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):

  1. You shall not murder.
  2. You shall not commit adultery.
  3. 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.

References:

(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.

http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.3.iii.html

Categories: Essay, Essays

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29 Comments »

  1. Hi Dan

    I agree with negative part of what you are saying (moral theories don’t work) but I am a bit puzzled in that the way you are phrasing things – coupled with the sources (e.g. Ross) to which you are appealing – seems to indicate that you see statements about the morality of particular acts as statements which are or can be underlyingly true or false in an objective sense (albeit that this supposed truth or falsity is difficult to discern) rather than in a more hypothetical sense: namely, *if* you [‘you’ could relate to an individual or a group] have a particular value system which arranges certain factual and value-related issues in a particular way – ranking this or that virtue or value over certain other possible values and so on – then such and such an action (killing or detaining or forcibly taking away something belonging to or claimed by someone else, say) will be deemed moral.

    I’m not saying we can’t have agreement on these things. In fact I think we would probably agree in the vast majority of cases. I am just observing that it all derives from a shared system of values: particular judgments need to be seen in the context of particular value systems. And, as you yourself have emphasized elsewhere, I think, value systems are not just about morality or ethics (in a narrow sense).

    Just to be clear, I am not saying that all value systems are equally good or plausible or workable. Obviously the value system one adopts is the one one thinks is best.

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  2. I agree with Brian – Well done, Dan.

    Mark,
    Well, in any given culture, appeal to shared values will make moral judgments objective within that culture, and thus appear to be moral absolutes. That’s actually a problem, worth discussion, but not necessarily one Dan has to address here.

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  3. I can’t help but mention the image used in conjunction with this article. It reminds me of an oft told story that curiously never made it into the Bible:

    After Moses delivered the Ten Commandments, god visited him and told him that, as a reward, he could have anything he wished. Moses asked, “When they make the movie, can Heston play me?” And God said, “Hey, no problem!”

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  4. Hi Dan, this is of course very much along my way of thinking.

    Those trying to come up with a single value or rule to follow I think fail the most because they are forced to generalize our diverse interests such that they seem to be about the same “thing”. Utilitarianism is especially bad at that.

    Where we might disagree is found in your conclusion…

    “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.”

    As a general statement capturing the problem of using defined moral theory to live a moral life I am on board with this completely.

    However if I were wanting to get at the question of morality (or ethics) itself, I may see the situation as perhaps more complex.

    All of this life experience may yet be unable (as much as moral theory etc) to help us reach a satisfying decision, especially dilemmas, some of which are commonplace.

    If one finds oneself in the position of having to steal to feed oneself or one’s family, or starve, one does not come out of this doing anything close to “right”. The situation itself, perhaps well beyond one’s control, is “wrong” as it does not allow satisfying options.

    If in time we discover what the right thing to do “for us” is, it may never be what is considered right or acceptable for others. Using your given analogy the experienced baker may find the best they can get out of the ingredients or wonky oven is (while “ready to serve”) not palatable to most people. It is the best the baker can get out of the conditions.

    What’s more, that same baker who is well versed in the tastes of his own region, may find the recipe and baking conditions must be altered to suit the tastes of the new nation he moved into, or residents of that exotic nation which have moved into his neighborhood. I think you would accept this (being part of the many different experiences needed to have expertise) but it gets to the idea that there may always be something new, no matter one’s prior experience, and/or that one may find oneself having to serve what others want regardless of one’s own preferences or ideas of what is “best”.

    Ultimately, I think the complexity of this shows that while certain elements may be identified as relevant for a specific action (this—> theft, and not all theft), and the extremes of those elements usually proscribed, the most expertise the moral agent will ever gain (regarding “right/wrong”) is in what the agent him/herself “ought” to do in various situations.

    If true, ethics necessarily becomes more about defining our natures and those whose body of choices we get to know, rather than set rules governing actions.

    This again comes back to the baker. The poor baker follows recipes the best they can without understanding the materials and reasons and how to deal with variations. The average baker will understand all the components and how they mesh in the oven to produce certain products, particularly what he and those he sells to find acceptable. The expert baker will come to know what will suit himself best, given the limits of materials or expectations (perhaps culinary laws) of the regions he finds himself in, and what will suit others best (and different groups of others) given the same.

    For example, the expert baker will understand that I am a salty, hard crust, soft inside kind of person. These people are salty, soft all over people. These people are sweet and firm throughout. You get the picture. In each case the baker can make breads to suit these different desires, and all of them the best by those standards, even if considered awful by members of the other groups.

