The Ten Commandments and Natural Law

Over the last two decades, monuments to the Ten Commandments have been removed, often via court orders – and often under protest – from state capitols, parks, and even public schools in Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Alabama, Ohio, Mississippi, New Mexico, Maryland, and Kentucky.

These removals, hotly debated in newspapers and other media, are usually in response to atheists, secularists, ardent supporters of church-state separation, even Wiccans. Nobody should have to face, they argue, specific, religious reminders in public places, especially government buildings. Fortunately, these protests have not gotten as far in the United States as in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other Islamic countries, where even the image of a cross, Christian saint, or a Bible, is prohibited in public – not to mention an actual church or synagogue “disturbing the peace” of public streets.

The Ten Commandments are too “religious”? I’m wondering, what part of “Do not steal” is specifically religious? What culture, even a pagan culture, does not require and enforce respect for parents and elders? In what sense is the command “not to murder” a religious command? Do non-religious people generally have no problem with murder? Similar questions come to the fore, about lying, adultery, coveting the spouse or property of others. At most times and most places in the world, there have been prohibitions against such things.

Plato and Aristotle and other pagan philosophers embraced these basic moral values. According to Aristotle, adultery, theft, and murder are always wrong, regardless of the circumstances. In Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium and the Eryxias, the interlocutors simply agree that adultery is an example of something obviously wrong, and then go on to consider moral issues that are less obvious.

If courts of law in most countries denied the Ten Commandments, how would they be able to consistently proceed against extortion, homicides, perjury, rape, etc.? Granted, adultery isn’t taken as seriously as it used to be – but in America, it’s still a crime in twenty-one states, subject to fines and even imprisonment. Thus, if a suspect is accused of adultery in one of the states that have removed the Ten Commandments, he may have proper legal grounds to have the cases terminated, because of the irrelevance of one of the commandments.

In other words, the last seven of the Ten Commandments (Protestants number them differently than Catholics) are precisely the sorts of things that St. Paul in Romans 2:14-15 said were written “in the hearts” of all men – not the sort of positive mandates that would only affect Jews or Christians or any other specific religion.

It is no accident that these seven commandments coincide with the three major “precepts” that St. Thomas Aquinas elaborates in the natural law:

1) The duty of self-preservation, which we extend to others as the right of self-preservation, coincides with the commands to avoid stealing, killing, or envying the possessions of others.

2) The duty of propagating and caring for offspring is extended to others as the right to reproduce, and is spelled out in the commands for children to honor parents, and for parents to avoid adultery, or even envying someone else’s spouse.

3) The duty of always seeking the truth, which we extend to others by avoiding lies, is inscribed in the commandment against “bearing false witness.”

Moses with the Ten Commandments by Rembrandt, 1659 [Gemäldegalerie, Berlin]
Moses with the Ten Commandments by Rembrandt, 1659 [Gemäldegalerie, Berlin]

But of course, the problem for atheists, Wiccans, the ACLU, and others, is that God is mentioned in the First Commandment, and is presupposed in the Second and Third Commandments. What can we do about this threat to the sensibilities of the opposed groups?

We could summarily truncate the Decalogue, and include just the last seven. If we did this, are there anti-moral crusaders who would be up in arms against these basic moral injunctions? Are there really that many Nietzschean “immoralists” in our environs, who would insist that we moderns have proudly “gone beyond morality” once and for all?

But the Weltanschauung is against such extremes. Even the most secularist authorities warn against making gods of fame, wealth, beauty, power, pleasure – although they formulate their warnings in terms of “addictions” to drugs, sex, popularity, control over others, etc.

And don’t we have the secular equivalent to Sabbaths? –   soccer or Little League on Sunday mornings, walking in the park, Sunday restaurant breakfasts or brunches, etc.

St. Thomas’ 3rd precept, which requires that we seek the truth about God, is certainly relevant to being a rational being (atheists and secularists, too, if they lay claim to rationality, have the obligation to seek the truth, even if they conclude that they have not found the truth of God’s existence).

There is an additional problem – an ongoing problem in the discipline of meta-ethics concerning the source of obligation for a moral law: If God is not the ultimate lawgiver, how could any moral rule be obligatory? Where would the sanctions against disobeying a major moral law come from?

If, for example, the state is considered the ultimate arbiter of moral right and wrong, it has various punishments in its repertoire to put “teeth” into the law. Or the possibility of social ostracism may take the place of the state. But neither the state nor social pressure can make anything intrinsically wrong. Even those who don’t believe in God would have to hope that others who are contemplating killing them or stealing from them might hesitate because of their belief in God (especially a loving God, who doesn’t hate unbelievers).

If we reject the Ten Commandments, law enforcement, and courts should, for consistency’s sake, also ignore widely proclaimed but merely conventional mores – issues like damaging the environment, refusing to recycle, not inviting LGBTs into the restroom, complaining about Islamic terrorism, driving slow in the passing lane, not asking permission before consensual sex, refusing to stand for the national anthem, not welcoming illegal immigrants, etc.

Consistent atheists, secularists, and Wiccans have a big job before them if they want to prohibit the moral foundations of the law; and future law students may wonder how to justify enforcement of non-Decaloguish mandates.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.