by Edgar Lores
In the blogosphere, there has been much discussion about religion and ethics. These observations have been made:
- Filipinos observe a variety of religions, with Roman Catholics (81%) being in the majority followed by Protestants (6%) and Muslims (5%).
- Despite the religiosity of the Filipino, with 92% professing belief in a higher power, there is widespread unethical behavior. The Philippines has a ranking of 129 in the 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International.
- Ethical behavior may not necessarily arise from religiosity but from spirituality.
- Spirituality may be independent of organized religion.
In the face of conflicts in religious beliefs and of improper conduct between and among believers and non-believers, there is a need to arrive at a common understanding of what constitutes the Good. The Dalai Lama has called for the creation of a secular code of ethics.
- "All the world's major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether."
In response to this call, people have pointed out that there are existing non-religious codes of ethics, such as:
- The Golden Rule
- The Rotary Four-Way Test
- Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence
It must be admitted, however, that none are comprehensive.
Several personalities - including Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, A.C. Grayling, Penn Jilette and Ted Kaczynski - have advanced alternatives to the Ten Commandments. The first four are known critics of religion and are (or were) atheists, and the fourth is an illusionist as well. Surprisingly, the fifth is the American murderer known as the "Unabomber".
All of these alternative versions are worthy of study. The principle objection to these, in the eyes of this author, is that they do not incorporate the principles articulated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). They propose ethical norms from a purely individual point of view. For much of political history and theory, it has been argued and accepted that the State is essentially amoral. The UDHR rejects this view and advances the concept that the broader behavior of the State vis-à-vis its citizens should be brought under the umbrella of ethics.
Written in 1947 and adopted in 1948, the UDHR is man's greatest cooperative ethical achievement to date. It is a distillation of mankind's political wisdom in all of recorded history. It is infused not only with tenets of the Abrahamic faiths but also those of Confucianism. Consisting of a preface and 30 articles, it is a luminous document, and foundational in its scope, clarity and prescience.
It is not within the purview of this essay, but the question should also be asked: If the State must act ethically towards its citizens, should it not also act ethically towards other States?
This essay is an attempt at a draft for a comprehensive secular code of ethics. Before listing the commandments of the code and discussing them, there is one qualification and seven considerations to make.
- The qualification is that the author is a layman. He is neither a philosopher nor an ethicist. He is an ordinary person with perhaps a slightly above-average, but not necessarily acute, sense of the failings of men and of himself.
The seven considerations are:
- The code is more a synthesis rather than an original work. It is a fusion and a reinterpretation of the Abrahamic tradition, Confucianism, and the Eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
- The code is grounded on humanism, on the belief that man is perfectible - if he follows the reasons of the heart and of the mind. The reasons for its adoption would be the Faith that the good in humanity will prevail, and the Hope that it will. Or the Hope that the good will prevail, and the Faith that it will.
- The code is comprised of seven normative commandments, and their corollaries, which are mostly self-enforcing. The corollaries embrace legal constructs and principles only to the extent that they conform to the commandments and are consistent with the UDHR.
- The ultimate goal of the code is to develop a healthy conscience. While ethical violations may incur legal consequences, the highest penalty that is hoped to be realized is that of a guilty conscience. The intention is to teach, not to frighten.
- The code seeks to answer the question of the faithless and of the faithful who are losing faith: "What should we teach our children?"
- If generally accepted, the code can only take root through education by parents, by schools and by society at large. Education is not only by talk but by practice, not only by thought but by deed. The code can be formalized as a teaching tool in Civics and Ethics classes at the primary or secondary levels in both sectarian and non-sectarian schools.
- Implicit in the code and in its observance are the attitudes of learning and respect. These are needed to constantly re-evaluate the code as it is used to clarify and resolve ethical dilemmas. As envisioned, the commandments are absolute but must be applied relatively.
