Perhaps God engraved the Ten Commandments with his finger on stone tablets because he knew they would become the touchstone of morality in the western world. (Come to think of it, is that where the word touchstone comes from?) Even Christopher Hitchens, no fan of the biblical ten, connected to them when he produced his own ten.
Sean Carroll’s book, The Big Picture, is an exposition of what he calls poetic naturalism. He has this to say about the Ten Commandments (page 420).
A good poetic naturalist will resist the temptation to hand out commandments. “Give someone a fish,” the saying goes, “and you feed them fish for a day. Teach them to fish, and you feed them for a lifetime.” When it comes to how to lead our lives, poetic naturalism has no fish to give us. It doesn’t even really teach us how to fish. It’s more like poetic naturalism helps us figure out that there are things called “fish,” and perhaps investigate the various possible ways to go about catching them, if that were something that we were inclined to do. It’s up to us what strategy we want to take, and what to do with our fish once we’ve caught them.
It makes sense, then, to put aside the concept of “commandments” and instead propose Ten Considerations…
Here are his Ten Considerations with excerpts from his few paragraphs about each.
Life isn’t forever.
Life ends, and that’s part of what makes it special. …Our lives are not dress rehearsals in which we plan and are tested for in anticipation of the real show to come. This is it, the only performance we’re going to get to give, and it is what we make of it.
Desire is built into life.
But [our desires] don’t enslave us; we are reflective and self-aware, with the ability to shape what we care about.
What matters is what matters to people.
The universe doesn’t care about us, but we care about the universe. …We take the world and attach value to it, an achievement of which we can be justly proud.
We can always do better.
It may seem strange to claim the existence of moral progress when there isn’t even an objective standard of morality, but that’s exactly what we find in human history. Progress comes…from being more honest and rigorous with ourselves…by sifting through our biases and being open to new ideas…
It pays to listen.
…we might be able to learn something from our compatriots in the ongoing creation of meaning.
There is no natural way to be.
…nature doesn’t guide us or lay down rules… Nature is kind of a mess. We can be inspired by it, and occasionally horrified by it, but nature simply is. …We have inclinations and desires, partly born of our innate dispositions, but we also have the opportunity to change…
It takes all kinds.
Poetic naturalism doesn’t provide much comfort for those who take joy in telling other people the proper way to live their lives. It allows for pluralism in purpose and meaning, a rich ecosystem of virtues and lives well lived.
The universe is in our hands.
We won’t be able to stave off the heat death of the universe, but we can alter our bodies, transform our planet, and someday spread life through the galaxy. It’s up to us to make wise choices and shape the world to be a better place.
We can do better than happiness.
Think of Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela. Or Michelangelo, Beethoven, Virginia Woolf. Is “happy” the first word that comes to mind when you set out to describe them? They may have been–and surely were, from time to time–but it’s not their defining characteristic.
Reality guides us.
Illusions can be pleasant, but the rewards of truth are enormously greater.