So last time I was using Immanuel Kant’s tests of universalizability to determine whether or not the famous 10 commandments really are universal moral laws. Remember that 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.
So far we have looked at the first 8 laws and tested them accordingly.
- Do not worship any other gods besides the one true God (A perfect duty!)
- Do not make any representations of God in any material format (Not a moral law)
- Do not speak the name of God in irreverent language (An imperfect duty)
- Reserve the seventh day of the week for holy activities and direct worship of God (Another imperfect duty)
- Show proper honor to your parents (Another perfect duty!)
- Do not kill(Also not a moral law)
- Do not be sexually unfaithful to your spouse (Another imperfect duty)
- Do not steal (Another perfect duty!)
Tonight we look at the last two laws to see if they pass the tests.
- Do not speak falsely in an official legal setting
- Do not greedily desire the wealth, property or possessions of those more fortunate than you
Law 9: Do not speak falsely in an official legal setting
This law is usually translated as “do not lie” or as the KJV puts it “Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor”. But of course we must remember that these laws are designed to create a social order so the best understanding of this law involves legality itself. The purpose of this law is nothing so pointless as an absolute prohibition against lying, since that would make art rather meaningless. No, the point of a prohibition against lying is that it is never absolute, but rather it is formal. We want to eliminate all lying in formal, legal matters. People might lie in order to throw a surprise party, or we might lie to children in order to foster some delusional sense of security. But the kind of lying we ought never to engage in, for any reason whatsoever, would be lying on the stand. We should never lie in the witness box, when we have sworn the oath, or when we have pledged to tell the truth. The spirit of these laws preserves society and this one preserves and maintains the institution of the law itself, or at least of the court.
So yes, I can easily will this universally without contradiction, as the purpose a prohibition against lying in a legal setting is the preservation of the integrity of that setting. Lying undermines the integrity of the courtroom and makes the legal system corrupt. Whereas truth telling in an official capacity, however difficult, always benefits society.
This will also pass the second test since I do not want to live in a world or society where the justice system is corrupt and unjust. Instead I want to know that the law creates a kind of security on the whole of society. I can’t have this if the law is untrustworthy.
In point of fact, this law is much better than a universal prohibition against all manner of lying period, since this will still allow for some untruths in the name of simple convenience or entertainment.
So law 9 is a perfect duty!
Law 9: Do not greedily desire the wealth, property or possessions of those more fortunate than you
In the history of the 10 commandments this law sometimes gets split up into 2 laws. One of the “possessions” mentioned in the text is your neighbor’s wife. In the Catholic Catechism this particular form of coveting is treated as a law unto itself. On the other hand the Protestants just tend to lump all the various forms of coveting together into one big pile of “don’t do this.” For the sake of simplicity I will follow the Protestant model. This way I also don’t need to defend the archaic practice of legally owning your spouse (that is if she is female and you are male).
So what this law is all about is not coveting, or inordinately desiring, any goods which are not your own. The law is quite broad in its application, and there is no reason to think that it is limited solely to physical or material goods. It may also include coveting the mental well-being of another, or the social prestige of another. In short it doesn’t matter what you covet, the problem is that you are coveting in the first place.
The social institution this law is designed to protect is not clear at first until you realize that this law is meant to be a catch all. It is supposed to stop you from committing any other kinds of sin not explicitly forbidden by the first nine laws. That is why it is so broad and also why it confronts you in terms of your hidden thoughts and desires. If you can nip those desires in the bud then you should be able to prevent any sins which might grow from them. This not only cuts out the sins the list fails to mention, but it also pre-empts any of the sins on the list, since doing something evil is most likely preceded by the desire for it.
However, this is not a moral law, nor could it ever be a moral law for any rational beings.
This will be the hardest one to give up, especially since this is the heart of what sin is really all about. Sin isn’t about what you do, it’s about what you want. Adultery happens in your mind before you ever act on it, the same goes for murder, theft, and everything else. Wickedness is found in our minds and our wills, and only in our actions as an afterthought.
Now, the goal of this law is to prevent sin before it happens by prohibiting any and all inordinate desire for things that are not mine. Yet by prohibiting excessive desire I have put myself in an impossible situation. Whenever we deny desire this simply fans the flames of it. Whenever we attempt to suppress desire, our desire simply seeks another outlet. In fact the very desire to suppress all my desires can itself become an excessive desire. This is what the ascetic life is all about, and this is where bizarre religious practices like fasting and self-flagellation are born. If I want to stop myself sinning before I even start I may try to redirect my desires towards things that are not in any way enjoyable.
But desire is a funny thing, whatever I want is what I want, and I can’t stop myself from wanting just by trying to want things that are unpleasant. My desire will adapt and I will find myself wanting the unpleasant, since it is now my only source of pleasure.
In short, desire cannot be denied, it is not within our abilities or our nature to do this. So this fails the first test.
This also fails the second test too, since denying any and all excessive desire would make the world such a tedious and dull place that no one would want to live in it.
Law 10 is not a moral law.
Our conclusion is next.