The Seven Commandments of Secular Ethics
1. Do no harm.
1.1. This shall include not only harm to fellow human beings but to all living things and to the planet as a whole.
1.2. Where conflict arises, the primacy of the individual human being shall prevail.
2. Observe the rights and freedoms of every individual.
2.1. These are established in (a) the UDHR and (b) the Constitution of your country.
2.2. Where conflict arises, the UDHR shall prevail over the Constitution.
3. Observe the duties and obligations of every individual.
3.1. These are established in (a) the UDHR, (b) the Constitution of your country, and (c) the rules of your associations.
3.2. Where conflict arises, preceding items in 3.1 shall prevail over succeeding items.
4. Do not lie.
4.1. Seek and know the truth.
4.2. Speak only what is both true and helpful.
5. Do not steal.
6. Observe proper sexual and marital conduct.
6.1. These are established by (a) the UDHR, (b) the laws of your country, (c) your conscience and (d) your religion.
6.2. Where conflict arises, preceding items in 6.1 shall prevail over succeeding items.
6.3. Where the laws of the State, regarding sexual conduct only, conflict with those of Conscience, the latter shall prevail over the former.
7. Honor yourself.
7.1. Avoid substance abuse.
7.2. Avoid overindulgence.
7.3. Be mindful.
First Commandment - Do No Harm
This commandment is derived from the Hippocratic Oath and the Eastern religions. It is the equivalent of the sixth Biblical commandment of "Thou shalt not kill".
The virtues of this commandment are peace, humaneness, love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness and conservation.
Strangely, the Biblical injunction is limited to the extreme act of killing. It does not encompass the sense of compassion and environmentalism invoked by the Eastern religions which, as indicated in corollary 1.1, cautions against causing hurt or injury not only to human beings but also to all living things and to the planet itself.
From the viewpoint of Eastern religions, man is not regarded as a sinner by nature and is seen to be perfectible. In contrast, Christianity regards man as endowed with Original Sin and is seen to be in need of salvation. In the Christian cosmology, death is perceived as the gateway to the final and eternal destinations of heaven or hell. In Eastern thought, death is transition, and perfection can be attained within a lifetime albeit after many lives.
Also in the Christian view, man has dominion over the earth in the same manner that God has dominion over the Universe. In the Eastern view, man is indivisible from nature and must live in balance and harmony with it.
The negative form of the Golden Rule - or the Silver rule of "Do not do unto others what you do not wish to be done unto you" - may be subsumed under this commandment. The Golden Rule is not universally accepted because of "differences in values and interests", such as sadomasochism as noted by George Bernard Shaw.
The inclusion of a conflict-resolution rule in corollary 1.2 is necessary. Such a rule is appended to most of the other commandments. It specifies which construct has primacy in the event of conflict. These two examples illustrate this principle of primacy:
- Man has stewardship over the earth; animals, plants and minerals may be used in the service of his survival.
- Nations must not prosecute internal or external wars because they are harmful to individuals.
The UDHR does not explicitly contain this commandment, but there are Articles that implicitly embody it such as those against slavery (Article 4) and torture (Article 5).
With respect to killing, there are many, many types that may be classified into four categories.
- There are types that are generally sanctioned by the State and by law, and two of these are killing in defense of the State and in the defense of Self.
- There are types that are countenanced by some States, but not all States, and are deeply controversial. These include capital punishment, mercy killing, abortion and withdrawal of life support from the critically ill.
- Still, there are others accepted by certain cultures, such as honor killing, suicide attacks, self-immolation and revenge killing. In older and not-so-old cultures, there were human sacrifices, cannibalism, seppuku, suttee (or sati), female infanticide and geronticide (aged people).
- The killing of animals for sport is also culturally accepted as in bullfights, cockfights, dogfights and trophy hunting. Certain species are culled to balance nature.
The first category may be ethically justifiable as long as they are defensive in nature. It is hard to develop a hard-and-fast rule for the second category, and judgement may be arrived at on a case-to-case basis. The last two categories can be said to be ethically irresponsible with the possible exception of self-immolation, seppuku and culling.
