The Eleventh Commandment

 

THE ELEVENTH COMMANDMENT

I ‘d had the idea of this essay before the Aurora, Colorado, shooting. But that shooting makes it seem even more immediately necessary for someone to float the idea, regardless of his or her personal moral stature. I imagine that a lot of people act on the principle intuitively, but perhaps it should be stated as clearly and plainly and absolutely as possible.

The effort is to enunciate a principle that all can agree on in good faith, whether they are followers of a distinct creed or complete nonbelievers.

The principle is this: No matter what your spiritual convictions—whether you associate yourself with an organized religious group, whether you are individually religious but not keen on institutionalized creeds, whether you are agnostic, or whether you are atheist—you agree that no belief, none whatsoever, justifies killing or even injuring another human, or destroying anything beautiful (as a man, thinking he was Jesus, once took a sledgehammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta). If you think God or the nature of existence is commanding you to kill or destroy, you are wrong. Just flat wrong.

That’s it. No matter what you fear or feel, your convictions do not justify damage to another human or to the beautiful.

There are a number of facile arguments people use to get around the principle, and those arguments should be addressed.

By “beautiful” I do not mean merely what you yourself argue is beautiful. I mean what a great many people consider beautiful. I am not much moved by Bach, though many lovers of music are (and many physicists and mathematicians especially. Whether this is a flaw in my own appreciation or not, I have no right to attack his music. (Actually, I never would attack it, since I mildly enjoy it, am just not transported by it, except to memories of Vacation Bible School in Southern Baptist Churches. But even if I were to develop a conviction that I was a fated actor and that Bach was the devil, I would have no right to attack it. That’s my point.) With regard to the concept of “the beautiful,” some might argue that the blown-apart body of a perceived enemy is “beautiful,” but that’s pretty obviously self-serving, and is not what I’m talking about at all.

And by damage, I do not mean putative or theoretical or syntactical damage. Argue as meanly as you wish to, and live with how you are seen as a result. Words don’t count, no matter how vicious they are. (I’m speaking of strictly of physical damage. Of course words can do terrible damage, and I’m not excusing abusive or dangerous or misleading speech. I’m just saying that it’s impossible to devise an absolute code of conduct for argument which will not eventually prove to be as harmful as the damage done by the nasty words themselves. This is why, in my opinion, the writers of the Constitution of the United States described free speech as a right, and did not try to circumscribe that right with law. We must each, on our own responsibility, decide what sort of language we will allow ourselves.)

There are also plenty of situations in which it might be argued that this principle does not hold. I will not discuss war, in which the whole point is the slaughtering of other humans and the destruction of what they hold dear. I will not discuss it, in spite of my own horror at war, because I don’t want the issue to be muddied with sophistical debate., the pretense that the existence of war implies that how we treat our fellows does not matter. I will not discuss the eating of meat, although I feel strongly that those humans who are capable of empathy for other humans are much more likely to feel empathy for other creatures, and that to damage any living creature or the Earth itself is wrong. I eat meat myself. I’m not saying I ought to. I’m just describing my own actual behavior.

It’s my sense that if we could agree, perhaps just in civilian life, and just with regard to humans, that violent and damaging behavior is never permissible, we would do ourselves a great deal of good.

We could also help soothe the fury-ravaged minds among us if we would simply adopt this practice, adopt it on the level of truth and commandment.

No exceptions.

It is not permissible to argue that other humans are trying to infringe on your rights or destroy your government and that therefore you must take pre-emptive action, that you must defend yourself by killing others.

No. We must agree that such arguments are not sane.

If you are under direct and lethal physical threat from another, you may of course defend yourself as necessary, and keep your honor.  I’m not talking about a law.  I’m talking about a species-wide way of looking at things.  Only by accepting such refusal to cause harm as a norm of behavior will we survive.

That’s the key. I call it a commandment, by the way, only by analogy with the Ten Commandments. Actually the idea has no force unless we accept it as individuals. It isn’t really a commandment, then, but in the word I have already been using, a principle.

We must refuse to engage in supersophistical theoretical dilemmas, from pretending that the imagined dilemmas of philosophy can excuse the actual behavior of individuals. The Joker is not acceptable. The fact that he thinks he is exemplifying philosophy with his murders is not proof that our moral underpinnings are false, but proof that he is wrong.

For a long time, in our culture, some of our artists and writers and philosophers have allowed themselves to imagine the horrible as defensible, under the illusion that they are exploring the profound paradox of morality.

It is true that artists and writers and philosophers (and preachers) cannot and should not be barred from an open look at horrible facts.

But really that excuse applies to very few works. Are we really arguing that our best-selling fiction, every single book of it, is conducting a profound investigation into the depths of human nature? Isn’t it obvious that the violence in our movies and stories and television is there almost entirely for entertainment value, that it vaunts itself as serious stuff merely as an excuse?

