What would the Ten Commandments say if it were worded as a Bill of Rights and not a list of prohibitions?
One of the most radical changes in the way Western philosophy has dealt with ethics came with Immanuel Kant, who asserted it was possible to derive natural rights from reason alone. This opened the door to a re-imagining of teleological ethics into deontological ethics, which in turn was a major force in giving us the modern notion of moral rights. The rights-focussed approach to ethics is one of three main schools of thought on ethics (the other two being what I have termed outcome-focussed and agent-focussed).
My general thesis on ethics is that one form of ethical perspective is in principle transformable into any of the others, and any that are not have a weaker claim to moral force, since they fail to be universal. With this in mind, I present here my translation of the Ten Commandments, originally composed by Moses and/or God (according to your preferred beliefs), translated into a rights-based language game:
- The top diety or absolute transcendent force has the exclusive right to be known as God.
- You have the right to avoid the worship of idols.
- You have the right to trust sacred oaths.
- You have the right to at least one day of rest (and/or worship) out of seven.
- You have the right to be respected by your children.
- You have the right to be alive, and thus may not be killed intentionally.
- You have the right to trust that your spouse will not engage in sexual intercourse with others without your express permission.
- You have the right to own possessions.
- You have the right to factual testimony in legal proceedings.
- You have the right to trust that no-one will scheme to take away your spouse or possessions.
Some commentary may help explain my choices:
- I like this formulation as I believe it captures what the first commandment intends, but it's a formulation which has little or no effect on non-believers. "Top diety" may seems a strange choice, but the original wording here is clearly dictating henotheism - devotion to one diety, while recognising others. (If you don't think this makes sense, explain why the stories told in Exodus say the Egyptians are able to transform sticks into snakes as well as Moses and Aaron). The first commandment does not say "there are no other gods", it says "have no other Gods before me" (and this is expressly addressed at the Israelites). Maintaining the henotheistic angle makes this formulation compatible with many more varied faiths, which I see as desirable.
- The reason why "graven images" are being prohibited is because these are a form of metaphysical con that was common at the time. In fact, the Jewish Bible contains a wonderful story called "Bel and the Dragon" which is the first detective story - it exposes a particular idol as a fake by an early application of what we now call the scientific method. (It annoys me that this was cut from the Christian version). So here I have worded this as a protection against being forced to worship idols, and an idol in this case would include any substitute for divinity such as when certain Christians take the wording of the Bible as more important than following Jesus teachings. Under this formulation, they are free to choose to do this - but not to force this onto others under any circumstances.
- Not "taking the Lord's name in vain" appears to have been a prohibition about invoking God in an oath and then breaking that oath. Here I have used "sacred oath" as this covers a wider range of related issues.
- This one is so often lost in translation - the Sabbath wasn't just being promoted as a requirement for worshipping God (for the Israelites), it was being given as a day of rest. In our modern society, where we work people (especially the poorer people) to the bone, this idea of a right to a day of rest has become obscured.
- This is a straight inversion of "Honour your father and mother" into rights language.
- This is always interesting. While pro-life individuals may well interpret this as precluding abortion, it's not clear at what point this right will apply (from conception or from birth) so the argument for this remains contestable. What is clearer is that it precludes capital punishment, and intentional attempts to kill in war. I have great respect for soldiers, but I have never understood how any Christian could join a military force that is intent upon murder, even on the battlefield. This isn't the only way war could be conducted - it's about time we started to explore new ethics of warfare.
- Now this may seem like I'm allowing for an overly permissive interpretation of "adultery" here, but the point is to capture what is meant by this word. Remember that Sarai (Sarah) encouraged Abram (Abraham) to have sex with Hagar when Sarai thought she was barren, so multiple consensual sexual relations are recorded in the Bible. Plus, wording this way allows for polyandrogynous relationships, which some religious and non-religious people practice.
- A prohibition on theft is a right to own possessions.
- This one is so often misinterpreted, even by Kant. "False witness" is a legal claim - this commandment doesn't say "don't lie", it says "don't perjure". That's a very different assertion!
- Finally, not "coveting your neighbours wife" et al is concerned with not making plans to take what is promised to or belongs to someone else. This is a subtle extension of (7) and (8) that seems to be intended to exclude conspiracy and conflict arising from jealousy, although the original intent is perhaps rather to encourage people to be content with what they have. The rewording seems to suggest that when a Government exercises "eminent domain" it violates the tenth commandment, which I find particularly interesting since the US Government exercises this power all too often.
What do you think about this transposition of the Ten Commandments? Whatever your beliefs, I'd be interested in your perspective, so let me know your thoughts in the comments!