Most of us are at least cursorily familiar with the Decalogue, for a quick refresher check out the wikipedia page on the famous 10 commandments. Although there is a certain amount of theological debate over the best interpretations, and even whether or not there are ten separate laws, people do tend to agree that these are divine commands. If you want to read the originals go and look up Exodus 20: 1-17 and/or Deuteronomy 5: 4-21.  But for the sake of simplicity, and the thought experiment of this blog, we can break them down like so:

  1. Do not worship any other gods besides the one true God
  2. Do not make any representations of God in any material format
  3. Do not speak the name of God in irreverent language
  4. Reserve the seventh day of the week for holy activities and direct worship of God
  5. Show proper honor to your parents
  6. Do not kill
  7. Do not be sexually unfaithful to your spouse
  8. Do not steal
  9. Do not speak falsely in an official legal setting
  10. Do not greedily desire the wealth, property or possessions of those more fortunate than you

The Categorical Imperative

Now let’s talk about Immanuel Kant, the famous 18th century German philosopher. Well, let me just say that he invented a unique system of ethics consisting of only one ethical rule. The point of this rule is that ethics should be rational above all else and any ethical command or rule which is irrational should also be deemed immoral. In other words being good isn’t just noble, it’s also smart, and being evil is just stupid.

Kant’s one rule was known as the categorical imperative and he defined it in his Critique of Practical Reason. He writes “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law.” The idea here is that whenever I choose to do something, my choice also can be phrased as a rule. This is especially true if I think through the consequences of my action or consider my motivations before I act. Whenever I make choices I reason through what I am doing, and thus my actions can be defined in terms of the rule made up by my rational processes.  For Kant the defining feature of the categorical imperative is that the rules which govern my actions will only be rational, and thus moral, if those rules can be made into universal laws.

Most of the decisions we make are done based on irrational preferences, but when we try to make moral decisions those choices take on a transcendent nature. That is, when I say it is wrong to kill, I mean it is wrong for most people in most situations to kill. Kant just takes it further and declares that if killing was wrong for most people then it would be always wrong for all people. If it is sometimes wrong and sometimes right then that variance means that I am sometimes rational and sometimes not rational in my choice. Kant simplifies things and just demands that we always be rational in our moral choices.

Since my rules must be universal in order to be rational then Kant comes up with 2 tests that help determine if a rule is rational, the tests of universalizability. As complex as his tests are you can break them down into two simple formulations.

  1. Test one requires that a rule be logically consistent, with no possible logical contradictions.
  2. Test two requires that a rule be acceptable to rational beings, or basically that it be the kind of rule which would create a world in which rational people would really want to live.

If a rule passes the first test then it almost always, except perhaps in extremely rare and purely hypothetical instances, passes the second. A rule which passes both tests would be an example of a perfect duty. There are also those rules which pass the first test but not the second, and these rules are much more common. A rule which passes the first test but not the second is an example of an imperfect duty.

Imperfect duties can be commendable, but they are never morally obligatory. On the other hand perfect duties are commendable and morally obligatory.

The Thought Experiment

If you are still with me through the theology and the philosophy then what I want to do is determine whether or not the 10 commandments are rational. Will the 10 commandments pass the tests of the categorical imperative?

Law 1: Do not worship any other gods besides the one true God

So this one is pretty straightforward, you are supposed to revere and worship God above any other deities. Does this mean that other deities exist? Whether they do or not doesn’t matter, what does matter is whether this law passes the tests of universalizability.

Congratulations! This law will pass both tests.

It is logically possible to will this universally without contradiction. The purpose of following this law does not prove self-defeating if the law is universalized. That is I am still quite capable of worshipping God even if I will that everyone else should worship God and that no other gods be worshipped. Since it passed the first test then it should easily pass the second, and indeed it does. A rational person would want to live in a world where people worship only the one true God and do not waste their time on false gods.

Law 2: Do not make any representations of God in any material format

The point of this law is to show proper reverence and deference to God by not making any pale imitations or poor representations of God. At worst images of God may be mistaken for God itself, at best such artworks prove to be distracting from the worship of the abstract and transcendent entity that is God.

The only problem here is that this law fails both tests.

First it is not logically possible to universally will that God ought never to be represented in art. The reason for this logical failure is that the point of this law is to induce an attitude of proper reverence and worship. However, humans need some kind of focal point, and even something as simple as a crucifix serves to aid us in worship. If we had to worship without any kind of artistic representation of God then we would not worship with zeal or fervor and such a universal law would render worship itself impossible.

Secondly, rational beings would not want to live in a world where God existed without any kind of way to represent God in art. The thing that is most telling here is that even though Islam and Judaism do a rather good job of following this law (Christians never have), nonetheless both of those religions represent the divine in more abstract fashions. So God is still represented in a physical medium, even by its most ardent followers.

So far law 1 passes both tests, and law two fails both tests.

Law 3: Do not speak the name of God in irreverent language

We can of course will this law universally without any sort of contradiction. The goal of this law, like the first and second laws, is proper reverent worship towards God. Thus if we declare that no one ought to use the name of God in irreverent everyday language, then this should not create a world where it is impossible to follow this law.

However this law fails the second test. Rational beings communicate largely through the use of language that is either written or spoken. If God is to be such a truly important part of our lives then we must be able to talk about God even when we are engaged in everyday irreverent actions. An attitude of spiritual high-mindedness is not something which we could reasonably be expected to sustain all of the time. Instead we must engage in the everyday frivolity and banality of life. Thus God either has no place in our everyday language, to which rational beings ought never to agree, or else we must have license to speak the name of God in irreverent common language. This does not mean that we are cursing God’s name, but rather that we are trying to address God’s desires for us even in our everyday lives.

So the first commandment is a perfect duty, the third commandment is an imperfect duty, and the second commandment cannot be a moral law.

Well that is it for the first three laws, stay tuned for the rest.