A Serious Flaw of the Decalogue


In my “Putting the Decalogue Under a Microscope” I distinguished between “normative” and “empirical” statements relative to human behaviors.  The latter are factual statements that pertain to either a given individual, or humans in general; the former are assertions as to what behaviors individuals should, or should not, engage in.  Thus, although both types of statements pertain to human behaviors, they differ importantly in nature.

The history of scientific thought demonstrates, however, that what is thought to be objectively true during one time period may come to be discarded as such during a later time period, as new evidence becomes available.  For example:

A hundred years ago, the fact that people from different racial backgrounds had very different rates of success in education, in the economy and in other endeavors, was taken as proof that some races were genetically superior to others.

Some races were considered to be so genetically inferior that eugenics was proposed to reduce their reproduction, and Francis Galton urged “the gradual extinction of an inferior race.”

It was not a bunch of fringe cranks who said things like this.

Presidents of Stanford University and of MIT were among the many academic advocates of theories of racial inferiority — applied mostly to people from Eastern and Southern Europe, since it was just blithely assumed in passing that blacks were inferior.

The fact that scientists have been wrong in the past suggests that some of their “truths” today may become discarded as such at some point in the futureGiven that possibility, it’s obvious that scientists should (a normative judgment, on my part!) always be aware of that possibility and, therefore, think of their current “truths” in probabilistic terms!

An important reason why scientists should exercise caution in their statements of what they, as a group, believe to be true is that if their beliefs come to be widely accepted as true, behaviors justified by those behaviors may, at a later point in time, be perceived as of an objectionable (“normative” again!) nature.  For example, if one thinks of blacks as inferior, one may mistreat them!  To the point of, for example, lynching them![1]

The point that I am trying to make here is that although a distinction can be made between “normative” and “empirical” statements, it does not follow from that fact that they are unrelated.  I have thought it important to begin here by making that point, and do not apologize for doing so!

Now, to address the claim made in my title!  In doing so I first hypothesize the following:

The members of a given society are “governed” in their behaviors by the Decalogue, with all members realizing that it is to their benefit to do so.  That is, all of them are “blessed” with an adequate level of knowledge to realize this; and because they do, they all allow the Decalogue to “regulate” their behavior.  They all realize that it would be irrational to do otherwise.

This leads to two questions, however relative to real-world behaviors:

  1. Is it a fact that behaviors consonant with the Decalogue will benefit all members of a society?
  2. Even if that is the case, will all members of a society have a level of knowledge that enables them to recognize, and then act, on the commands in the Decalogue?

My answer to the first question is:  There are societies, and then there are societies; societies differ one from another in their characteristics!  Thus, whereas adherence to those behavioral commands in one society might be beneficial to all members of the society, that need not be true in a different society.  Not only does level of knowledge vary from society to society; the “nature” of society varies.

The important distinction regarding “nature” of society, I would argue, is whether a society is a (a) hunter-gatherer band, on the one hand, or a (b) “civilized” society, on the other hand.  Granted that hunter-gatherer bands do, and have, varied one from another; and that it is even more true that “civilized” societies vary, and have varied, one from another—variation over historical time having been of especial importance.  But enough similarity exists, and has existed, within these two types of society to make them meaningful categories.

The first point that I would make here is codes of behavior such as the Decalogue would only be found in civilized societies.  Not simply because of lack of the existence of writing in hunter-gatherer bands, but a lack of a need for a code of behavior!  During the lengthy period when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, they became (a) genetically programmed for that way of life;[2] (b) while one was growing up in such a band, one learned “proper” behavior; and (c) the group was small enough that practices could be developed that would serve to keep all members “in line.”

If members of a hunter-gatherer band had a way of life that was “natural,” then what’s true of the “inmates” (!) of a civilized society is they have an unnatural way of life!  A major implication of that difference is that hunter-gatherer bands tend to be egalitarian, whereas civilized societies tend to be inegalitarian, to varying degrees—and characterized by “featuring” social class systems.

What that implies is that exploitation is a “feature” of civilized societies!  If that exploitation is not maintained by brute force, it may be enabled by an ideology, such as social darwinism.

The Decalogue came into being in a civilized society.  And, one might argue that it came into being in part, at least, to reduce the exploitation that was occurring (e. g., the commands to not murder, commit adultery, or steal) in that society.  However, even a cursory examination of the Ten Commandments will lead one to conclude that none of those commands—unlike the pronouncements of the prophets—is decidedly anti-exploitation; and that some of the commands, indeed, are merely of a cultic nature (e. g., keeping the Sabbath).

If one regards the Ten Commandments as sacred, one will not tend to think about them very seriously—and, therefore:

  1. Tend not to recognize the fact that they are in conflict with the “preachings” of the prophets.
  2. Tend not to allow them to “interfere” unduly with one’s everyday life!

Not that they would do so (the “interfere” matter) much anyway, given their basic consonance with life in a civilized society!  But the main point that I wish to make here is that the following of those ten commands is unlikely to result in any improvement in one’s society![3]

Not only do I see that as a problem, however.  Insofar as they play a role in one’s life they do not help one recognize that History is Against Our Species!  The apparent fact that our species is on a downward trend, with this question being a highly relevant one:  “Human Extinction by 2026?

Given the biblical claim that we humans are created beings, created in the “image of God,” in fact, one might think that we humans would be striving, “with all our might,” to “save” our species from such a fate!  But we humans have blinded ourselves to the fact that we have been on a downward course since “civilized” living began to replace a way of life based on hunting and gathering; and it appears that we must now face the consequences of that failure!

Certainly having the Decalogue as a “guide book” has not helped us see where we are going and, therefore, helped in us changing our course!  That gives one a basis for saying—as I do in my title—that the Decalogue has a “serious flaw”!

[1]  One lynching occurred here in Milwaukee!

[2]  Anthropologist Alan Barnard stated recently that we humans “have been designed to live, by hunting wild beasts and by collecting wild plants.”   In Hunters and Gatherers:  What  Can We Learn From Them (2020), p. 56.

[3]  The “social gospel” is rooted in the “ministry” of Jesus, as recorded in the biblical gospels, not in the Decalogue.

Alton C. Thompson is an independent writer from USA




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