Three ethical guidelines to observe are:
- One must not kill for a cause or idea, but one can die for a cause. The giving of one's life is the highest morality known to man. Giving in this sense can refer to death or devotion.
- No life is owned by another.
- The fruits of the earth should primarily be used for the basic needs of men in food, clothing and shelter; man should not use more than he needs. He must conserve natural resources for future generations.
Second Commandment - Human Rights and Freedoms
This commandment does not enumerate what are the human rights and freedoms. These are already established in the UDHR which has been ratified and accepted by all member nations, and which they are obligated to respect. A secondary source is the Constitution of individual nations.
The virtues of this commandment are righteousness, prudence and justice.
A prerequisite of this commandment is knowledge and hopefully its application, which is wisdom. One must know one's rights and freedoms in order to enjoy them and to protect them.
The Constitution of the Philippines echoes and expands the UDHR in two articles.
- Article II - Declaration of Principles and State Policies
- Article III - Bill of Rights. Note that not all nations have Bill of Rights.
With respect to secularism and this proposed code, the freedom of religion also embraces the freedom from religion.
It is interesting to note that the freedom of opinion and expression as stated in Article 19 contains the clause "regardless of frontiers." Without doubt, the frontiers referred to here are State borders, but it is nice to imagine that the framers had peered into the future and glimpsed of a time when a concerned Filipino, sitting half a world away, could record his thoughts and have them wafted across frontier-less cyberspace into the heart of the nation. As in this very essay.
Article 19 gives us the right to criticize, as citizens of the world, the policies of any state, even one that suppresses these very freedoms.
Corollary 2.2 explicitly gives the UDHR primacy over a country's Constitution, although Article 30 already does this.
Third Commandment - Human Duties and Obligations
If the Second Commandment mainly embodies the rules the State must observe towards its citizens, this commandment embodies the rules that a man must observe towards the State and towards his fellowmen. Therefore, like the Second Commandment, it requires knowledge of these rules.
The virtues of this commandment are reciprocity, mutual benefit, loyalty and patriotism.
A duty is an act a man must do, and an obligation is an act a man has been asked to do and must fulfill. To illustrate:
- Voting is a citizen's duty.
- Compulsory voting is an obligation.
This commandment covers the duties and obligations of man in two areas:
- The first area is his participation as a citizen in the governments of the world, his country and his local community.
- The second area is his participation as a member of non-governmental constructs, such as family, company or an associate of organizations, including a church.
Within the first area:
- Of the 30 articles in the UDHR, only Article 29 touches on each man's obligations to his community and his need to respect the rights and freedoms of others.
- The duties and obligations of a citizen as outlined in the Constitution of his country may touch on the duty of parents, of suffrage and of public office.
- The duties and obligations of government officials in each branch of government may also be outlined in the Constitution of the country.
- Note that the preamble of the US Constitution declares as one of its aims the promotion of the "general Welfare". And the Philippine Constitution expressedly declares that the "prime duty of government is to serve and protect the people." Are our officials performing their duties and meeting their obligations?
Within the second area:
- The commandment does not lay down the duties and obligations associated with familial roles such as father, mother, spouse and child. The Ten Commandments itself only mentions the role of children to parents in the Fifth Commandment of "Honor thy father and thy mother". It is unnecessary to include this precept in the secular code inasmuch as the concept of honor or respect is implicit in its entirety.
- In familial interrelationships, there are many ethical issues, like financial obligations and responsibilities, fidelity, affection, health care, parenting practices, child care, child education, child labor, and aged parents care.
- In non-familial organizations, a hierarchy of ranks and levels are established and the duties and obligations of each rank and level are specified either formally - for example, in an organization's charter, a company's policy and job descriptions - or informally by common agreement.