    Thus the expert baker learns less about the objective “rightness” of any particular bread, and more about the nature of people in the world by the bread they prefer (including himself).

    That seems good enough to me.

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  5. At least labnut brought up a few real moral dilemmas last time this came up – the only example here implies that those vegetarians who get nauseous and vomit if forced to eat meat should do it quietly in the corner so as not to disturb their host. The point about moral dilemmas is precisely that one good will be maximized over another, and that both seem worthwhile to us. So how do we choose? I am partial to the casuistic style of reasoning (flexible, intuition integrating over all the complex issues), and this is how we were introduced to ethics, but eventually one comes to hard cases where honest people disagree. Then we need some kind of reasonable way of balancing the different goods that everyone will accept. Singer’s shallow pond is an example of the the Rule of Rescue (McKie and Richardson 2003) – that is we’ll happily spend $100000 to save someone caught under a fallen building, but not $10 to avert a fatal case of malaria

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  6. Mark: I *do* think that given a specific set of circumstances and actors, there is a right thing to do. Though, as you can tell from much that I’ve written on Ethics, what that “rightness” consists of is something I’m still circling around.

    davidlduffy: The example was simply meant to address the point that when we deliberate we don’t only try to figure out the best means to a single end, but also have to decide which end should take precedence in a specific case. And I as I indicated, reason is limited in this regard, with perception, ultimately doing the work at the level of particulars. And of course there are hard cases, where reasonable people disagree, but it is a fantasy to think that some rule is going to insure one will get it right.

    dbholmes: I agree with you entirely that even a well honed moral perception will not always enable a person to do the right thing.

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  7. davidlduffy: And one more thing. Yes, sometimes the right thing to do *is* to suffer something disgusting, out of respect and caring for one’s host. A friend of mine was teaching English in a rural village in China, and he was invited to the home of one of the students for dinner. He was served a plate of Cicadas, of which the hosts were exceedingly proud — and which, apparently, cost a great deal, relative to their income. He said it was absolutely revolting and yet he ate it anyway, precisely because of the circumstances he was in and the people who were hosting him.

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  8. Dan,
    Isn’t there still room for reflection though? Consider these four commandments. Why highlight these values and not others? One reason, of course, is that they were commanded but you aren’t taking them that way and I doubt most Jews either. Besides if you did it wouldn’t have moral force (Euthyphro etc.). How would you choose these values to highlight without reflection. You could say experience, but how do you learn from or assimilate experience without reflection? And can’t we learn by reflecting on the experiences of others?

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  9. Dan-K,
    …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.

    Here I agree with you. But you go on to say:

    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.

    and here I disagree with you. Today’s moral difficulties are centred around the dilemma – how best should we serve our ‘selves’.
    As Bloom says

    To sum up, the self is the modern substitute for the soul.
    and
    …following in the line of Hobbes, who said that each man should look to what he feels—feels, not thinks; he, not another. Self is more feeling than reason, and is in the first place defined as the contrary of other.

    He carries on to say
    Happiness is indeed wholeness, so let’s try the wholeness available to us in this life. The tradition viewed man as the incomprehensible and self-contradictory union of two sub­stances, body and soul. Man cannot be conceived as body only. But if the function of whatever is not body in him is to cooperate in the satisfaction of bodily desire, then man’s dividedness is overcome. Simple virtue is not possible, and love of virtue is only an imagination, a kind of perversion of desire effected by society’s (i.e., others’) demands on us. But simple desire is possible.
    This absoluteness of desire uninhibited by thoughts of virtue is what is found in the state of nature.

    He says that, in the name of authenticity and wholeness, modern man has given priority to desire, making virtue the servant of self and desire.

    Bloom speaks of “the opposition between desire and virtue.“. This is the fundamental moral dilemma that we face, the opposition between:
    – desire and virtue,
    – feeling and thinking,
    – caring for self and other.

    These oppositions are what make moral behaviour difficult. Moral behaviour consists of how we resolve these oppositions. Your prescription for resolving these oppositions is practical wisdom but I don’t agree with you. Certainly that is part of the solution, to be found in mature, well adjusted, well informed, intelligent and experienced adults. But how many people are like that? Daniel Kaufmann and Massimo Pigliucci?

    I think the solution is to be found in our moral intuitions, bolstered by moral priming and training in practical wisdom. In a remarkable study, Dahlsgaard, Peterson and Seligman (Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History) found that there is strong agreement about foundational virtues across cultures, religions and time. It turns out that our moral intuitions are stable and consistent across the globe, though we may use confusing language to describe them.

