As the story goes, God told Charleton Heston two things to do and eight things not to do, and he listened. Then he passed the rules along to others, and human morality was born.
The commandments weren’t always easy to work with, they found. Specifically, many of them enjoyed violating the one about not killing. Chuck had passed on the divine orders in his own personal style, and couldn’t resist including the Second Amendment in the Ten Commandments somewhere.
There was a real awkward moment when God was telling Chuck specifically not to carve likenesses of anything in the Heavens, precisely at the moment he was carving His words into stone tablets. Chuck had smashed the originals during a tantrum, and without some notes he was always in danger or forgetting what right and wrong were.
This was about 33 centuries ago, and before then there was no right and wrong because the Heavens hadn’t mentioned anything about it yet. Murder and double-parking were rampant.
Even after Chuck and his friends knew the new rules by heart, sometimes they found they did accidentally covet their neighbor’s ox, or even his ass. As they knew, equally offensive to God as coveting one’s neighbor’s livestock was to covet one’s neighbor’s wife, or her ass, or any other material possessions of his neighbor’s. They had an especially tough time with this one, because as pious as they were, it’s really hard to obey rules against thinking.
They didn’t usually steal, except from indigenous populations, until many centuries later when Napster came out and a free-for-all descended that not even God could stop.
They also kept arguing over whether it was Saturday or Sunday that they were supposed to take off. To this day, most of them think it’s Sunday, and so they stay home to watch NFL football, where they can vicariously enjoy their favorite runningbacks and wide receivers toiling away in total defiance of God.
He doesn’t strike them down, but interestingly it is NFL policy to play through any weather except lightning and hurricanes. These players, heretics though they are, will still sometimes name-drop God or His son as helpful conspirators if they happen to win. God is a Denver Broncos fan these days.
Honoring their father and mother was pretty easy compared to the others, and they took comfort in this. If God ever audited Chuck’s people (and despite His omnipresent threats, He often forgot) they could play up how well they honored their parents, and change the subject before it got to coveting and killing.
They did try their best, but Chuck and his followers found a lot of these commandments to be generally unworkable. The idea behind them was great though, by all accounts: a moral code that’s stamped, sealed and backed up by a well-known name.
But they kept running afoul of themselves. In fact, they slipped up so often that they began to suspect it was all an empty threat. They would never say so out loud, even though God was supposed to be reading all their minds all the time anyway. And so they continued to do the odd bad thing, or even just questionable things, but talked about doing good things all the time.
The problem they had, whether they realized it or not, was that the commandments denied them the opportunity to be moral beings themselves. It was God’s will, not theirs, and so their own individual wills could never be moral, only obedient. They were not invited to participate in either understanding or deciding what is right and wrong.
So the implicit expectation was to throw out any personal feelings that conflicted with what God told them, or what Chuck told them that God had said, or with what some sickly abbot in a church told them that Chuck said that God had said. Trust anyone bearing a cloth or collar before you trust yourself, was the inevitable message, and so they never did.
Now, that means under this system, which billions of people heartily subscribe to, human beings are devoid of any moral sensitivity of their own. Nobody would know, for instance, that pushing someone down the stairs is wrong, unless they’d been to church a few times at least.
It’s a Good thing for us then — I’ll go ahead and assert that without God’s permission — that many people don’t think that’s true at all. I wish I could say most, but statistically it doesn’t look like it.
How to make it all workable
I think that if Mr Heston and his descendants had looked at the Commandments in a different way, they may have gotten more consistent mileage out of them.
While Christianity has its famous dictatorial approach to morality, some other traditions also have moral doctrines, but they present them as precepts.
Precepts aren’t really that different from commandments, in terms of what they are: they’re ethical rules, prescribed by an institution, sometimes attributed to a deity or someone else more important than you. But you can absolutely discover your own.
Some people do treat them just like commandments — follow them, or to Hell with you. But that’s a shame, because they’re missing out on their incredible power. The difference is in how you apply them.
Imagine if instead of obeying a moral precept under threat of punishment, you took it on voluntarily, and the consequences of not doing it were yours to discover. You treat it as a personal commitment, in the service of your God (if you have one) or whatever else is important to you: human solidarity, world peace, evolution, or even just yourself.
Whereas in Christianity you have:
Thou shalt not steal.
in, say, secular Buddhism you might have:
I undertake the rule of training to refrain from taking that which is not freely given.
Same dif, on the surface, but the fact that it is ultimately voluntary is what changes everything. You have to understand why you’re doing it, first of all. You’re allowed to wait until you really are ready to do it, which is only once you’re actually ready to delete all those seasons of Mad Men you lifted from BitTorrent.
From tradition to tradition, the rules aren’t that different. Killing is widely agreed to be a no-no, same with stealing, harming people with your lewd sex acts, and lying.
The value doesn’t come in simply not breaking the rules — because sometimes you will — but in being aware of exactly what’s going on in your mind when you’re tempted to. Where do immoral actions come from? What’s happening in your mind when you’re doing the wrong thing? That knowledge is enormously valuable — if indeed you are interested in peace and happiness — and you can’t get it simply by following orders.
All moral transgressions come down to a decisive moment, between the instant you feel a desire to violate your rule, and the instant you respond to that desire. Most of the time those moments come obscured by the heat of emotions and conditioning, and reaction just happens, without any conscious choice being made. And if you’re Catholic you feel really guilty after.
Observing precepts trains you to become acutely aware in those decisive moments, and prompts you to consider exactly why you’re finding it so hard not to steal something right now. What are you attached to? What rationalizations is your mind coming up with right now?
That is exactly what the commandment approach misses: that moment of reflection on why you have such a hard time following the rule, and why you might want to. Just following the rule because you’re scared not to is a complete avoidance of morality.
The precept approach triggers you to zero in on that crucial moment, and all the feelings, rationales, and possibilities that accompany it. Commandments concern themselves only with the What, and precepts engage the Why, which is the whole reason for morality anyway. Why not kill? If the only reason you have is “To avoid going to Hell,” then Hell might just be the best place for you.
Whether you violate the rule or not is not as important as whether you watch what happens internally as that decisive moment comes and goes. This is where morality comes from — the direct, voluntary experience of doing the right thing (or not doing it), and the direct experience of the consequences that arise as a result.
In those moments, when you become aware of the pull toward doing the lazy thing, the easy thing, or the wrong thing, and you consciously don’t do it, there is an incredible feeling of freedom. That’s what morality is, freedom from the grinding mechanical hell of acting from fear, lust or reaction. Like I’ve said before, Hell is real, and it doesn’t wait for you to die.
Chuck and his epic cast never knew this kind of freedom. They were under perpetual peril and did what any self-preserving people would do. Commandments can’t supply morals because they deny you the autonomy to do the right thing.
The commandments leave you no freedom. The moral landscape they create is the opposite of freedom. It’s oppression, especially when you remember that you’re forced to play the game for eternity.
As Christopher Hitchens sometimes puts it, “It’s a celestial dictatorship, where eternal praise and submission is demanded. A divine North Korea, if you will. But at least you can fucking die and leave North Korea.”