Nine Commandments

Mark Isaak      

Most objections to posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings concetrate on the religious freedom issue, but it occurred to me that the Ten Commandments are relatively poor as a moral guide, too. They are not without value by any means, but there is much room for improvement. The first commandment ("no other gods") is simply wrong. I have met many people who could not find a spirituality that worked positively in their life until they rejected the Old Testament god that they were raised with and found another. The next three ("no false idols," "no profanity," and "keep the Sabbath") are primarily cultural strictures designed to promote a particular religion; they have little to do with morals themselves. Most of the rest are subsumed by the Golden Rule.

Furthermore, doing the right thing is not always easy, and the Ten Commandments include nothing to help people follow them. Nor do they give much reason why anyone would want to follow them. The only motivation they refer to is the threat of divine wrath, which is hardly a positive incentive.

What follows is my personal opinion of a better list of commandments. I tried to come up with ten to match the original count, but I could only think of nine which I felt belonged on such a list. Oh well, I probably forgot something obvious which should be added; the gap allows room for growth. I do not claim to be a moral paragon myself, so you are justified in taking this list with a grain of salt. However, the commandments which follow are not simply ones I made up. The ideas behind them all show up in religious teachings, usually in many different religions.

  1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  2. Recognize and respect differences of taste, custom, and belief that do not affect you directly.
  3. Do not blame others before you have seen to your own faults. The most effective form of moral teaching is personal example.
  4. Know thyself.
  5. Seek good companions.
  6. Find a faith that is stronger than fear and allows comfort with uncertainty. Be actively grateful and enjoy life.
  7. Get real. Do not misrepresent reality to yourself or others.
  8. Strive regularly to improve your morals with study and active practice. Do not pretend this is easy, but remember that doing so will generally benefit you even more than those around you.
  9. Recognize that no set of rules, including these, can be universal and infallible. Be guided not by these literal words, but by the spirit behind them.

These commandments deserve some commentary on why they are important, and how following them benefits not only society as a whole, but also the people who follow them. I also list a few quotes from religious, philosophical, and psychological works to illustrate their commonness.

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

In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. [Matt. 7:12]
Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. [Confucius XII,2]
In five ways should a clansman minister to his friends and familiars as the northern quarter:--by generosity, courtesy and benevolence, by treating them as he treats himself, and by being as good as his word. [Buddha, from the Sigalovada Suttanta (Teaching of the Compassionate Buddha, p. 110)]
Everybody fears being struck by a rod.
Everybody fears death.
Therefore, knowing this, feeling for others as for yourself,
Do not kill others or cause others to kill. [Dhammapada 10:1]

Most forms of goodness are described by this simple rule. As I noted earlier, it encompasses six of the Biblical Ten Commandments. The way it is phrased encourages you to put yourself in the place of others, which engenders a sympathy which helps in all of your dealings with others. Furthermore, it benefits the doer by the common spiritual principle, "What goes around, comes around." When you treat others well, it benefits not only the other, but the goodness returns to you.

2. Recognize and respect differences of taste, custom, and belief that do not affect you directly.

And if thy Lord willed, all who are in the earth would have believed together. Wouldst thou compel men until they are believers? [Koran 10:100]
Heaven's creatures abound,
   but each returns to its roots,
     which is called "stillness."
This is termed "renewal of fate."
Renewal of fate is perpetual--
To know the perpetual is to be enlightened;
Not to know the perpetual is to be reckless--
   recklessness breeds evil.
To know the perpetual is to be tolerant. [Tao Te Ching 60 (16)]
Precisely because I am unconventional,
   I can be great;
If I were conventional,
   I would long since have become a trifle. [Tao Te Ching 32 (67)]
At the present juncture in history, commitment to all humankind is the highest commitment of which we are capable; it transcends the narrow allegiances of church, state, party, class, or race in moving toward a wider vision of human potentiality. [Humanist Manifest II, closing]

Much harm is done by well-meaning people following their interpretation of the golden rule and trying to force their views and manners onto others, even against the others' wills. In particular, much suffering is caused by people pushing their religious views onto others.