    Moral behaviour is, in the first place, attained by reinforcing our shared moral intuitions(the virtues) through a process of moral priming. This is reinforced by moral education that develops moral wisdom. Moral intuitions, fed by moral priming, are strengthened by moral reasoning and the result is moral wisdom.

    Interestingly, you reveal this in your own thinking where you repeatedly appeal to virtues to resolve moral dilemmas. For example you said “Yes, sometimes the right thing to do *is* to suffer something disgusting, out of respect and caring for one’s host.” where the virtue(moral intuition) you appeal to is respect.

    The book you referenced(Closing of the American Mind) is really worth reading. I see instead a shrivelling of the American mind, but that is another debate for another time.

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  10. DO,
    Isn’t there still room for reflection though? Consider these four commandments. Why highlight these values and not others? … How would you choose these values to highlight without reflection

    We begin with deeply embedded moral intuitions which are followed by a five step reasoning process:
    1) we ask whether our moral intuitions are widely shared?
    2) are they confirmed by our moral teachings?
    3) are they applicable to the present circumstances?
    4) do they conflict with with our desires, feelings and sense of self?
    5) how do we resolve those conflicts?

    One to five are a deliberative process, what Dan-K might call practical wisdom. But this deliberative process is built on a foundation of moral intuitions that we call the virtues. We must bear in mind that our moral intuitions are kept alive by a process of moral priming. Where this is attenuated or absent our moral intuitions will similarly be attenuated or even absent. Desires and feelings are corrosive, weakening moral intuitions so that the self gets precedence over the other. Moral priming works against this process.

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  11. Dan,

    I went back and looked at the OP. Originally I thought you were saying that acquiring moral knowledge was a matter of experience and that reflecting on morality yielded little or no insight. But on a second look I found this sentence: “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…” So are you leaving room for something like traditional moral theory? Could you debate whether Hume or Aristotle or Epicurus had the better account of morality for instance? Or is that sterile “rational deliberation”?

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  12. Dan

    “I *do* think that given a specific set of circumstances and actors, there is a right thing to do.”

    One right course of action? Always? Why should there be? I just don’t get this. Surely people have (at least slightly) different value systems and so may have different views on what is the right course of action in any given situation. There is no way you can plausibly say (without relying on something like religious ideas) that one specific value system is correct and all others are incorrect, surely. What am I missing here? I am genuinely puzzled.

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  13. Dan

    Given a specific set of circumstances and actors, each actor has his/her own set of values and so will presumably act in accordance with them. If this is what you are saying it is very different from your earlier claim about there being a right course of action.

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  14. “[S]ome actions will count as “right” and others won’t.”

    This is slightly different from what you said previously.

    Yes, some actions will be seen as “right” by some… and the very same actions may be seen as “wrong” by others who have different priorities, systems of value. Is this not so?

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  15. Dan

    I would say that even focusing on one actor (trying to make a decision, say) that it is not necessarily the case (as you seemed to be claiming) that there is one right choice (difficult as it may be to see).

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  16. I would say that given specific circumstances and specific actors there are right choices and wrong ones. I’m not committed to there being just one of each, though in some cases there may be.

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  17. Well I could *almost* live with that way of putting it.

    But I’m still not sure what’s driving this or what you mean exactly by “right choices” and “wrong choices”. But I’m happy to leave it there (for now).

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  18. “…it is a fantasy to think that some rule is going to insure one will get it right.”: At a practical or contractualist level, it is sufficient that enough people agrees that a particular rule is currently the best (if imperfect) way to break such deadlocks, and will be able to move forward. If one can present a rationale, then agreement is more likely, especially if it seems to follow in a straightforward way from general principles we can generally agree upon.

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  19. Dan-K said:
    there is a right thing to do. … what that “rightness” consists of is something I’m still circling around.

    Here Dan-K says two essential things
    1) there is a right thing to do (how do we determine it?)
    2) there is a thing called “rightness” (what is it?).

    Mark made the remark:

    There is no way you can plausibly say (without relying on something like religious ideas) that one specific value system is correct

    Here he rules out religious ideas, but should he? Well, he claims that God doesn’t exist, but does that matter? Accepting, for the sake of argument, that Mark is right, what then is religion? We can immediately answer that it is a universal and extraordinarily powerful social phenomenon. It can hardly be called a spandrel so why did societies *all* develop this concept? We can’t look back into the mists of time, before writing, but we can look at the phenomenon as it exists. When we do that we can reasonably conclude that it is an institution for propagating a moral order in society. And if Mark is right, God is a fiction created to give the moral order persuasive force and promises of an after life are part of the fiction designed to motivate moral behaviour.

