A Contemporary Alternative to the Ten Commandments
The Bible’s Ten Commandments joined the lexicon of Western civilization over three millennia ago. These commandments, of nominally Judaic authorship and purpose, were probably refinements and derivations of even more ancient dictums, such as the Seven Laws of Noah and the more comprehensive and secular Code of Hammurabi. Much time has passed since these commandments were etched onto tablets. Civilization has evolved and matured in broad and complex ways since then. In this exposition, the author proposes to replace the iconic but anachronistic Ten Commandments with a more contemporary and pertinent set of guidelines for the proper exercise of free will in a diverse world community. These will be referred to as the Ten Principles, which are listed below:
- The right to life transcends everything
- The meaning of life is what you choose it to be
- Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
- You are responsible for your own well being
- Leave your local world better than you found it
- A is A
- All conclusions are provisional
- Right and wrong are contextual
- Serenity requires acceptance
- You are a product of evolution
Human life and free will are symbiotic. One cannot exist without the other. You cannot make choices unless you are alive, and you cannot live without making choices. When you dissect the exquisite drama of your life, you find inside innumerable decisions that you have made, each impacting the next and each influenced by the prior. Most are trivial, but some are substantial and life-altering. Most are unconscious, but some are overt and flush with intent. Choosing and deciding is the activity that you do most often. It is also the most critical. In between every stimulus and response lies the gap in which you choose a path for your life. The myriad choices that you make during your life accumulate into your history, define your present, and constrain your future. You are the sum of all of your decisions.
Free will is not an illusion. Each moment in time offers forks in the road and the opportunity to choose between them. Choosing is inescapable, because even the choice not to choose is a choice. Even the basic task of sustaining life is an unbroken string of choices from one action to the next. The simplest survival task is breathing, which isn’t a complicated choice, but you certainly have the option to stop. Other survival tasks are more challenging. You live in a universe that is inimical to life, necessitating tremendous effort for survival. If you want to continue to exist, you must plan and act to eat and drink. You must plan and act to build shelter from the elements and protection from hostile predators. All of the planning and actions necessary to execute survival tasks require a string of decisions.
But modern life is far more complex than just these basic biological needs and choices. You exist in a grand universe with infinite possibilities and countless options. Your evolving intellect allows enormously sophisticated interaction with others via education, career, family, community, and culture. These richly diverse life situations present a plethora of risks, rewards, and unintended consequences, all swirling around you in a kaleidoscopic panorama of chaotic events. Your potential choices are nearly limitless.
What do you rely on as the basis for choosing in this confusing maelstrom? You probably look to religions, to governments, to scholars, to philosophers, to parents, to teachers, and many others whom you assume have “the answers”. Perhaps they do have answers. They will certainly tell you that they do. But maybe they don’t. In either case, how would you judge the validity or appropriateness of their answers?
This is a question of inestimable importance. You have probably discovered that the guidance from these diverse authorities is sometimes wrong, contradictory, or at odds with your intuitive view of the world. You have probably learned that the guidance provided by others is biased by their prejudices, ideologies, and life experiences, which may not align with your more direct perceptions. You probably also know by now that each institution that you look to for guidance seems to be right only part of the time. You agree with some of what your church teaches you, but not all. You agree with some of what your government does, but not everything. Many of your life experiences resonate with you, but some still leave you conflicted.
Yet, despite visceral evidence that the institutions in your life can be mistaken, you still frequently default to them for autonomic decision making. In other words, you put your conscious decision making machinery on autopilot, mindlessly following and obeying the dictates and rules inherited by osmosis from your family, your culture, your education, and your faith. There is some efficiency in this autonomic thinking, because it allows you to live without contemplating and analyzing every single step that you take, much like how your autonomic nervous system regulates your breathing without conscious thought. But even though there is comfort in the apparent ease and security of autonomic thinking, there is no avoiding the truth that even your autonomic thinking is built upon earlier, conscious decisions, including the choice of your particular religious, political, and philosophical systems. You are not who you are by accident, even if you merely allow yourself to be dragged through life by the momentum of inherited or environmental influences, because even the decision to be dragged or not dragged is within your circle of control. Robots can blame their deficiencies on their programmers. Humans are actively or passively self-programmers, so blame for deficiencies is inherently self-damning.
Proper decisions are necessary for life and the happiness that should be derived from it. But what determines whether a decision is proper or not? This is an extremely important question that points necessarily to fundamental principles. If you have faulty, incongruous principles, then your attempts to construct decisions from them will leave you unsatisfied and at odds with the world. Faulty principles will lead to relationships that are troubled and perhaps destructive. Faulty principles will leave you frustrated with the apparent “unfairness” of life and the unfortunate turns of events that plague you. Faulty principles will put you in quandaries that seem paradoxical and contradictory. Life will seem pointless and random to you, but this will have nothing to do with fate, and everything to do with the pointlessness and randomness of your underlying principles.
Proper decisions are constructed from the building blocks of a small set of proper principles, just as everything in the universe is constructed from a small set of elementary particles. So what are these fundamental principles that can be used to construct decisions that are right versus wrong, true versus false, productive versus destructive? Of necessity, these principles must transcend religions, governments, and cultural norms, because you must choose what religion, what government, and what cultural norms to follow. Since you must choose what institutions to follow, these fundamental principles must ultimately be knowable by you directly, without interpretation or filtering by institutions and their fallible leaders. You can abdicate this decision and blindly choose to trust certain institutions that you have inherited by circumstance, but this leaves you to the whims or errors of others. Sometimes abdication works out okay, but many times it ends in frustration, confusion, and even disaster. The biggest danger of abdication is that even if you can assume some people are smarter than you, you can never assume that they will look out for your interest better than you.
This exposition proposes Ten Principles for proper decision making and exercise of free will in our complex civilization. They have been chosen based on the following criteria:
- Ubiquity – They have pervasive influence throughout history
- Universality – They can be applied to every person, now or in the future
- Completeness – One or more of them can be applied in all situations to guide choices
- Non-contradiction – They do not conflict when applied in context
- Usefulness – They guide us toward proper choices in our daily lives and relationships
If the Ten Principles truly meet these criteria, they can be applied by everyone, in all times, in all situations. They can be applied to any question, to any issue, and to any choice in a way that can guide your thinking and lead you in a proper direction, without necessarily being an absolute answer to a specific question. They are tools, not solutions. They help you make good decisions, not dictate what you should do. The exercise of free will is more sophisticated than robotically following an ordained script.