3. Do not blame others before you have seen to your own faults. The most effective form of moral teaching is personal example.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. [Matt. 7:3-5]
How much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only what he does himself, that it may be just and pure. As Agathon says, 'Look not around at the depraved morals of others, but run straight along your course without straying from it.' [Marcus Aurelius 4:18]
Oh ye who believe! Ye have charge of your own souls. He who erreth cannot injure you if ye are rightly guided. [Koran 5:105]
The fault of others is easily perceived, but that of one's self is difficult to perceive; a man winnows his neighbor's faults like chaff, but his own fault he hides, as a cheat hides an unlucky cast of the die. . . . Let a wise man blow off the impurities of himself, as a smith blows off the impurities of silver, one by one, little by little, and from moment to moment. [from Buddha's Sutta Pitaka 18]
That man's a fool who keeps a constant watch
Over my thoughts, and quite neglects his own. [Theognis, "Elegies", 439-40]

Morality begins with oneself. The bad morals of other people have an effect on us, and thus it is natural to want to correct them. It is even possible to justify such attempts at correction by claiming we are doing the world a favor. However, changing another person is very difficult and usually results in failure. Instead of fixing anything, you usually end up irritating the person you are trying to fix and becoming more angry and resentful yourself.

You have more hope of correcting your own morals. And by observing how hard it is to correct yourself, you can get an idea of how much harder it must be to correct someone else. What's more, people learn most of their moral behavior by observing the actions of others. By doing good deeds yourself, you are helping to correct others.

4. Know thyself.

Through not observing the thoughts of another a man is seldom unhappy; but he who does not observe the movements of his own mind must of necessity be unhappy. [Marcus Aurelius 2:8]
Understanding others is knowledge,
Understanding oneself is enlightenment;
Conquering others is power,
Conquering oneself is strength. [Tao Te Ching 77 (33)]

Self-knowledge is a requirement for the previous commandment. One cannot improve one's morals if one does not know what one's morals and behaviors are.

5. Seek good companions.

And if thou seest a man of understanding, get thee betimes unto him, and let thy foot wear the steps of his door. [Ecclesiasticus 6:36]
To choose the company of holy ones,
To live with them, is a holy state.
By not seeking out unwholesome company,
One maintains a state of happiness.
   Therefore, like the moon
Following its ordained course,
Let each one follow a good person,
Wise, steadfast, loyal, and holy. [Dhammapada 15:10-11]
He who walks in the company of fools suffers a long way; company with fools, as with an enemy, is always painful; company with the wise is happiness, like meeting with kinsfolk. [from Buddha's Sutta Pitaka 15]
[T]he lonely path is not nice; it never fails to find something that could kill a man. [Biebuyck, The Mwindo Epic, p. 79]

This commandment gives a relatively easy, pleasant, and effective method for improving one's moral direction. One tends to follow the behaviors of people one associates with, so associating with good people makes oneself a better person.

One might worry that the good people will be negatively influenced by the others hanging around them. However, the good people will have other good people for role models, so they should not be unduly influenced by the worse people who are looking to them.

6. Find a faith that is stronger than fear and allows comfort with uncertainty. Be actively grateful and enjoy life.

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father.' [Romans 8:15]
The wandering Arabs say: We believe. Say unto them, O Muhammad: Ye believe not, but rather say 'We submit,' for the faith hath not yet entered into your hearts. Yet, if ye obey Allah and His messenger, He will not withhold from you aught of the reward of your deeds. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. [Koran 49:14]
They know the favour of Allah and then deny it. Most of them are ingrates. [Koran 16:83]
Calamity and happiness in all cases are men's own seeking. This is illustrated by what is said in the Book of Poetry--
   'Be always studious to be in harmony with the ordinances of God,
   So you will certainly get for yourself much happiness;'
and by the passage of the Tai Chiah-- 'When Heaven sends down calamities, it is still possible to escape from them; when we occasion the calamities ourselves, it is not possible any longer to live.' [Mencius 2.i.IV.5-6]
For to be vexed at anything that happens is a separation of ourselves from nature. [Marcus Aurelius 2:16]
To be looking elsewhere for miracles is to me a sure sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous. [Maslow, Farther Reaches of Human Nature, p. 333]

One of the main motives of immoral behavior is fear, particularly in the form of economic, social, or physical insecurity. Fear cannot always be cured by removing the source of the fear. One cure for fear is faith, but not a faith that is simply an unwarranted belief. If you believe that the money will come from somewhere, or that your cancer will be cured, or that your acquaintance or family member will stop abusing you, your beliefs have a good chance of not coming to pass, and you will have to face disillusionment on top of your other problems. The sort of faith which is effective against fear is the belief that you will somehow be okay no matter what happens.

That sort of faith is not easy to cultivate. Most people would rather have certainty, even if its wrong. One practice that can help is to search for things to be grateful for. Even when terrible things are happening, there are things to be glad for, too. Searching these out can improve one's state of mind. And when people are less miserable, they are less likely to make things miserable for others.