    Given all this, religion represents a society’s collective understanding that there is a right thing to do and that there is such a thing called rightness. As evidence of this, Western society’s understanding of morality is permeated through and through by Christian teaching. And if you doubt this, consider that Pope Francis reliably draws huge crowds far greater than any statesman in the Western hemisphere could. He is the symbol of a moral idea that has a powerful hold on our imagination.

    But, since neither Mark nor Dan-K believe in God’s existence, what could ‘rightness’ consist of? Building on what I said earlier, that moral choices are a tension between:
    – desire and virtue,
    – feeling and thinking,
    – self and other;
    rightness is a state that prioritises virtue over desire, thinking over feeling and other over self.
    This is a wooly definition because no more exact definition is possible if you reject the existence of God. But I maintain it is a good definition that aligns well with Christian teaching.

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  20. Mark,
    “There is no way you can plausibly say (without relying on something like religious ideas) that one specific value system is correct”

    The answer here is that we don’t need to say that one specific value system is right if we apply Edward de Bono’s powerful insights contained in his six thinking hats. He maintained that our thinking is sterile because it is monochromatic. To remedy that he advocated that we put on six thinking hats in turn when considering a problem, each one of a different colour. These were

    1. white hat – get the data, a factual, neutral point of view
    2. red hat – gut reaction, a feeling and intuitive point of view
    3. yellow hat – adopt an optimistic, explorative and speculative point of view
    4. green hat – innovative, creative and freewheeling point of view
    5. black hat – logical, careful and critical point of view
    6. blue hat – evaluative, assessing, all things considered point of view.

    He discovered that following this process invariably produced better results and that most of us are imprisoned by one of these perspectives. By consciously putting on other hats we broaden our perspective to cover the full problem domain and thus improve the quality of our problem solving.

    The same thinking applies to moral problem solving and this leads us to abandon the idea that one specific value system is correct. Instead I propose we don the six moral thinking hats in turn:

    1. white hat – moral rules and duties, deontological thinking;
    2. red hat – virtues, agent based thinking, attitudes, dispositions;
    3. black hat – outcomes, examining the consequences;
    4. green hat – principles, focussing on the context, autonomy, justice, beneficence, non-maleficence;
    5. yellow hat – care, focus on relationships and power structures;
    6. blue hat – evaluative, assessing, all things considered point of view.

    In this way we examine the full moral problem domain allowing us to arrive at a considered decision that properly balances the tensions between:
    – desire and virtue,
    – feeling and thinking,
    – self and other;

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  21. Labnut

    “… religion represents a society’s collective understanding that there is a right thing to do and that there is such a thing called rightness.”

    Represents or represented? Present tense – or past? I acknowledge that our common ethics is to a large extent Christian-based (including much radical left-wing thought). But it is not religion anymore for the most part.

    Actually I have trouble with the concept ‘religion’ when it is more than a place-holder for particular religions. Back in pre-Enlightenment times religion – always in the form of a particular religion – was pretty much totally integrated into life. Back then most people had no use for some general concept of religion. Their kind of religion (always specific and integrated into the whole of life) I understand. It makes sense to me even if I stand outside it.

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  22. Mark,
    Represents or represented? Present tense – or past? … But it is not religion anymore for the most part.

    What other organisation conducts moral priming every week at about 350,000 locations across the nation? You are making the point that there has been a decline in religious belief and religious practice in the wealthy nations. That is true but the Church remains the largest single source of regular, systematic moral priming.

    Can you name any other organisation that conducts explicit moral priming/education on a regular basis across the nation at any scale that even remotely resembles that of the Church?

    Dan Ariely conducted an experiment in moral priming. He had a random group read the Ten Commandments and then perform a test of cheating behaviour. A control group was given a neutral text to read. The control group scored about 20% while the test group scored about 80%. In other words, immediately after moral priming honesty increased from 20% to 80%. He then repeated the test with two explicitly atheist groups and got the same result. But he also showed that the effect of moral priming is of short duration. Rather like a film of water, it evaporates quickly and so must be regularly refreshed. As I have commented earlier(after Bloom), there is a strong opposition between
    – desire and virtue,
    – feeling and thinking,
    – self and other;
    and this makes moral behaviour a constant struggle. We need ongoing support in this struggle.

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  23. In a reflection on a passage in the New Testament, I realized that the commandments might not be formulated with control of immoral behavior as an endpoint, but as a precondition for social cohesion that has other positive consequences. As religio means “to bind again,” the piece reads as a criticism of religious authority that foments division, while framing the struggle of our great avatars as a deeply personal one.

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