As such, the Ten Principles are not like the biblical Ten Commandments, which were targeted for a small sect of people (Israelites) in a specific time (3000 years ago) in a specific place (Judea) for a specific purpose (part of which was to ensure that the Jewish god was properly worshipped). The word “commandment” itself implies a directive toward unthinking compliance, which is the antithesis of free will, as if someone has already done the thinking and choosing for you. Life is not so simple that a list of ten specific directives can substitute for every single decision that you need to make. For example, while the commandment “Thou shall not kill” is clear and proper, it is so specific and directive that it is limited to a very isolated decision that most people rarely find a need to make in their lives. Other weaknesses of the Ten Commandments are discussed in the postscript of this exposition.
Principles, as opposed to commandments, provide a broader, more fundamental perspective on valuation when making choices. For example, restating the commandment “Thou shall not kill” into the broader principle “The right to life transcends everything” reduces specificity, but it is still easy to infer from it that if you are faced with the decision to kill or not, it is usually best not to. But the true value of stating this concept as a more general principle, rather than a specific commandment, is that it can also be used to facilitate thousands of other decisions that may be affected by the value of life and related rights in society, not just the question of murder.
This exposition is not intended to lay claim to authorship of the Ten Principles contained herein. They have already been invented and re-invented many times, in many civilizations, by many authors. This ubiquity is one of the reasons that they have been chosen. For example, there must be a compelling reason why the Golden Rule has arisen spontaneously in almost every society. It has survived the test of many diverse civilizations in many different ages, and must therefore have legitimacy. The Golden Rule transcends any specific religion or political philosophy that dogmatizes it. Fundamental principles for the proper exercise of free will must inherently transcend any specific political system or religion, because these too must be chosen.
A crucial point must be made before discussing the individual principles. To construct a fruitful life or an effective society from these principles, they must be considered as an integral whole. This exposition is not a pick-and-choose buffet or an a la carte menu. Each principle is significant, not just in and of itself, but also in relation to the other nine. Of particular importance is the connection of Principle Number One to the rest. The declaration that “The right to life transcends everything” is a pointed rejoinder that the other nine principles cannot be used as standalone justifications for forcing your will upon others (or for allowing others to force their will upon you). This critical tenet will become more apparent as each of the principles is discussed.
One final point before we begin. An enormous challenge for constructing a set of principles for successful living is that they must not only be useful guides for individual citizens in their daily lives, they must also be useful guides for institutions to facilitate effective societal interdependence between all individuals. It is of no value to hold one set of principles as an individual, only to have to surrender or compromise them in the context of family, community, and state. Nothing but individual and societal failure will result from such a profound disconnect. For example, Principle Number One is not only an imperative to each person to respect everyone else’s right to life, it is an imperative to all of the institutions of civilization to do likewise. This is the only way to properly respect, balance, and reconcile billions of individual perspectives in a diverse world community. It is also the only way to prevent free will from being repressed or eliminated by societal entities. Principles are only necessary in the context of freedom. To the extent that you are not free to choose or to act is the extent to which your principles are useless. The reader will discover that the only politico-economic system that is synergistic with these principles is a constitutional republic with free-market capitalsim.
The Ten Principles
Principle Number One: The right to life transcends everything
(Disclaimer: In this context, the right to life does not refer to a slogan narrowly used in the abortion debate. Rather, it refers to the broader principle of respecting and protecting the right to life of all people).
Life is the sine qua non of human concern. Without life, there is no beauty, no joy, no hope, no memory, and no love. Without life, there is no need for any principles, guidelines, or commandments. Without life, all institutions are hollow shells, including families, governments, and religions. From the perspective of each individual, life is a non-renewable resource. It is finite and fleeting, a blink of an eye, soon swallowed by the absoluteness of death. The finality of death makes the value of life paramount. It is irreplaceable and more precious than anything else in existence. Life has enormous potential, because it can become anything that a free will is determined to make it. All meaning comes from life.
The right to life is therefore a sacred trust. Preserving life is not only a biological imperative for each human, preserving life is the moral imperative for humanity. It must be the bedrock foundation of any philosophy. Furthermore, it is a moral imperative to respect the right to life of every person, not just special ones. The right to life has no practical meaning if it is subject to the whim of approval or chance, if political leaders can abrogate it or if majorities can vote it away from minorities. If only some can claim the right to life, it is really an illusion to all. It cannot be called a right if it is available to some and not to others. This right is shared by all, regardless of group affiliation, political allegiance, religious perspective, or any other artificial distinction constructed by society. Six billion people cohabitate the planet in a broad range of pluralistic collections. The only way to preserve pluralism and to inhibit totalitarianism is to respect the right to life of every individual. If individual rights are not absolute, then collectivist totalitarianism will become absolute.
No other rights can mean anything if the right to life itself is an uncertain proposition. No other right can be founded on anything but the right to life, because the contradictions are immediately apparent. How can the right to free speech mean anything, if you don’t even have the right to be alive? What do the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness mean to a slave whose life is owned by others? What does the right to choose a religion mean to a dead person? The right to life is so important that all other rights in society must orbit around it. This point cannot be overstated. When the layers of life's moral dilemmas are peeled back, at the core will be found an irreducible, indivisible principle protecting the sanctity of life.
The right to life means more than just the right to exist biologically. The right to life is an illusion if you do not also have the right to takes the actions necessary to sustain and fulfill your life, as long as you do not violate the similar right to life of others. If you do not have this freedom, you are a slave or a victim that will soon perish. It would be disingenuous to nominally grant someone the right to life, but then to obstruct them from taking the actions necessary to feed, shelter, and protect themselves. Thus, liberty is a logical and moral extension of the right to life. Liberty means that all transactions between people in a society must be voluntary.