7. Get real. Do not misrepresent reality to yourself or others.

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. [Exodus 20:16]
All the earth calleth upon the truth, and the heaven blesseth it: all works shake and tremble at it, and with it is no unrighteous thing. [1 Esdras 4:36]
Allah created the heavens and the earth with truth. Lo! therein is indeed a portent for believers. [Koran 29:44]
The great man resides in substance,
   not in attenuation.
He resides in fruitful reality,
   not in blossomy ornament. [Tao Te Ching 1 (38)]

The ninth of the Ten Commandments is worth keeping, but it needs to be extended to apply to oneself as well as to others. You cannot tell the truth to others if you do not recognize it yourself.

8. Strive regularly to improve your morals with study and active practice. Do not pretend this is easy, but remember that doing so will generally benefit you even more than those around you.

      Badness can be caught
In great abundance, easily; the road
To her is level, and she lives near by.
But Good is harder, for the gods have placed
In front of her much sweat; the road is steep
And long and rocky at the first, but when
You reach the top, she is not hard to find. [Hesiod, "Works and Days", lines 285-292]
To have faults and to be making no effort to amend them is to have faults indeed! [Confucius XV, 29]
No longer talk about the kind of man a good man ought to be, but be one. [Marcus Aurelius 10:16]
And when a surah is revealed which saith: Believe in Allah and strive along with His messenger, the men of wealth among them still ask leave of thee and say: Suffer us to be with those who sit at home. They are content that they should be with the useless and their hearts are sealed, so that they apprehend not. But the messenger and those who believe with him strive with their wealth and their lives. Such are they for whom are the good things. Such are they who are the successful. [Koran 9:86-88]
Unwholesome action, hurting self, comes easily.
Wholesome action, healing self, takes effort. [Dhammapada 12:7]

Good morals do not come, as some people seem to think, from hanging a list on the wall. They must be practiced, and they must be practiced regularly. Study of morals is also important both to improve one's moral reasoning and to gain perspective and background necessary for making moral decisions. Good morals do not come easily, and pretending they do makes it less likely that one will put in the effort to correct one's own transgressions or to forgive the transgressions of others.

However, it needs to be stressed that the work is worth it. Kindness towards others tends to make others act kindly towards you. Tolerance of others, at the very least, avoids the cultivation of enmity. Correcting your own faults gives others an example to follow. Good companionship and gratitude are their own reward. In short, following these moral principles will improve your own life as well as the lives of those around you.

9. Recognize that no set of rules, including these, can be universal and infallible. Be guided not by these literal words, but by the spirit behind them.

Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. [2 Corinthians 3:6]
I have spoken, but in vain; for what can words tell
Of things that have no yesterday, tomorrow, or today? [Seng Ts'an (Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, p. 230)]
The reason why I hate the holding to one point is the injury it does to the way of right principle. It takes up one point and disregards a hundred others. [Mencius 7.i.XXVI.1-4]
It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them. [Kalama Sutta, 4]

With little effort, one can find special-case exceptions to all of the above rules. I considered trying to phrase them to minimize such expections, but the wording quickly became awkward to the point of obscuring the basic principle. Besides, one commandment was necessary to emphasize, especially to those who need explicit laws to live by, that not everything that is right is encompassed by laws. It is an obvious extension to add that laws themselves are not perfect.

Some further comments:

There are a few ethical principles which I debated adding separate commandments for, but decided instead that they were already included. The first of these is forgiveness. Forgiveness of others is important to avoid the continuation of hostilities. However, to the extent one wants to be forgiven, this is included in my first commandment. In fact, considering the other person's point of view is probably the best way to cultivate a forgiving state of mind. Forgiving oneself is also important, though, and it perhaps deserves a commandment of its own.

Humility is another principle important for moral behavior. However, I could not think of any way to express humility as a commandment. ("Be humble" seems too indefinite to be useful.) Besides, humility is an ingredient of all these commandments, especially numbers 3, 6, and 8. I feel that is enough.

I almost added a commandment saying, "Care for the environment." Such a rule is certainly necessary, since environmental degradation is lowering quality of life on a global scale. (Yes, there are technological improvements raising quality of life, too, but that is a separate issue.) This idea is not common in religious teachings, but that is likely because the problem was not prevalent until recently. The reason I did not add it is because it is also an extension of the Golden Rule. Adding it may increase awareness that the Golden Rule extends to things that affect others indirectly, but I am not convinced that that justifies adding a commandment.

There is some evidence that being in a hurry is one of the major factors which prevents people from helping others. I considered adding a commandment saying something like "slow down," but I decided there is not enough evidence to include it. In particular, the world's spiritual literature does not seem to make a big point of stressing such a principle.

Back to Mark Isaak's home page