- In both familial and non-familial duties and obligations which, for the most part, a man has freely taken on, an attitude of delight, rather than one of sombre observance, will immeasurably lift the heart.
Corollary 3.2 explicitly states the rules of precedence in conflict-resolution.
Fourth Commandment - Do Not Lie
This commandment is almost a universal ethical imperative in all religions. It is the equivalent of the ninth Biblical commandment of "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor".
The virtues of this commandment are courage, honesty, integrity, humility, trustworthiness, learning, knowledge and kindness.
From the individual view, this commandment may be the hardest to follow. We trespass it not only on a daily basis, but several times a day. It is estimated that we lie within 3 minutes of meeting a stranger. We lie not only to others but to ourselves often in the forms of delusion and denial. And lying may be an act of commission or omission.
The positive form of this norm can be seen in corollary 4.1, which is to "Seek and know the truth". To avoid telling a lie, one must know the truth or that whereof one speaks. Truth is the diametrical opposite of falsehood. A simple definition of truth is that it is verified knowledge, or that which conforms to reality.
Thus stated, this commandment loses its humdrum interpretation of simply not uttering falsehoods. It becomes an impetus to knowing, and the ramifications are enormous.
- It is said that the first realization of knowledge is the state of our ignorance.
- The basic stance of ignorance is often times arrogance when it should be humility and wonder at the mystery of life. Ignorance is the bliss of Night; knowledge the bliss of Morn.
- To overcome ignorance in order not to lie, man must acquire knowledge and learn. Learning leads to the wisdom of truth and perchance to the magic of beauty.
- In avoiding lies and seeking knowledge, man transforms his life into a voyage of unending discovery.
- Much of the word is held in the thrall of superstition, with the poor majority scrabbling for survival and the rich minority scrabbling for an ease which cannot be found.
- And yet in the past century, since Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the frontiers of knowledge have been pushed forward to afford us greater glimpses into our nature as human beings and into the nature of the universe. There have been advances in the study of the brain (neuroplasticity) and of consciousness (noetics), and we have produced more accurate maps of the unimaginably large (astronomy) and the unimaginably small (quantum physics). We live in exciting times if only we took the trouble - or rather the opportunity - to learn.
Corollary 4.2 derives from Buddhism and the Four-Way Test. It adds the criteria of intention and beneficence to telling the truth. In effect, it incorporates the primacy of the First Commandment. The intention must be one of goodwill. And the beneficence to be considered is both the effect on the teller and the recipient(s).
This brings us to the issues of telling white lies or gray lies. Are white lies permissible? If the wife asks, "Do I look fat in this dress?" and she does, should one tell the truth? In applying corollary 4.2, the heart must consider the intention or goal of marital accord, and the mind the beneficence of kindness. Your kindness to your wife gives her esteem and proof of your continuing affection; and, in turn, your wife's kindness to you is not to commit murder, which is in violation of the First Commandment.
Gray lies are not permissible. They are distortions of truth, previously referred to as propaganda and now as "spin". These are contained in the daily output of columnists in print media and of trolls in social media. They are unethical in their intention to manipulate people by shading facts in the more than fifty shades of gray.
The UDHR does not explicitly include this ethical imperative.
Fifth Commandment - Do Not Steal
Like the Fourth Commandment, this commandment is almost a universal ethical imperative in all religions. It is the equivalent of the eighth Biblical commandment of "Thou shalt not steal".
The virtues of this commandment are integrity, charity, generosity and sharing.
This commandment and the preceding one are perhaps the most important precepts that should be emphasized in the training of the young. If these can be fully instilled in the minds of children, they will go a long way to diminishing the problem of corruption in the citizen and in the government.
There are two often-cited exceptions to the immorality of stealing:
- In Islam, a man may steal food if he is hungry. The onus is on the community to exercise and promote social justice in such a way that no man goes hungry.
- In the tale of Robin Hood, a man may steal from the rich to give to the poor.