However, liberty cannot flourish in a vacuum, without a framework to sustain it. Private property is the only moral and logical method for sustaining liberty and the right to life in human affairs. This necessarily follows from the premise that you must have a right to those actions necessary to maintain your life. If you do not own the fruits of your labor, how can you claim ownership of the right to life? If what you produce with your life’s effort belongs to someone else, or can be taken by someone else, your claim on life is at the whim and mercy of others, and is therefore an illusion. If you can claim ownership of nothing, than what latitude do you really have? If you cannot accumulate wealth by diligent work and investment, if your life's effort is taxed away at the whim of others, you are nothing but a powerless ward of other masters. Private property is the only mechanism that can ensure that your actions are directly connected to your own survival and prosperity.
The right to life is limited only by the inhospitality of nature and respect for the similar right to life of other people. It is nonsensical to expect the harsh, unconscious, and insentient realm of nature to respect or guarantee life. To the contrary, nature is inherently entropic, decaying incessantly toward a low energy state, thereby imposing extreme difficulty on the biology of life. The impact of entropy on life is so pervasive that death is an unavoidable outcome. It is precisely this entropic inevitability of nature that makes life so precious and that imposes on us the burden to protect the right to life as best we can. The only other boundary on the right to life is that which separates your right from the identical right of others, because all people have the right to life equally. To lay claim to free services supplied involuntarily by others violates the right to life of these others, who would be nothing but slaves to your claim, if it was somehow enforceable. To use violence against others to fulfill your wants and needs violates the sacredness of the right to life, and if permitted, renders the right to life an illusion for all. Violence and involuntary servitude are the antithesis of the right to life and will lead to the breakdown of society and to a miserable existence for citizens, if left unchecked.
Principle Number Two: The meaning of life is what you choose it to be
Absent life, the cosmos is inherently devoid of meaning. It is a cold, mechanical cipher of physical and mathematical principles. Planets follow the law of gravity, with no choice in the matter. Subatomic particles obey the laws of quantum mechanics, with no opinion about the outcome. It is only life that introduces an extropic force, an active, organizing force that necessitates meaning because choices are now possible. At the most fundamental level, life is about choice, and choice requires the context of meaning. Therefore, the most fundamental choice is to choose a meaning. This is a deeply personal choice that is derived solely from the unique identify of each person.
The human mind is a solitary one. While interdependency with other humans is a both a welcome and a necessary condition of our existence, each person’s experiences, genome, circumstances, and random fortunes all yield a unique individual with snowflake-like memories, conditions, abilities, and desires. This necessarily implies unique perspectives on life and unique interpretations of the meaning of life. Like Einstein’s great insight about the cosmos in his theory of relativity, we live in a democratic universe. Just as one observer’s position in Einstein’s universe is not superior to any other observer’s, one person’s meaning of life is not superior to anyone else’s. There is no fixed standard by which superiority of purpose can be determined to the satisfaction of everyone. Just as there is no fixed framework in the physical cosmos around which all other frames of references must be oriented, there is no absolute meaning in human affairs around which all other meanings must orbit.
Meaning is not scripted by the cosmos, because the heavens are insentient. There is no permanent, indelible meaning hard-wired into the fabric of the mechanical universe. It is a blank slate, utterly lacking purpose. Life emerged in this callously unconcerned universe and propagated according to the cold, impartial mechanics of Darwinian evolution. It was not until evolution produced conscious, sentient beings, such as us, that the blank slate of meaning in the universe recorded the first hesitant scrawls.
Other men often attempt to script meaning for you, but how can another man’s meaning be substitutable for yours? Perhaps by great coincidence another man’s meaning is synonymous with your own, but you still must choose to accept that meaning as your own, for reasons that are solely your own. You can ignore this choice, but it will not ignore you. If you abdicate this choice, or if other men prevent this choice, you are intellectually a slave. While this intellectual slavery is not automatically harmful, it is very likely to do harm, perhaps traumatically. When others establish meaning for you, it is almost always with the intent of controlling you. Whether it is a politician, a priest, an educator, a media personality, or an abusive individual, the control that is established by supplanting their meaning for yours will almost always be detrimental to you, in the long run. In an absolute sense, if the meaning of your life is merely the extension of someone else’s purpose, your life has lost its meaning. Worse still, extrapolating to the scale of entire societies, if large numbers of people collectively allow a persuasive leader to substitute his purpose for theirs, tyranny on a grand scale is possible. History is replete with examples.
Not only is it improper for others to forcefully impose meaning on you, the inverse is also true. It is improper for you to forcefully impose your meaning of life on others. Forcefully imposing your purpose on others violates Principle Number One, which transcends everything.
Principle Number Three: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
This principle is also called “The Golden Rule”, and it permeates all civilizations. It is a universal test for right behavior, because it forces you to evaluate your intended actions within the full context of all outcomes, not just how your decisions affect you alone. This is an extraordinarily important filtering process, because we are interdependent beings. Effective living requires cooperation with others on many levels. This cooperation is not only necessary, it is hard-wired into our genetic building blocks. In the grand context of human evolution, the ability to cooperate was a paramount skill, not only for individuals but also for groups. Uncooperative individuals were banished if the anti-social behavior was sufficiently egregious, and banishment was almost certainly a death sentence in prehistoric times. Likewise, tribes that could not develop a cooperative ethic were not as fit as other tribes economically or militarily, leading to the likely demise of those deficient tribes.
There is a strong karmic element to the Golden Rule. While each decision that you make with regard to social interaction will not necessarily correlate to immediate consequences, the cumulative effect is powerful and unavoidable. If you treat others poorly, your reputation will eventually reflect this. If you are dishonest and cheat others, they will eventually learn to avoid transacting with you. If you are unfaithful and disrespectful, your relationships will gradually whither and evaporate. If you pass up opportunities to help others, they will learn to pass up opportunities to help you. If you are bitter and negative and hostile, others will avoid contact with you altogether. There is an invisible but potent scorekeeping algorithm at work in the complex network of human relationships. It is not written on any tablet nor is it emblazoned on any scoreboard, but this silent and unspoken societal assessment of you will haunt you, nonetheless.