Dexter is not just like us. He’s wrong.

So the high school chemistry teacher on Breaking Bad shows what terrible deeds any of us are capable of. So? Is that the whole of the effect we receive? Are we not actually identifying with him, enjoying the frisson?

Our “detective stories” have become bloodier and bloodier. The detective stories I read, the Reacher novels and the Prey novels among them (I like the Letter from the Roman Alphabet Is X books a lot, too) have become hardly more than flimsily justified explosions of gunplay, the reader enjoying a momentary release of apparently justified blood-lust: These hard men are only being so murderous because we need them to, because there are terrible people out there, and those terrible people deserve killing. That excuse is endemic.

I love the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novels, a sort of fiction it’s no longer possible to find. I need to read what I used to call “mysteries.” (They’ve all turned into gunfests now.) It may be a poor excuse, but I would not read the bloodier stuff if there were any sufficiently intelligent writing of another sort.

Surely it’s obvious that in a story an author can arrange cause and effect any way he or she wishes to, and thereby appear to “prove” his or her case? Oh the hero is so violent because he or she is “haunted.” Doesn’t matter by what. Drink or the murder of someone beloved or war. Oh, well, then, that’s okay.

The question is not how things go in stories, but how we want them to go in life.

“Red Mist” has become such a joke that the villain’s son in Kick-Ass adopts it for a name when he pretends to be a super-hero. It seems to me many think to prove how much sturdier their perceptions of reality are, how tough they are, by laughing about the corrupt and the horrible. I keep coming back to our artists and writers and philosophers, who seem to be outdoing each other in how far they will go, how much more and how much nastier slaughter they can portray.

Sort of like an aesthetic arms race, and with the same inevitable spiral to unbearable excess and destruction as its ultimate result.

Who do you think you’re proving things to? Do you not know who you are and what you stand for? Do you really think, somewhere, on some level, that by creating such violent characters and giving them excuses, you are partaking of the “toughness” you portray? Do you think we readers imagine you as the hero?

Really?

There is a famous Batman story in which a “good” guy does one totally evil thing, assassinates Batman with a long-distance rifle, and then goes back to live his “good” life. The point, I think, is that our labels, “good” and “bad,” are arbitrary. (And that the author is a deep thinker?)

In actual life, however, there are no such characters. The kind of being who can commit such murder is not the kind who can otherwise live an entirely blameless life. It will not happen. The assumption is specious, and can occur only within the bounds of a narrative.

It has become common to put on philosophical airs, to imply that you are a serious and unconventional thinker by embracing wholesale brutality. It has become fashionable. As with happens with most philosophy, the attitude has percolated gradually through the awarenesses of even those among us who are least capable of or least fit for philosophy.

Yes, morality is provisional. Nothing in nature demands it. That does not make it a less useful way of looking at things. It is a provision we make in order to have civilization, in order to benefit each other.

Since morality is provisional, we must be very careful what we represent to ourselves as acceptable behavior. We say what goes into it and what does not.

My suggestion is that as many of us as are capable adopt what I am referring to (though I am unlikely to be its initiator, am merely attempting to be one of its conduits) as the eleventh commandment.

It isn’t covered by the already existing commandment not to kill. That has gotten tangled in our concepts of war, and everyone makes far too many exceptions to it in their personal behavior. It’s also identified very strongly with a single type of religious behavior, which makes it very difficult for agnostics or atheists to accept. They may not reject the idea, but they do reject the source, and so the idea comes across as truism, preachiness, cliche. It’s implied that you must accept the system that created the commandment if you accept the tenet.

What I’m proposing is a way to limit the damage done by murderous beliefs, whether philosophical or the result of self-absorbtion (not that philosophers are immune to self-absorption). We must say, Such behaviors are not acceptable. Not for ourselves, not for others. For individuals, the “commandment” is a way for a mind to test the quality of its belief and thought. If the belief and thought urge to killing or damage, they are wrong. It’s that simple. No conviction, no matter how intense, is justified if it urges damage to another human or to the beautiful.

The “eleventh commandment” doesn’t address thorny questions like what level of force the police may use in what situations. In such matters, we are dependent on our laws, on the justice of our system. But most of us are not police officers, and do not want to be. Why pretend that our moral behavior depends on an impossible general answer to such specialized questions?

No one is trying to regulate thought or art. I’m just suggesting an individual standard that we may each use to judge our own notions. A standard that’s absolute, but absolutely voluntary.

No matter how angry you are, how frustrated, how passionate, or how convinced you are that you are in the right, If you kill or injure other humans, or attack the beautiful, you are, quite simply, wrong.

 

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