Tuesday, March 08, 2005


So last Friday night, I settled in to watch a favorite show, Real Time with Bill Maher. While I often disagree with what Bill Maher says (as well as most of his guests -- ok, the truth is that sometimes I think I disagree with most everybody, but that's another topic for another time), I do find him funny at times and I respect anyone who at least has the guts to just speak their mind. Ok, now that I've justified watching the show on a regular basis, here's what caught my thoughts. The discussion turned to the controversy over the Ten Commandments in federal courthouses. The slant on the roundtable discussion was whether or not the 10 Commandments were moral precepts.

Bernadine Healy (former NIH administrator) argued that the 10 Commandments was the moral and legal ancestor of our current judicial system. Therefore, the fact that they were prescribed by a particular religion is immaterial to the issue of whether or not they should be displayed in our courthouses. Because they are the very history of our judicial system, they should be allowed. They are, then, more of a social statement than a religious statement.

Bill argued many were not, in fact, moral in nature. For example, Thou shalt have no other gods before Me, Bill argued, was not a moral precept. It is, instead, strictly religious in nature. Therefore, even though some of the precepts contained in the Commandments are moral (e.g. Thou shalt not steal, etc.), the fact that others are strictly religious in nature entails an endorsement of a particular religious tradition by the State.

What caught my attention in this debate was not, oddly enough, the argument over whether or not displaying the 10 Commandments violates the establishment clause (personally, I am inclined to agree that it does violate the establishment clause, but that too is another argument for another time). What I did find interesting was the premise that the Commandments dealing specifically with God (i.e. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me, Thou shalt not make any graven image..., Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain, and Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy...) are not moral in nature.

I, however, would argue that those 4 Commandments are moral in nature. I suppose I can see how someone could argue that they are not. When we think of morality, we often think of "the basics", that is, whether or not someone is honest, whether they cheat, maybe whether they are nice to others, and, of course, we seem to immediately think of sex (aren't we maybe a little to preoccupied with this?). All of these things have to do with how we interact with others. And those things are moral issues, certainly. But are there others? I think one of our problems is that when we think of morality, we think in terms of lists of things that we are supposed to do and lists of things that we are not supposed to do when dealing with other people. And I'm not sure that it goes much deeper than that, at least in our minds.

Living morally, very generally speaking, used to be equivalent to the good life (by "generally speaking" I refer to what I take to be an accurate generalization of how classical philosophy - think Socrates, Plato, et al - thought of ethics and morality). The desire for all of us, the ancients would argue, was to find out what the chief end of life is, what is our purpose. This chief end, it was argued, is to fulfill our nature. Anything that was part of fulfilling our nature, was then by definition moral. And morality is then acting in a way that fulfills our nature. Morals are the way in which we fulfill our nature.

So what of God? How do the "religious" precepts of the 10 Commandments fit into this?

If the theistic arguments that there is a God is true, and if the narrower Judeo-Christian arguments that God created us and instilled in us the need to worship Him are true, then these "religious" precepts become moral ones as well, for they give us the parameters by which our nature can be fulfilled, the parameters by which we can live morally; if true, our nature involves not only how we act towards others, but also how we act towards God (and towards all of His creation). So these Commandments are, in fact, moral Commandments.

This first argument ignores the other two arguments that must come later. It still must be debated 1)Whether or not these moral Commandments are in fact true (i.e. is it true that there is a God Who created in us a need to worship Him?), and 2)If true, whether or not they belong in our federal courthouses. These are all separate and unique arguments; one can rationally agree with the argument that they are moral precepts, and that they are true, but then argue that they still do not belong in our courthouses.

Personally, I leave it for another day to argue whether these are true moral Commandments and whether, if true, they belong in our federal buildings. But to argue that they are not moral statements is simply incorrect. You may think them false and not in keeping with the true nature of things, but to argue that they are not moral in nature, that they are not statements of morality is simply false.


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