The great power of the Golden Rule is that it enables you to predict how others will perceive your actions by simply imagining how those actions would affect you if done by others. While you cannot know the minds and hearts of others with precision, you certainly know your own mind and heart intimately. The Golden Rule simply guides you to use your own good sense and intuition about yourself to assess the rightness of a decision, not in the context of how that decision would benefit you, but in the context of how that decision would affect you if someone else was making it. So, for example, if you are debating whether or not allocate some of your valuable time to help a friend in need, it is useful to imagine how you would feel if you were in a similarly difficult situation and a friend lent a hand to you. Using this filter clearly gives you a different perspective, and it is likely to move you to help. It is also likely that your friend will remember your generosity, and will return the favor at some unexpected time in the future. Friendships are built upon the golden rule. All good relationships are. Therefore, all virtuous civilizations are.
This does not mean that you are inherently a slave to the emotions and concerns of others. Practicing the Golden Rule does not mean subsuming yourself in others, but rather it is a guideline for social interaction as you pursue the purpose you have chosen for your life. No matter what purpose you choose, it will require social interaction, and effective social interaction requires practicing the Golden Rule. Six billion people share this planet, so the keys to social harmony and also to the effective pursuit of your own goals are to respect the lives of others (to earn reciprocal respect for your life) and to practice the Golden Rule (to earn reciprocal empathy for your concerns).
Principle Number Four: You are responsible for your own well being
The primary imperative of all living things is self-preservation. This is true of bacteria, it is true of cows, and it is true of people. At a fundamental level, life is a 3.5 billion year continuation and evolution of a genome. Individual nodes of the genome (like you) perish along the way, but the inherent engine of the broader river of genetic life is the act of passing on the genome from one generation to the next. This is a part of the definition of life. If this imperative to survive and to create a succeeding generation was not so powerful and so endemic, life would grind to an evolutionary halt. Your instinct to breathe, your hunger for food, your thirst for water, your fight-or-flight reaction to threats, and your sexual urges are all manifestations of life’s genetic imperative to survive and propagate.
This imperative to survive is an individual compulsion, and the acts necessary to fulfill it are the responsibility of each individual. No one can breathe for you. No one can ingest and digest food for you. Even the things that others could do for you physically to sustain you are still inherently your responsibility. This follows necessarily from Principle Number One, because to force others to take on the responsibility for your survival violates their right to life. To demand that others care for you is to demand that they be your slaves.
On a deeper level, to abdicate the responsibility for your own well being is an invitation for terrible things to happen to you. It is rare for others to care for you as much as you could care for yourself. Abandoning your responsibility for yourself to the mercy of others is likely to leave you disappointed, and perhaps even badly damaged. If you assume the posture of helplessness, you will in fact become helpless. If you take on the role of victim, you will in fact become a victim.
According to The Golden Rule described in Principle Number Three, it is proper to help others, and to accept help yourself. This is a natural outcome of healthy relationships in a healthy society. However, that reciprocal generosity between free but interdependent citizens is far different than abandoning fundamental self-responsibility and handing it over to the collective. Societies that have attempted to structurally substitute societal responsibility for individual responsibility have experienced terrible results. This is only logical, because self-interest is a natural and widespread trait, so that if you innocently assume that others in society will take your best interests into their hands, you will find that your interest gradually becomes subsidiary to their interest. In its worst form, this assumption of your interest by strange and distant societal forces will lead to horrific oppression, such as seen in the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Nazi Germany. More locally, the bizarre and often harmful activities of cults reflects the same detrimental effect of individuals sacrificing their self-responsibility into the hands of a powerful leader or group.
Principle Number Five: Leave your local world better than you found it
You have a fundamental choice to be a positive or a negative influence on each situation you encounter. Every interaction in life brings an opportunity to improve it or to degrade it. Generally, it takes more effort to improve a situation than it does to let it deteriorate. It may seem convenient in the short run to choose the path of least effort or least resistance, but in the long run your choice to be a positive or negative influence will affect your health, your relationships, your material well-being, and your legacy. Your local world is a mirror to your actions. You cannot separate yourself from the karmic reflection bounced back to you from the results of your decisions.
The more situations that you impact negatively, the more likely your life is to be poisoned in some way or another, at some time or another. Your decisions and actions affect the people and circumstances surrounding you, and these in turn affect you. Every action has a reaction. According to the “Butterfly Effect”, the ramification of even trivial actions can be more profound than anticipated. If you make negative, destructive, unproductive, and alienating decisions, you will have a negative, destructive, unproductive, and alienated life. You are the sum of all of your decisions.
This does not mean that you have to fix every situation on the planet. By orders of magnitude, you do not have sufficient time, energy, resources, or influence to impact the entire world, or even much of your local world. You are not a slave to every person alive, and you are not obligated to relieve every burden and solve every problem. According to Principle Number One, you have a right to your own life, and according to Principle Number Two, only you can choose the purpose of your life. However, in order to lead a fulfilling life, and in order to achieve whatever purpose you choose for your life, you must interact with your local world successfully. Positive interactions are far more likely to be successful than negative ones. Negative interactions become an energy drain on your life, diminishing your ability to travel down whatever path you have chosen. Positive interactions become reinforcing, enabling the process of life to incubate your dreams. Negative people perceive existence as unfair and contrary to their ambitions. It is. Positive people perceive existence as a vast field of cooperative potential and collaborative opportunity. It is. The choice is yours, because your local world is a mirror, and you cannot separate yourself from your reflection.
You also cannot escape the binary nature of life’s feedback mechanism. Every decision you make and every action you take results in either some degree of joy, or in some degree of pain, either for yourself or for those in your local world. To habitually choose for pain will lead to psychological dysfunction. To habitually choose for joy will lead to peace and serenity.
Leaving your local world better than you found it is not justification for ignoring Principle Number One. Your actions to positively influence your surroundings must be based on the principle of voluntarism. You cannot forcefully impose your will on others in the guise of “making things better”, because this violates their right to life. For example, if you are concerned about the welfare of a poor person in your neighborhood, it is proper for you to volunteer to assist, and to encourage others to also voluntarily assist. However, it is not proper for you to force others to assist, or to advocate that institutions force others to assist. It is also wise to avoid creating unhealthy dependency by repeatedly helping someone, to the point where the other person develops a chronic reliance on your altruism. Such situations will drain your life away, and diminish the ability of the other to function. It is better for both parties to teach the other to fish, than to obligate yourself to provide fish forever.
