The benefits of illegal proposals

James E. Clapp jeclapp at WANS.NET
Tue Feb 29 23:12:24 UTC 2000

Three points--the last of which even has a tiny passing reference to a
linguistic (or at least semantic) issue, though not a very interesting

James Smith wrote:
> But why [the Ten Commandments] have been (and are) ignored,
> and by whom, is part of the cultural heritage I'm speaking of.
> Governments and individuals have embraced them, or
> have twisted them or rationalized ways around them to
> their own ends.  Our society is as much a result of
> deliberately disobeying them as it is of deliberately
> following them.

You assume that they were paying attention to them at all.  Is there any
evidence that any government in the world during, say, the last thousand
years, has given any particular thought one way or the other to the Ten
Commandments?  It's a serious question: I don't know the answer, and I
suppose a king here or there might have sat down and said "I'll enact
this commandment into law, I'll interpret that commandment as follows,
I'll ignore these two," or whatever; but I think that has been rare.  To
say "This country has a law against murder: that shows it is influenced
by the Ten Commandments," or "Photography is allowed by law in that
country: that shows it is deliberately disobeying the Ten Commandments,"
is just silly.

> (I'll just quietly tiptoe
> around impiety and idolatry for this discussion)

I appreciate your candor, but (a) that's 40% of the commandments--and
well over two-thirds of the text--that you are ignoring, and (b) that's
the part you have to look at to determine whether the Ten Commandments
actually have any influence.  The fact that practically all societies
have traditionally condemned murder and thievery and false testimony and
adultery and disrespect for parents (and in fact non-Judeo-Christian
cultures now condemn adultery and disrespect for parents much more than
Judeo-Christian cultures do) shows that adopting those principles in law
or as cultural values has nothing to do with the Ten Commandments--these
are values that human societies have adopted whether or not their
cultural mythology includes this story about God and the tablets.  It is
only by looking at the commandments that are unique to Judeo-Christian
culture that you can begin to assess how influential they have been.
And frankly, Christians, at least, have been sculpting crucifixes,
milking the cows on the Sabbath, and what not for about as long as
they've existed, without the slightest concern for the Ten Commandments.

> Is Fra. Goodridge saying that murder,
> adultery, greed, theft, neglect and abuse of the
> elderly, and dishonesty . . . are
> not problems affecting modern society ?
> . . .
> If Goodridge did mean the 10 C's are not
> terribly important, it would be interesting to know
> what he considers the REAL moral problems in society,
> which I could infer from his statement are totally
> unrelated to the evils covered by the 10 C's!

He didn't say "totally unrelated"; he said "They do not answer the real
moral problems affecting modern society."  Take murder:  Is there a real
moral question today about whether murder, as a general proposition, is
a good thing or a bad thing?  My sense is that pretty much everyone
agrees it is a bad thing. The real moral questions today are:  When is
killing murder, and when is it justifiable homicide or excusable on
other grounds?  Whom can you kill in wartime, and under what
circumstances?  Killing in self-defense is okay, but what about killing
in defense of property?  Killing in the heat of passion?  What moral and
legal culpability should we attribute to a six-year-old who kills?  What
about someone with an extremely low IQ?  What about a schizophrenic who
heard God telling him to kill?  What about a very religious person who
heard God telling him to kill abortionists?  Are abortionists
murderers?  Is suicide ever justified?  What about assisted suicide?
Does suicide require justification at all, or is it the ultimate human
right?  Is capital punishment morally justified?  In what kinds of
cases?  What about marketing of cigarettes?  Is it moral for the nation
to discourage smoking at home but market American tobacco products
vigorously in the third world?

[If you say it is important or helpful just to know that the Ten
Commandments proscribe murder, even if they don't actually say anything
else on the subject, I say pooh.  I'd like to know about one person who
ever said "I didn't know murder was wrong, but now that you show me the
Ten Commandments I see that I (shouldn't do/shouldn't have done) it.]

One could go through the same exercise with all the rest of the
commandments.  They are all, at the very best, too simplistic to be of
the slightest relevance to modern moral issues; and many of them are
simply immoral:  Don't covet your neighbor's slave: be happy for your
neighbor's good fortune.  Don't make your own slaves work on Sunday: the
work will still be there for them on Monday.  Don't take mammograms to
detect breast cancer: God wants you to wait until the tumor is big
enough to feel.  Do punish the children for the sins of the father--and
grandfather, and the great grandfather.  Boy, the more I look at the Ten
Commandments the more I think children should be shielded from them at
all costs!

James E. Clapp

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