Morality, Aesthetics, and the Ten Commandments

Ten-CommandmentsReading Stefan Molyneux’s book on secular morality, Universally Preferable Behaviour, brought something into clear focus for me: the difference between a thing being morally wrong and merely aesthetically bad.

One of the key finding in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies is that enduring great companies have well defined core values, which they preserve at all cost, but that they are always willing to discard or alter outdated practices outside of the core to improve. Collins and Porras summarized this idea as “protect the core/stimulate progress”. The reason I bring this up is that morals are the core values of a society, whereas aesthetics are the practices.

Molyneux uses a small set of axioms to prove that Murder, Theft, and Rape are all immoral. If you agree with his logic, a society doesn’t hold these three things immoral is not a moral society. He then goes on to make the case that, since it can be avoided, fraud is not immoral, though most would agree that its aesthetically bad. This is reflected by the fact that telemarketing is not illegal.

While few would disagree that Murder, Theft, and Rape are immoral, what other acts deserve absolute condemnation? The non aggression principle (or NAP) is a good guideline. Anything that requires the use of force other than in self defense is likely to be immoral. For example, forcing someone to work (i.e. slavery) is immoral, as is physically assaulting them.

What about the ten commandments of Judaism and Christianity?

  1. You shall have no other Gods but me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself any idol, nor bow down to it or worship it.
  3. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
  4. You shall remember and keep the Sabbath day holy.
  5. Respect your father and mother.
  6. You must not commit murder.
  7. You must not commit adultery.
  8. You must not steal.
  9. You must not give false evidence against your neighbour.
  10. You must not be envious of your neighbour’s goods. You shall not be envious of his house nor his wife, nor anything that belongs to your neighbour.

The first four are religious commandments. Unless you believe that to be moral, one must be religious, clearly these are practices, not moral principles.

Commandments 6 and 8 cover the immorality of murder and theft. It’s interesting that there is no injunction against rape or physical assault.

Is it immoral to fail to respect your father and mother? I would say no. Not everyone deserves respect. An abusive parent, for example, is not respectable. Respecting your parents seems like a practice rather than a principle.

What about envy? It’s hard to say how merely wanting something that belongs to another is immoral. This seems to fall squarely on the side of practice, rather than principle.

Adultery is tricky. Technically, you are doing no harm, merely breaching trust. This is probably the ‘sin’ I have the most trouble calling a practice. Integrity is one of my personal core values, and I don’t see how an adulterer can ever have integrity.

Finally, what about bearing false witness? If doing so leads to someone having violence done to them (e.g. being thrown in prison), bearing false witness is absolutely immoral. I would consider false testimony that leads to someone being fined to be the same as theft. Essentially, slander with financial consequences (even via loss of reputation) is immoral, in my opinion.

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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