Principle Number Six: A is A
This concise Law of Identity originated with Aristotle. It is a truism so obvious that it is ironically almost universally ignored. The Law of Identity simply means that things are what they are, independent of your wishes, errors, or deceptions. For example, if a lion is about to eat you, you can close your eyes and wish it to be a kitten instead, but it will unfortunately still be a lion and it will devour you anyway. A is A, even if you pretend A to be non-A. It is the harshest of all principles, but we do not get to choose the degree of harshness in the universe.
We do, however, get to choose how to respond to the harshness of the Law of Identity. One measure of wisdom is the ability to observe existence with honest detachment. An honest examination of the world, with unwavering respect for reality, is essential for successful living. Falsehoods lead to bad decisions, and bad decisions lead to corrosive and dangerous outcomes. For example, arsenic is toxic if it is ingested excessively. You cannot wish this truth away. If your religion tells you that the opposite is true, that you can drink all of the arsenic you want, you will still die if you drink too much, no matter how resolute your faith. If a government agency declares that arsenic is safe to drink, you will still die if you swallow too much, no matter how much you trust your leaders. Truth transcends mistaken myths, deceptive propaganda, and willful ignorance. A is always A.
This does not mean that all myths and beliefs are automatically wrong. But, no myth or belief can be judged to be true without first examining the assumptions, data, and logic that underlie them. Just like the folk wisdom that anything that sounds too good to be true is probably not true, any myth or dogma that purports A to be non-A is probably wrong. Question it. Be wary of it.
You live in a natural world that is knowable. You have remarkable senses that give you many windows to this knowable world, and you have a stunningly powerful mind to use to interpret the data flowing in. No person who has ever lived or ever will live has any greater access to discoverable truth than you do. Any person who claims to have a special truth that cannot be otherwise observed, tested, or repeated independently should be mistrusted, no matter how popular, exalted, or beguiling this person is.
This principle inherently overlooks any supposed supernatural realm. Speculation about the supernatural is perhaps entertaining, but the supernatural is by definition outside the realm of our ability to know. It is not objective, it is not testable, and it is not repeatable, so therefore it is only transferable from person-to-person as lore or mythology, or else it would not be “supernatural”. Of course, you are free to choose any path in life, and if that path includes a fascination with the supernatural, no one has the right to obstruct you from it. But, supernaturalism is intellectual quicksand. It is not objectively definable as a fundamental principle or suitable for inclusion in this exposition.
The importance of excluding supernaturalism from this principle (and therefore from all ten principles), is that supernaturalism is inherently a denial of the A is A principle. Drawing upon the supernatural as a foundation for any principle is, by definition, arbitrary and capricious. The supernatural can be anything you wish it to be, fear it to be, or are told it is. A could be B or C or anything else that you want to speculate. There is no objective or shared standard by which a supernatural premise can be judged to be real or not real, true or not true, measurable or not measurable. Worse yet, once your mind is trained to willingly accept non-A as A, you become susceptible to falsehoods and propaganda that come at you from many directions daily, through the media, the pulpit, and the offices of government. When this happens, you slowly and quietly become captive to foggy phantasms such as “the common good”, “political correctness”, and “what God wants”.
Principle Number Seven: All conclusions are provisional
We are born knowing nothing, except some basic instincts that evolution has prepared us with to ensure our survival. As babies, we know how to suckle on a breast, but we know nothing of Darwin or Jesus. As we mature, we are taught by others, who were also born knowing nothing. Despite this, we have collectively amassed a wealth of knowledge, much of which is likely true. We have also demonstrated great folly over the ages by claiming knowledge that in retrospect was horribly misguided. It seems clear now that the earth is not flat. The moon is not made of cheese. Thunder is not the emanation of a disgruntled deity. It is not necessary to sacrifice virgins to reap a good harvest. The earth is not the center of the universe.
We are fallible, because we have limited time, limited resources, limited perspective, limited tools, and limited intellectual capacity. We overcome this with enormous collective knowledge gathering efforts that span the entire world and countless generations. However, there is no escaping the harsh reality that we are not omniscient. We invent gods that are, but we are not those gods, and for some reason even those imagined gods to whom we ascribed omniscience also proved to be remarkably inaccurate about some things—just like us.
However, life does not stand still and wait for omniscience to descend upon you. Life requires action, and action requires knowledge. Lacking the time and resources to challenge, test, and verify each bit of knowledge that you or society has every accumulated, you make your best conclusions about what is true and live your life accordingly. Often, your conclusions are inherited. Often, they are learned. Sometimes, they are wrong.
Wisdom is, in part, the recognition that all of your conclusions, and all of the accumulated conclusions of society, are provisional. The world is a vast and complicated realm. Given your finite capabilities, it is not possible to know everything with certainty. As more information becomes available, and as life’s experiences teach you invaluable lessons, it is crucial to nurture the intellectual flexibility to change conclusions. The most honest and courageous thing that you can say is “I have changed my conclusion, because I have been proven wrong.” This stark honesty and courage is remarkably difficult, because you face enormous pressure from within and without to remain attached to your prior conclusions, even if they are suspect. From within, your ego compels you to hold steadfast to that which you professed before, because to admit error is to seemingly diminish your self image. From without, society is capable of pervasive compulsion and staggering oppression in order to police conformity to the chosen myths and dogmas. Such honesty and courage separates the great from the weak. It allows you to escape the gravitational pull of the media, the intellectual elites, the government ministers, and the religious pontificators.
Only change your conclusions if you have discovered a greater truth. Always change your conclusions if you have discovered a greater truth. Nothing should be immune from challenge. Question often, and listen intently for unfettered, objective truth.
Principle Number Eight: Right and wrong are contextual
Life encompasses countless circumstances that require choices, some of them very difficult and confusing. Choosing wisely is important for successful living, but choices are not made in a vacuum. Right and wrong are not universal absolutes concocted in some disconnected, hypothetical tableau. Life is not a sterile laboratory with tightly designed experiments and carefully tweaked variables. Life is not a kindergarten classroom with three word sentences and true or false questions. It is an uncontrolled, unscripted drama with many unknown actors, millions of potential variables, unpredictable random events, and enormous forces beyond our control.
