Moral Reflections Inspired by (some of) the Ten Commandments
by Daniel A. Kaufman
Reflection on the explicitly moral commandments in the Decalogue raises a number of interesting considerations, in the area of Ethics. I am thinking, specifically, of the following (translation is the 1985, Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh):
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
One thing to note is that when translated from commandments into moral statements of the form “It is wrong to X,” all three statements are analytic and thus, necessarily true. This becomes clear, when one realizes that the key term in each commandment is morally thick. To murder is to wrongfully kill; to steal is to wrongfully take someone’s property; and to commit adultery (in the moral sense) is to wrongfully sleep with another person, while one is married. Thus, when converted to “It is wrong to X,” (6) – (8) read:
6.’ It is wrong to wrongfully kill someone.
7.’ It is wrong to wrongfully sleep with another person, while one is married.
8.’ It is wrong to wrongfully take someone’s property.
Of course, if recast in such a way that the key term in each commandment is not morally thick, but purely descriptive (6’) – (8’) are indeterminate with respect to their truth or falsity:
6.’’ It is wrong to kill someone.
7.’’ It is wrong to sleep with another person, while one is married.
8.’’ It is wrong to take someone’s property.
There are occasions when it is wrong to kill someone, but there are also occasions on which it is right, such as in the case of self-defense or a just war. There are many circumstances in which it is wrong to sleep with another person, while one is married, but one can also imagine circumstances where it would be right, such as in the context of an “open” marriage or in a (less likely) post-apocalyptic scenario, where enough of the human race has been decimated that people will have to take multiple partners in order to avoid extinction. And finally, though there are contexts in which it would be wrong to take someone’s property, there are also any number of contexts in which it is perfectly acceptable, such as in the case of legitimate taxation, debt collection, and the like.
One might wonder about the point of the Commandments, as written, given that they cannot actually function as commands. To be told not to murder or steal or commit adultery is useless, unless one already knows which instances of killing, taking another person’s money, or sleeping with someone while married count as wrong. The Decalogue doesn’t tell us that and neither do the 613 laws that come afterwards. One encounters a similar situation with the commandment not to work on Shabbat – neither the Decalogue nor the laws that come after tell us what counts as “work.” And while the rabbinical literature certainly expands on the commandments and laws and even provides specific instances and examples – the Rabbis identify thirty-nine activities that are prohibited on Shabbat – they do not provide any general principle or rule, by which one might determine, on any given occasion, what counts as work or stealing or adultery or murder.
One might also wonder, however, whether this is precisely what one would expect. After all, if being moral was simply a matter of following a list of moral orders, then there should be no moral dilemmas. Ethics should be easy, with the only difficulty being weakness of will (i.e. being unable to make oneself follow moral orders). But, of course, we know that exactly the opposite is the case; that far from being easy, being moral can be extraordinarily difficult, and moral dilemmas, in which we don’t know what we should do, are among the toughest problems we face. It is for this reason that moral decision making requires practical wisdom – the ability to deliberate well on what we ought to do, in any given situation.
On such a view, the point of moral lists like one finds in the Decalogue is not so much to give you instructions that are sufficient, in themselves, to tell you how you ought to act in any given situation, but rather, to point out those areas of human behavior that are of the greatest moral significance and in which practical reason must be most carefully applied.
Of course, moral theories of the sort you find in Mill’s Utilitarianism and Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals endeavor to identify a common characteristic — and thus, a general principle or rule — by which one can identify all the instances of wrongful killing or wrongful taking. For Mill, it’s a matter of whether or not the action in question maximizes utility, and for Kant it’s a matter of whether the maxim behind the action can be rationally universalized. This still renders moral decision making largely mechanical and thus, subject to the same criticism just applied to divine commands – while I may need to figure out how much utility a particular action will effect or whether the maxim behind a particular action can be rationally universalized, what I don’t ever need to do is figure out which value ought to be served in a particular set of circumstances. That’s because moral theories are typically monochromatic when it comes to value, and the sort of value pluralism that one finds in a work like W.D. Ross’s The Right and the Good is rare.
Yet this is precisely what the hardest moral dilemmas involve: not figuring out which action will serve a lone already-established value, but which value, among many, should be served. Is utility most important in this situation? Respect? Gratitude? And it is for this reason that those who are in the grip of a moral theory behave so poorly on so many occasions. The Utilitarian vegan, who upon finding himself at an ordinary dinner party refuses to eat the food, acts wrongly not just because he fails to recognize any value other than utility, but because that failure cripples his capacity to engage in sound practical reasoning and to decide among competing values: he is unable to properly navigate the moral demands of his situation, for he can’t see that the effects of his actions on the general welfare, under these circumstances, are negligible, the insult to his host and the disregard for his efforts are substantial, and the overall affect that characterizes his behavior is boorish and uncouth and is in fact made worse, not better, by his philosophic rationalizations.
Aristotle understood this, which is why he explicitly says that moral theories (of the sort one finds in Mill and Kant) are impossible, and why, at a general level, one can only say that actions should avoid extremes of excess and deficiency. But he also understood that even deliberation is limited with respect to the specific guidance it can provide on moral matters. As Allan Bloom observed, “the particular as particular escapes the grasp of reason, the form of which is the general or universal,” (1) and thus, while reason can determine that the right thing to do will always lie at the mean between extremes and even direct us towards the types of actions that would count as the mean in certain types of situations, whether this particular action, in these particular circumstances, is right is ultimately a matter of perception. “For the end cannot be a subject of deliberation, but only the means,” Aristotle wrote, “nor indeed can the particular facts be a subject of it, as whether this … bread has been baked as it should; for these are matters of perception.” (2) It is for this reason that ultimately, one can only become moral by way of extensive experience, where one has enough familiarity with moral situations, made enough moral judgments, and acted sufficiently often within real social environments, that one can see what the right thing to do is, just as the sufficiently experienced baker can see when his bread is ready to serve. And this is something with which moral theories, principles, or commands cannot help us.
(1) Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 173.
(2) Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 3, Chapter 3.