The lesson to take away, as with lying and kindness, is not that stealing is allowed or can be good, rather it is that ethics is not all "Do Not's". It is not just avoiding doing bad deeds but, more so, doing good deeds. And the virtues of generosity and sharing brighten our lives immeasurably, as highlighted in the celebrations of gift-giving in all religions and cultures, such as Christmas, Chanukah, Mawlid-al-Nabi, Lunar New Year and Diwali.
Like the Fourth Commandment, the UDHR does not explicitly include this ethical imperative.
Sixth Commandment - Sexual and Marital Conduct
This is by far the longest of the commandments which may not be surprising. Sex is a major preoccupation of man. One study has estimated than men think of sex up to 388 times a day and women 140 times. And it is mostly in this area, rather than in the preceding commandments, that religions seem to want to control human behavior. The seventh Biblical commandment is not all-encompassing and merely states, "Thou shalt not commit adultery".
The virtues of this commandment are continence and tolerance. More than these are their fruit, which is pure and simple delight.
The UDHR has only one provision concerning marriage and family. It is silent on sexual conduct. There are three sub-articles in Article 16:
- (1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
- (2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
- (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
With respect to the on-going controversy surrounding same-sex marriage, the framers may not have anticipated this issue, but the first and second sub-articles can be interpreted to mean that such arrangements are not disallowed. However, the third sub-article qualifies that the concept of family is subject to the laws of the State. A number of countries have begun to allow same-sex marriages, and may be said to be erring on the side of liberality.
In corollary 6.2, the State has dominion over Conscience and Religion in matters of marital arrangements. However since sexual conduct is in the personal domain, it may be said, as corollary 6.3 does, that Conscience has primacy over the State and over Religion. That being said, it is a sad fact that sexual mores differ from country to country, and that in following our natural orientations we may be placing ourselves in legal and theological hot water.
- Until 2003, a number of US states still carried sodomy laws in their books. These antiquated laws typically prohibited acts like oral and anal sex, which are no longer considered to be paraphilia between consenting adults, even for same-sex couples.
- The use of artificial contraception is a great issue with the Roman Catholic Church. True believers should follow the tenets of their faith. Where there is conflict between the dictates of doctrine and those of conscience, it should be left to the individual to resolve these.
Seventh Commandment - Honor Yourself
If the First Commandment is ethical consideration of others and of the planet, the last and Seventh Commandment is ethical consideration of our selves. And if the Fourth and Fifth Commandments are the ones to be primarily instilled in the young, this commandment is the one we should practice in all our stages of development. It is a reversal of the Golden Rule, a recognition that we must, perhaps first and foremost, take care of ourselves in order to take care of others and of everything around us. It calls into mind the Latin dictum, "mens sana in corpore sano".
The virtues of this commandment are health, temperance, cleanliness, acuity or clear perception, and inner peace.
The first corollary 7.1 points to the traditional substances prohibited by religions, namely alcohol, drugs and tobacco. The term substance abuse is used to describe addiction to these intoxicants which can take a great toll on man's well-being - his body, his mind and his wallet. The central truth of living may be suffering because of craving and aversion, but to use intoxicants to salve the pain ironically increases craving for them, and ultimately results in greater suffering.
The law treats the use of these intoxicants in different ways.
- There are no laws directly prohibiting alcohol intake for adults, only laws that limit its effects such as Driving Under the Influence (DUI) regulations.
- Similarly, tobacco is not directly prohibited, although laws regulating where smoking is not permitted have mushroomed in Western countries.
- Among the three, drugs are the most prohibited substance, although the medicinal use of marijuana has been legalized in Canada, Israel and the Czech Republic. Lately, two states in America, Washington and Colorado, have declared marijuana to be legal.
The second corollary of 7.2 extends the first corollary to immoderate attachments that would adversely affect one's health. These can include physical and mental obsessions like gambling, watching television, viewing pornography, video gaming, cutting and mobile phone use. And it can include food-related compulsions like overeating, over-dieting, carbonated drinks and even chocolates. Certain of these activities and items may not be unhealthy in and of themselves; it is overindulgence in them that we must guard against.