Right behavior can only be determined in the context of the complex circumstances that the behavior will impact. It is not possible to separate “right behavior” from “circumstance”. Proclaiming that principles, laws, or commandments are not to be violated regardless of context or circumstance is one of the great traps that weak minds fall into. As Samuel Clemens observed, rules are made for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools. Right behavior requires right judgment, not the automatic following of a script. It is not possible for a script to be drafted for all people at all times for all instances. It is not possible to codify all possible decisions. If such was possible, then there would be no need for our minds, no need for free will, and no need for these principles. Life requires constant evaluation, not standardized answers to non-standard questions.
For example, Principle Number One, which declares that the right to life is transcendent, should rightly dissuade us from killing others in most circumstances. However, if your village is attacked by barbarians who are intent on raping the women and enslaving the children, wise people will choose to defend the village, even to the extent of killing the invaders. While this is nominally a violation of Principle Number One, on a deeper level it is really a powerful affirmation of it. The right to life means nothing if a civilization cannot enforce it and defend it. To justly enforce and defend this right is an imperative for society and the citizens that comprise it.
Another example is Principle Number Six. The notion that “A is A” compels us to face the world squarely and deal with it honestly. Healthy development of self-esteem and healthy interpersonal relationships require honesty as a foundation. However, if a robber breaks into your home, points a gun at you, and asks if anyone else is there, you are not obligated to reveal that your three-year-old daughter is in a bedroom. A wise man will momentarily embrace “A is non-A” and fabricate a lie to protect his daughter. While dishonesty is nominally contrary to Principle Number Six, in this context it powerfully affirms Principle Number One, and is therefore proper.
Of course, very few circumstances in life are as dramatic and traumatic as the two examples cited above. However, nearly every circumstance, no matter how trivial, lies somewhere on a grey scale between black and white, when all aspects of context are considered. There aren’t any specific cookie-cutter answers carved on stone tablets that can be applied to everything. There is no escaping the need to consider context and render proper judgment based on solid, general principles. It is important to note, however, that the need to consider context is not an invitation to pervert or to ignore fundamental principles merely to satisfy short-term, hedonistic impulses. In the end, you are the sum of all of your decisions, and you cannot hide from the karmic score-keeping mechanism of life.
Principle Number Nine: Serenity requires acceptance
This principle has been characterized in many different ways around the world. In the West, the most common version is the Serenity Prayer, which beseeches the courage to change the things that can be changed, the serenity to accept the things that can’t be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two. In the East, this principle is characterized as the Law of Acceptance, which encourages the tolerance of things that are either unimportant or are impossible to change. Stephen Covey described this principle as focusing on the intersection between the set of things that you care about and the set of things that you can control.
All of these different perspectives acknowledge the key premise of this principle, which is that there is not enough time and energy available to change everything that you want to change. This premise has two elements. The first element is the recognition that even if something needs to be changed, it is not necessarily important enough to invest energy in. An example is a stain on your tennis shoes. The stain may be unsightly and perhaps even bothersome, but correcting it would seem to be a very low priority, especially if you are going to go running in the rain the next day anyway. You undoubtedly have better things to do with your limited time and energy. The second element of this premise is the recognition that most of the things in the world that you wish could be changed are actually beyond your capability to affect. Eliminating all suffering from the planet may be a noble challenge, but it is so near to impossible that the mere contemplation of it is likely to be a waste of precious time and energy.
The stark importance of this Principle is that you will lead a miserable and fruitless life if you cannot practice it. If your life becomes absorbed by the unimportant and the trivial, the important and significant aspects of your life will be neglected and whither away. Is there truly value in making sure every tool in your garage is polished and catalogued, if the cost is neglect of your marriage? Is there truly value in making sure every speck of dirt is removed from your home, if the cost is neglect of your health or self-development? If your life becomes absorbed by the noble but yet impossible, the noble but possible aspects of your life will be neglected and whither away. Is there truly value in trying to stop solar flares from warming the planet, if the cost is neglect of your children? Is there truly value in trying to quixotically achieve world peace, if the cost is neglect of your aging parents?
True peace and serenity are only possible through practicing the law of acceptance. Accept the trivial annoyances as they are. Accept the impossible challenges as they are. Focus your time and energy instead on the issues that are both important and possible to improve. To do any thing else will leave you exhausted, exasperated, angry, powerless, and ultimately depressed and despondent. There is nothing more frustrating than expending tremendous energy and consuming precious time, only to confront yourself with the assessment that you have accomplished only meaningless tasks or that you have failed at impossible ones, while the rest of your life and relationships worsened and spiraled out of control in the absence of your focus on them. There are many definitions of insanity. This is one of them.
A special aspect of acceptance is worthy of inclusion in this principle. The great contribution of Christianity is the concept of forgiveness. One of the greatest wastes of energy and focus is the perpetuation of anger at insults or damages done to you. Pursue justice where it is necessary, but then let go. Forgive those who insult you or harm you. The anger that you would otherwise carry is almost always a heavier burden than the original affront. Carrying the anger saps your energy, dampens your joy, alienates your relationships, distracts your focus, and makes you a slave to a historical and perhaps meaningless incident that you should have long ago moved past. It is only through acceptance that you can release yourself from the affronts and reorient your energy to something more important and more likely to yield happiness.
A special case of forgiveness that is of paramount importance to achieving serenity is your ability to forgive you. It is not unusual for you to be the person who insults you the most. It is not unusual for you to be the person who does the most psychological harm to you, by disparaging your own motives and actions. It is not unusual for you to be the person who is least likely to forgive you. If you cannot forgive yourself for your errors or shortcomings, if you cannot accept your humanness, then you are destined for self-inflicted misery. You will make millions of choices in your life. Most of them will be sound, but some will be bad. There is no escaping this imperfect nature of your existence, despite your best intentions. You can accept your mistakes, learn from them, and grow into greater wisdom, or you can instead continually punish yourself for your mistakes, obsess about them, and spiral into depression. The choice is that stark and that simple. Accept and forgive yourself, or instead embrace another definition of insanity.
Principle Number Ten: You are a product of evolution
This is the biological Law of Identify for humans. We are a product of natural evolution. Our bodies, our instincts, our conditioned behavior, our social interactions, and our thought processes have evolutionary roots. It is important to understand these roots and the context in which they are planted. We are not fish, so we cannot pretend to breathe with gills. We are not birds, so we cannot pretend to flap our wings and fly. We are not ants, so we cannot organize our societies as they do. We are not lemmings, so we are not programmed as they are to mindlessly follow leaders. We are humans, so we must act within the parameters imposed by evolution of what it means to be human.
