A Modest Proposal for Updating the Ten Commandments

There is a contest, see ReThink Prize, to compose a secular replacement for the Ten Commandments. I like this notion. Secular people seek reliable moral guidance just like religious people do, but perhaps from different sources. Could there actually come to be a generally agreed on, compact, fully secular set of moral commandments?

Below are my proposed Six Commandments. They are based on my understanding of the results, particularly in the last 40 years or so, of the science of moral behavior as the product of biological and cultural evolution. Specifically, based on those results showing the evolutionary function of morality – the primary reason it exists – is to increase the benefits of cooperation. And second, that the biology underlying our emotional experience of durable well-being was primarily selected for as a reward that increases cooperative associations with family, friends, and larger groups.

But why should a society advocate and even enforce this set of moral commandments in preference to any other? I argue they should do so because this approach to cultural moral codes is the one most likely to achieve a common goal – increasing well-being within a society. Of course, if they have a different goal, they might prefer a different basis for their moral code.

Science can tell us nothing about what our ultimate goals ought to be, but science can be highly effective at telling us the best way to achieve whatever our goals are. My Six Commandments are my attempt at what science can tell us about the moral code that is most likely to increase and maintain durable well-being.

  1. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

[Increasing the benefits of cooperation is the primary reason morality exists in all cultures. This norm (plus punishment of violators) summarizes the most powerful cooperation strategy known – indirect reciprocity. So it summarizes morality, as Jesus wisely observed long ago. ]

  1. Do not punish immoral behavior so severely that future good behavior is reduced.

[Too severe internal punishment, by guilt and shame, reduces motivation to do anything, including good, and too severe external punishment provokes retaliation. Both are immoral because they contradict the function of morality, increasing cooperation.)

  1. Increase your durable well-being by acting morally (cooperatively) – durable well-being is nature’s reward for sustained cooperation.

[The biology responsible for our experience of durable well-being was primarily selected for to reward cooperative association with family, friends, and larger groups. Therefore, moral behavior (cooperation in groups) is the most reliable way to increase durable well-being.]

  1. Do not exploit other people’s efforts at cooperation – by doing so you sow the seeds of your own misery.

[By exploiting efforts at cooperation you 1. motivate retaliation and ostracism by others, 2. reduce the benefits of long term cooperation, and 3. reduce your experience of durable well-being triggered by successful cooperation.]

  1. Acting morally toward all requires acting fairly toward all, not acting equally.

[If everyone treated their own children equally to every other child, everyone’s efforts would be so diluted and inefficient as to reduce the benefits of cooperation – to be immoral. As John Rawls argued, we are obligated to treat people fairly, but not necessarily equally.]

  1. Act morally even if you expect doing so will decrease your durable well-being – you are likely wrong.

[Swayed by our biological preferences for hedonistic short term rewards and in the heat of the moment of decision, we tend to make bad predictions of what will increase our durable well-being. In contrast, behaving morally is a much more reliable guide to increased well-being.]

I thank Lex Bayer  and John Figdor, authors of the new book Atheist Mind Humanist Heart, for organizing the contest. I hope the contest will prompt new thinking (it already has for me) about what a secular version of the Ten Commandments would actually look like, as well as being a good promotion for their interesting book. 


7 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal for Updating the Ten Commandments

  1. For #1, I prefer the “titanium rule” of Do unto others as *they* would have you do unto them. We are not all alike and should not be treated as you (or any one person) thinks we should be treated.

    I still think this is too relativistic, but lets start there.

    • First, moral norms like this are not (or should not be considered) moral absolutes. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” is a heuristic, a usually reliable rule of thumb that can be instantly applied (you do not need to figure out anything) and counted on to usually result in pro-social interactions.

      But perhaps you somehow know how someone would like to be done to. It is different than how you would like to be done to. Then, because you are perverse, you choose to do to him the way you would like him to do you, which you know he will not like.

      Have you actually obeyed the golden rule (as many people falsely assume)? No.

      You want him to treat you in ways you like. But you treated him in ways you knew, because of special knowledge, he would not like. So you did NOT do to him what would you have him do to you.

      Mechanically following the Golden Rule without understanding its subtleties can cause you to violate the Golden Rule.

      • Which is precisely why it shouldn’t be chiseled in stone… But if you want to put it forward for a commandment, then at least modify it to remind people that it is preferable to take the time to understand what others want done to them. That subtlety is what I was pointing out.

        Both of these rules (golden or titanium) presuppose that either party (actor or recipient) actually knows what *ought* to be done though, which is either wrong or approving of the relativity of their wishes. I would drop them entirely from any “thou shalt” commandments since they are not to be universally trusted.

  2. Ed, no heuristic (rule of thumb) should be absolutely trusted. However, on average, the Golden Rule is been a phenomenally successful guide for behavior likely to enable achieving human goals, as evidence by versions of it being found in cultures around the world. My background is in engineering where “pursuit of perfection is the enemy of pursuit of the good” is, as it is in life, highly useful advice for achieving our goals.

    • My first degree is in engineering too Mark, and I also found that “perfect is the enemy of the good” phrase was used in business consulting. By that logic though, we might as well keep the original 10 commandments since they have been successful on average and elements of them have been found around the world. I thought the goal here was to pick something more exact, more Kantian universal, but I’ll let it go at “good enough” if that’s all you are aiming for. I did enjoy thinking about this in terms of “tit for tat” cooperative strategies. Too bad I didn’t see the contest until it was over or I might have spent some time thinking harder and coming up with my own list. Next time. Thanks for sharing your efforts on thinking about morality!

      • Ed I did not mean to imply we should accept good enough if we knew of something else that would work better.

        My claim was that the Golden Rule is more effective in practice at actually increasing moral behavior that its “more sophisticated” versions. For instance, they imply that before acting we must either “know what the other person likes” or, even more self-defeating, “know what is best for the other person”.
        The problem with these is that knowing what the other person likes in every situation is rare in our day-to-day interactions, and usefully knowing what is best for the other person (perhaps unless they are two years old) is a practical impossibility.

        Due to the extra knowledge required to act, I expect advocating and enforcing these two “more sophisticated” versions of the Golden Rule would inhibit actually acting morally (due to a lack of knowledge) and, by doing so, reduce pro-social behavior, not increase it.

        It would take a particularly perverse individual to insist on treating someone in a way the other person does not like just because “the Golden Rule said I had to”. I don’t see that as big problem in societies that advocate the Golden Rule.

        It is the Golden Rules’ effectiveness in practice in increasing pro-social behavior that makes me favor it.

  3. Just came across this while discussing the Golden Rule with someone else and thought I’d share it with you.


    “Karl Popper wrote: “The golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever reasonable, as they want to be done by” (The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. 2). This concept has recently been called “The Platinum Rule.”

    So I stand with Popper (and others) on this. “Golden” implies eternal and unchanging. The “Golden Rule” as stated in your #1 commandment is neither of those.

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