


      I have checked. You are correct: Richard Carrier loves detail. Lots of detail. And sidetracks; lots of sidetracks. And obfuscation...lots and lots of that.

      In fact, his only real hope is that his readers might get lost in all that detail, and so not be able to challenge him at the end. Unfortunately for Mr. Carrier, some of us have lots of patience, interest and experience in moral philosophy. I can track his line of argument just fine. But I confess I'm unimpressed thereby.

      He does indeed try to supplant Christian morality -- with Christian morality minus Christ, essentially. He asserts that "compassion" is a universal moral imperative; I would agree, but because I believe in God who is compassionate. Why he asserts compassion is imperative...well, he's not really able to say, except to hope it "works out better" if we do.

      In contrast, Carrier's Atheist progenitor, Nietzsche, would have accused him of advocating the "slave morality" of the Christians, and would call him cowardly for being unwilling to see his Atheism through to its logical moral implications. His other progenitor, David Hume, would have chastised him for glossing over the Is-Ought problem by gratuitously claiming we owe something to our "desires."

      His present-day contemporaries, the thorough-going Atheists don't like him much either, for they see his theories are too morally timid, and he seems to be opening the door back up to Christian values...and thus potentially to Christianity. You can see that in the comments directed to many of his blogs and posts.

      The upshot is this: as a moral philosopher, Richard Carrier has little of interest to offer, either for the Christian or for the Atheist. Both sides seem to agree he's gone canoeing without a paddle; and I'd agree.

      In fact, he's quite typical of many Atheists today who are unwilling to live with the clear rational consequences of a Godless universe. I don't blame them, but I do recognize their hypocrisy. They see the disaster that Atheism would produce in the moral realm, and they desperately try to evade it. That's why they become inconsistent: there's no God, they tell us, but morals are a "must." But why "must" anyone do anything, in a Godless universe? Even if something is cruel, destructive to others or self-destructive, in a Godless universe it cannot be said to be "bad" or "evil," only perhaps "impractical," and impractical only for things the sinner himself clearly cares nothing about, or which he thinks less important than his present desires.

      I have some sympathy for Carrier's fears; it is quite justified to worry that Atheism leave morality without a leg to stand on. But if you want Atheism, then rationally speaking, that is precisely what you get. Moralizing Atheists are like men who jump over a cliff in the hope of stopping half way down.

      As for his having found a morality that is actually verifiably "true and superseding all others," well... if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. I'm afraid there's just no evidence to bolster any such claim.