Evolution does not just define our cellular mechanisms and physiological processes. Evolution affects everything about us, including our psychological and cultural framework. This includes our bias toward monogamy, our instinct toward tribal behavior, the maternal instinct to sacrifice on behalf of offspring, our willingness to share and cooperate in social settings, and our implicit understanding of right and wrong. Our social norms, our beliefs, and our practices have evolutionary roots. This does not make them necessarily right or healthy, but it does imply that we cannot just blindly divorce ourselves from whence we came and impose an artificial or unnatural culture on humanity or impose artificial or unnatural expectations on ourselves.
The premise that evolution drives more than just our physiological nature is validated by a broader understanding of the types of fitness required to thrive during natural selection. In order to successfully pass genetic traits on to future generations, an individual must not only survive long enough to have children, but also long enough to ensure that these children reach maturity and can themselves have children. In this context, survival is not just an individual test of physical or mental superiority. Survival is also a test of successful mating relationships, successful parenting relationships, and successful cooperative social skills for mutual support and defense within a local community (generally a tribe in the history of early man).
Survival for primitive man was a tenuous proposition that required effective interdependence with others to be successful. Man did not evolve as a lone wolf. Man evolved in the context of powerful tribal motivations and instincts. In this primitive context, if you are anti-social, if you harm or alienate your neighbors in your community, if you abuse or abandon your children, if you ignore or abuse potential mates, you will suffer isolation and banishment. The result of banishment in this harsh primitive environment is that you will not survive long enough to become a grandparent (e.g., long enough for your children to successfully have children). Failing to do this, whatever genetic traits drove you toward anti-social, abusive, and alienating behaviors will not be passed on to future generations. These tendencies toward “bad” behavior were genetically self-limiting in the process of our evolution.
On the other hand, tendencies toward “good” behavior were genetically self-propagating. Again in the primitive context, if you are cooperative, if you respect your potential mates, if you nurture your children, if you rally to the mutual support and defense of the tribe, you have a far greater likelihood of becoming a grandparent. Thus, whatever genetic traits drove you toward positive interdependent social behaviors will be successfully passed on to future generations. In this manner, survival of the fittest is not just an individual trait of physical superiority, but a group trait of tribal superiority. Tribes that are successfully interdependent with each other will survive, prosper, and pass on positive genetic information, whereas tribes comprised of socially dysfunctional members will wither, die, and extirpate negative genetic information.
Understanding that we are products of natural evolution has two powerful benefits. First, we can learn to embrace and accept many of our instincts as being quite natural and inherent to our identity as humans. The instinct to sacrifice to nurture your children is not some obnoxious burden to bear, but rather a beautiful result of your evolution. The instinct to rally to the defense of the community is not just a foolish risk to take, but rather an inspiring affirmation of our need to work interdependently for survival. As these examples indicate, we are not grounded in some magical sky-god that unilaterally imposes unnatural obligations on us. Rather, we are grounded in 3.5 billion years of evolutionary development that has yielded us as extraordinarily successful survivors. Our perspective on every aspect of our being and our place in the universe changes dramatically if we rightly replace the mythical sky-god with evolution as the source of our creation. It is not possible to fully know ourselves without accepting this. Nothing in biology or the human condition makes sense except in the light of evolution. The nine principles enumerated thus far all have evolutionary roots. This tenth principle defines the framework and the context from which they arose. Second, we can assess our human instincts rationally, if we understand them properly. One significant aspect of the current level of evolution that we are at is that we have developed the power of volitional consciousness. We can critically examine our conditions, and choose to change them, if necessary. Given the complex social institutions and exosystems that we are now able to create, it is possible that some of our primitive evolutionary instincts are now outdated and perhaps even destructive. If that is so, we are not blindly obligated to embrace them, but rather we are free to use our wisdom effectively to change them.
An example of an evolutionary construct that is now outdated is the communal property-less model of tribal living. In primitive civilization, tribes were small in size and constructed of tight family and personal relationships. Communal living is not only possible in such a tight-knit setting, it is probably the best model for survival. In modern civilization, “tribes” are very large, diffuse, and diverse, with relatively few family or deeply personal relationships. Communal living is likely to be unsuccessful in this setting, because it requires a level of trust, sacrifice, and deference that is not present in large, diffuse civilizations. Most of the people that you interact with in modern civilization are not your family, are not your friends, and are not even your acquaintances. Some of these many strangers that you come in contact with might even be antagonists. Schools, businesses, cities, markets, and states are now so large that something more than informal communal rules must now be in place to ensure orderly cooperation among these vast collections of strangers and potential competitors. The vastness of modern civilization introduces the need for constitutions, individual rights, and the rule of law to protect them. This understanding that our evolutionary context is shifting with the advent of broad civilization leads naturally to an understanding of why communism has failed in every large civilization that has tried it, whereas capitalism has succeeded not only in widespread prosperity, but also in successful protection of liberty and individual rights.
The following discussion illustrates the weaknesses of the biblical Ten Commandments. The purpose of discussing these weaknesses is to reinforce through comparison why the Ten Principles defined above are better tools for guiding right behavior. Each commandment is analyzed below, but there are general weaknesses contained in all ten. These general weaknesses are:
- The commandments focus on macro-level maintenance of order in civil society and on protecting the sanctity and role of a particular deity and its interpreters in society.
- They offer remarkably little guidance for individual decision making regarding the thousands of subtle and complex decisions that must be made every day.
- The commandments are very directive. The implication is that all issues are black and white, and all thinking about them has already been done for you. Context is irrelevant.
- They are too specific. They prohibit a handful of distinct violations, while offering no guidance on the millions of other potential missteps in life.
Here is an assessment of each commandment:
I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.
This commandment is severely flawed. Its primary purpose is to insist on worshipping a particularly deity called God. If this deity happens to be the one you worship, it is probably harmless to follow this commandment, although it is rather redundant, because if you already worship this deity you aren’t in need of a commandment to do so. For those who worship other deities, or those who are agnostic, this commandment is worth nothing, because instead of offering a philosophical argument to justify worship of this deity called God, it merely delivers an arrogant command to blindly follow the deity. In practice, it is simply a means for particular religious leaders to intimidate the hesitant or doubtful regarding the particular faith that the leaders are propagandizing. Lacking any objective explanation of why worship of God is appropriate, the commandment is really just empty words at best, and a baseless threat at worst.
