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.
- 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. ]
- 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.)
- 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.]
- 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.]
- 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.]
- 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.