The third and last corollary is a positive norm, and it can be said to be the equivalent of the fourth Biblical commandment of "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy". Mindfulness has many meanings but basically it is the attitude of focusing and unfocusing the body and the mind. It consists of the wisdom that there is a time for everything. There is a time to be with others for companionship, drinking, dancing and rowdy celebration. And there is a time to be alone for introspection, silence and quiet contemplation.
When we are awake and engaged in an activity, we must pay attention to get the best results; later on certain activities become automatic but when a problem arises we need to recall attention. During the day, we must pause and take breaks; and at the end of the day, we must pause longer in sleep. If we are of the mind, we can listen to music, or sit still in silence or reflect on the beauty around us - in a stone, a leaf, the shimmering sea or the dome of stars above.
Again like the Fourth and Fifth Commandments, the UDHR does not explicitly include this ethical imperative.
- Corollaries 2.1, 3.1 and 6.1 contain the phrase "your country". This would normally refer to the country of which you are a citizen. However the globe has become a cluster of villages, and we sometimes work or travel outside our villages. Thus country here may refer to your temporary physical location. As a guest, one must observe the "When in Rome" idiom. This is easy to say when the issue is public display of affections in Mecca, but what about the wearing, or prohibiting the wearing of, burqas in Paris?
- A third corollary to the First Commandment, or an Eighth Commandment, may be added to indicate the primacy of the First Commandment. This built-in self-protective mechanism would be similar to Article 30 of the UDHR or the third law of Asimov's Laws of Robotics. It can be stated thus:
- Where conflict arises between or among the Commandments, the First Commandment shall prevail.
- On the Second Commandment, the UDHR covers the ethics of plagiarism in Article 27. Much opprobrium has been heaped on Senator Tito Sotto and it would serve him - and the people he serves - in good stead if he studied the UDHR and acquired a modicum of ethics.
- (2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
- With the exception of the Fourth, the Fifth Commandment is the least observed in the Philippines. If government officials, servants and politicians took this commandment to heart, the country would be paradise enow.
- On the Sixth Commandment:
- Arguably, this Commandment is the most preached on and the most violated by the Church. If the clergy had observed its vows of celibacy, it would not have lost its moral authority.
- Homosexuality and heterosexual cohabitation are socially acceptable in the Philippines. Except for the limits imposed by the age of consent, both are legal but frowned upon by religion.
- With respect to the Seventh Commandment, the so-called Sin Tax Bill does not control the use alcohol or tobacco. It purportedly seeks to minimize use but more to increase government revenue from them.
- Is man perfectible? The answer has to be in the affirmative. There are men who died for their country, like Jose Rizal. There are men who lived for their country, like Jesse Robredo. And there are men who gained the whole world and did not lose their souls, like Bill Gates.
- Should religions follow the Seven Commandments of Secular Ethics? Again, the answer must be Yes. All the commandments, except the Second and the Third, are based on religion. The author suspects that if men of the cloth observed these rules of secular ethics, they would become better messengers of their respective faiths.
- If the Seven Commandments of Secular Ethics can be summed up in one word, that word would be Respect. It is all about Respect. Respect for life and for the earth, for the rights and freedom of others, for our duties and obligations, for truth and knowledge, for the property of others, for sexual and marital relationships, and for the self.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml)
- The Ten Commandments (http://godstenlaws.com/ten-commandments/index.html#.UKIf34cslyI)
- The Laws of Robotics (http://www.auburn.edu/~vestmon/robotics.html)
- How Often Do Men and Women Think about Sex? (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-sexual-continuum/201112/how-often-do-men-and-women-think-about-sex)
- The Scale of the Universe 2 (http://htwins.net/scale2/scale2.swf?bordercolor=white)