You shall not use God’s name in vain.
This commandment is remarkably useless. Its premise is that there is a supreme being somewhere that will writhe in agony if its name is abused. From your perspective, how is your life better if you follow this commandment? How is your life worse if you don’t follow it? Who cares either way, except for the pious and sanctimonious protectors of an arrogant, hypothetical god that is apparently so sensitive that mere words will harm it? In practice, this commandment is simply a tool for particular religious leaders to maintain a monopoly on using god as justification for their control over you. Their monopoly on supernatural authority would be broken if any humble proletarian could use god’s name to justify something.
Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
This commandment is also useless, because it too assumes an a priori acceptance of a particular deity and religion. So, if you follow a different deity or a different religion, or if you are an agnostic, this commandment will simply be ignored. If you actually do accept the implicit deity and religion, why would you need a commandment to treat the object of your faith with proper attention and homage? Your faith itself, if truly embraced, would compel you to do this without any commandment. In practice, this commandment is simply another tool for religious leaders to compel you to support the religion endemic to the local culture (presumably with obligatory tithing on the Sabbath).
Honor thy father and mother
Of course, it is generally proper to honor your parents, so there is nothing nominally wrong with this commandment. But how useful is it? Aren’t you naturally inclined to respect your parents and appreciate their lifetime of sacrifices for you? Your emotional embrace of your parents probably has very deep genetic roots. If children were indifferent to their parents in earlier epochs, if they were inclined to abuse, abandon, or dishonor their parents, what is the likelihood that they or their own damaged children would have survived to pass on these negative traits to future generations? It seems necessary for the propagation of the species that parents love their children, and children love their parents. This is just one of a great many lessons that can be learned from the more useful principle “You are a product of evolution”. Also, this is an example of a commandment that is too specific in its directive. It seems rather limiting to mention only parents as being worthy of honor. Isn’t your life blessed by a wide range of influential mentors, teachers, leaders, and inspirational role models? Aren’t they all worthy of honor, and isn’t all of society better off if such influential people are treated honorably?
You shall not murder
Of course, it is generally not proper to kill someone, so there is nothing nominally wrong with this commandment. But how useful is it? How often do you debate with yourself about killing someone? Wouldn’t it be far more useful to have a principle that is focused on the broader question of respecting everyone’s right to life, not only in terms of refraining from killing them, but also in terms of not enslaving them or even not causing them any harm at all, such as “The right to life transcends everything.” Another issue is that there are actually times when killing is appropriate. This is another commandment that is so specific and directive that there is no implication that context is a consideration.
You shall not commit adultery
Of course, it is generally not proper to commit adultery, so there is nothing nominally wrong with this commandment. But how useful is it? Certainly, the temptation for adultery happens, and this commandment is a good reminder of what is proper and what is not proper. However, the question of adultery, when considered in the grander context of all human relationship issues, is relatively obscure. Every day you must deal with myriad relationship challenges in all aspects of your life, as a parent, a child, a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor, and a citizen. Wouldn’t it be more useful to be guided by a general principle that gives you valuable perspective on all relationship issues, not just adultery? Such a principle is “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you.”
You shall not steal
Of course, it is generally not proper to steal, so there is nothing nominally wrong with this commandment. But how useful is it? Certainly, the temptation to steal arises periodically, and this commandment is a helpful reminder that it is not proper to do so. Unfortunately, there are an infinite number of ways that you can harm others physically, emotionally, and financially, beyond just stealing from them. Wouldn’t it be more useful to be guided by a general principle that dissuades you from doing any kind of harm to others? Such principles are “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you” and “The right to life transcends everything” (with stealing understood as a form of slavery that therefore violates another’s right to life).
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor
Of course, it is generally not proper to lie and cause harm to your neighbor, so there is nothing nominally wrong with this commandment. But how useful is it? Certainly, you are tempted to lie about your neighbor occasionally, and this commandment is a useful reminder not to do it. But the question of honesty is far more pervasive and important than just the instance of false witness against your neighbor. Honesty is the basis of all relationships, including your relationship with yourself. There are an infinite number of ways that honesty comes into play, and false witness is just one of them. And in the case of being honest with yourself, there is no “neighbor” to harm, just your own psychological well being. Extending the context even further beyond relationships, there is a question of how to honestly and objectively assess reality without deceiving yourself or others with myths and propaganda. Wouldn’t it be more useful to be guided by a general principle that addresses honesty in all of its complex facets, not just the specific issue of false witness against a neighbor? Such a principle is “A is A”.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house
Of course, it is generally not proper to covet your neighbor’s house or assets, so there is nothing nominally wrong with this commandment. But how useful is it? Certainly, there are times when you are desirous of your neighbor’s things, and this commandment is a useful reminder that such covetousness is destructive. However, life is full of opportunities to covet things that you cannot have or cannot do. This list of these opportunities is far broader than just your neighbor’s assets. It includes wishing you had a different job, wishing you had different parents, wishing you had more wealth, wishing you had better health, wishing you had different leaders, wishing you could eliminate world poverty, and wishing you could eliminate global warming. Wouldn’t it be more useful to be guided by a general principle that focuses your energy on important things that are within your control, not just the specific issue of coveting your neighbor’s house? Such a principle is “Serenity requires acceptance.”
You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife
Of course, it is generally a bad idea to lust after your neighbor’s wife, so there is nominally nothing wrong with this commandment. But how useful is it? It seems redundant to the earlier commandment prohibiting adultery. One gets the feeling that the male dominated society that crafted the Ten Commandments was obsessed with protecting their wives (as property) from being pirated by lusty lotharios. The specificity of this commandment is emblematic of the inordinately narrow focus of all ten commandments. Three of the commandments are dedicated to proper worship of the Judaic god, and two of them are dedicated to adultery. This leaves only five commandments to address all other human concerns. And yet, these five are so specific in their prohibitions that the sum contribution of all ten to the challenge of guiding human behavior is extraordinarily limited.
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