Saturday, April 24, 2010

The 10 Commandments

Bryan and I went to our friends' Mark and Alicia's rehearsal and rehearsal lunch today.  They're getting married at Butler's Courtyard tomorrow!  I'm so happy and excited for the both of them.

The rehearsal went really well, and we went to T-Bone Tom's for the lunch.  While there, our conversation with Ben and the Amandas and Brandon and Ashley ranged among a whole variety of subjects.  At one point, someone jokingly threatened to kill someone else, and the question of "who says murder is bad?" was thrown out.  I believe it was Ben that said "the 10 commandments".  One of the Amanda's then responded that she didn't really think the 10 Commandments were valid.  Which brings me to the point of this post!

Here are the 10 Commandments as traditionally represented in the Judeo-Christian tradition:

I tend to divide the 10 commandments into two categories:  what I call the "religious" commandments (1-4) and the "moral" commandments (5-10).  The context of the "religious" commandments is obviously the Judeo-Christian tradition, and these were not what we ended up discussing.  Amanda felt that the "moral" commandments were also only valid withing that tradition:  I completely disagree.

The morality found in the 10 Commandments can actually be found throughout history and throughout various cultures.  Commandments 5-10, I would argue, represent the core morality that humans have agreed is necessary to uphold a functioning society.  Commandment 5--"Thou shalt not kill"--makes complete sense, since no society can persist if its members kill each other off.  Commandment 8 makes sense, because if a society's members are constantly stealing from one another, they will probably turn to violence to protect their property, which leads us back to Commandment 5.  And Commandment 10--"Thou shall not covet"--addresses the motivation that is behind theft, and thus can contribute to interpersonal violence, which again is counterproductive to society.

Now, people have learned that, even when you agree on society's code, individuals will still break said code.  When that happens there has to be consequences--i.e. some sort of legal system--so that everyone else will see the need to uphold the code, as well as to punish those who broke with it.  For such a system to work, Commandment 9 is needed, since you can't enforce consequences if you don't make it clear that lying about someone's actions won't be tolerated. 

Another thing necessary for the continuation of any society is family stability.  While family stability is all well and good in and of itself, the true reason it is necessary is financial stability.  This is where cultural definitions in regards to family and marriage and all that cease to matter.  The family unit in any society is the main financial unit as well.  As such, for a society to persist it must protect that unit above all else (again, cultural definitions on family and marriage can vary widely).

Commandment 5--"honor thy father and thy mother"--has a dual purpose, as far as I can see.  First of all, it keeps children in a subservient role in society until they are adults, which allows any work they do to go to the support of the family.  Secondly, once the children are grown, this morality requires them to care for their parents, which again stabilizes the family unit and allows society to continue to benefit from the wisdom of the older members.  The stability of the family is also the reason for Commandment 7--"Thou shall not commit adultery".  Regardless of the definition of marriage, it is a financial contract along with spiritual and emotional.  In fact, for most of human history, marriage was either all or mostly a financial relationship.  Now, if societal members were to break their marriage contract there would be financial repercussions that would endanger social stability.  (This can be seen even in our society today if you look at the financial ramification of divorces).

I've been discussing these moral values as Commandments, though again they are present throughout history and through many societies.  Amanda agreed with me on these points, but brought up the objection that rape and child abuse should have been on there as well.  While I do agree that these are heinous acts, the fact is that in the context of more ancient societies (and sadly a few modern ones) these actions did not actually threaten a society's continued stability.  For rape to be, well, rape, a woman must be able to say "no" and to have the expectation of society accepting her right to refuse.  The term child abuse itself implies that the treatment of children should be subjected to some sort of societal control.  While I do think that both of these viewpoints are morally correct, the fact is that in many ancient societies, women and children were little more than property that served the function of continuing society.  The only people who really had a voice in their society were mostly men.

So while Amanda's objection that the 10 Commandments are too narrow in scope is completely valid from the moral perspective of our culture here today, historically morality's purpose was to preserve society. The moral commandments express the necessary moral code that mankind had observed and experienced that did fulfill that need.

***My friend Brandon pointed out that "Honor thy father and mother" also serves another purpose in that the "elders have seen and experienced dangers that children haven't. This helps to ensure that children survive to adulthood and continue the population."  Good point!***


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