Chapter 28 - Goodness, Morality and the Ten Commandments

Throughout this book we have discussed the fact that God is imaginary. You have also seen that the Bible is a normal book written by normal people living thousands of years ago, and is therefore irrelevant to us today. It is an easy extrapolation of these two facts to realize the many implications. The most important implication is this: you have no soul, and there will be no "everlasting life" for you in heaven or hell. The typical human being living in the developed world has about 30,000 days to experience his or her existence, and that's it.

What do these simple truths actually mean for all of us as a society? How do we take advantage of this central reality and do something useful with it? These are important questions.

This may sound flippant to you initially, but here is one way to think about it -- what if we compare your 30,000 days here on earth to a trip to Disney World? It turns out that we can understand a great deal about life and our society as a whole by examining this analogy.

A trip to Disney World

Imagine that you were to plan a big family vacation to Disney World. You are going to take a week off of work, buy the plane tickets, reserve a hotel room and go. Most people would not travel all the way to Orlando, pay the price of admission into the Magic Kingdom and then fall asleep on a bench. Most people want to ride as many rides as possible. They want to see the entire park, watch the parade, eat the food, buy the souvenirs and get as much enjoyment as they can out of the experience. That is a completely valid way to look at Disney World, and it is also a completely valid way to look at your time here on earth. You want to get the most out of life.

Let's say that you did go to Disney World, paid your money to get in the gate, and then you discovered that there were gangs of teenagers running around robbing people, that there were people cutting into line at every ride, that many of the rides had been vandalized and did not work, and that there was litter everywhere. In other words, what if other people were totally ruining the place? You would be upset. You would complain to management. You would want your money back.

You realize several things as you think about your life in this way. For example, you can see why normal human beings do not want criminals running around in our society. During your 30,000 days on earth, you hear all sorts of stories in the news about:

  • Gangs of teenagers robbing people and selling drugs
  • Rapists attacking women and children
  • Murderers killing people in cold blood
  • Terrorists blowing up buildings and buses
  • Drunk drivers destroying the lives of innocent people
  • CEOs stealing millions of dollars from their businesses
  • Etc...
These out-of-control people ruin the experience for the rest of us. If they were running around doing this inside Disney World, management would exterminate them immediately. They simply would not be tolerated.

Your time here on earth is very precious, and you only get one chance to experience it. That is why human beings create laws, police departments and courts to deter the people who are spoiling the experience for everyone else. The vast majority of people are good, and they have no desire for bad people to wreck their lives.

The value of life

Once you realize that your life is limited and precious, you then extrapolate that onto others and begin to understand the value of their lives as well. This is something that happened in a significant way just after September 11, 2001 -- people in America were nicer to each other, more patient and more caring because each one of us realized how ephemeral and precious life is.

Once you eliminate the illusion of eternal life, the "spirit of September 11" is that much stronger and more important. We all have an extremely limited amount of time on earth to experience our lives. And we are all in this together. We should help each other to make the most of it.

This kind of thinking is where the concepts of "goodness" and "morality" start. The notion that "we are all in this together" is the beginning of everything good about human beings.

Understanding Goodness

Many religious people who read this book will try to use the following logic:

    God must exist. A man cannot decide without God what is good and what is evil.
They believe that, without God, there can be no Ten Commandments. They would state that, without God, there can be no good or evil, and that any behavior is just as "good" as any other. That logic, of course, is silly. God quite clearly does not exist, yet people have been deciding what is good and what is evil for thousands of years.

Here is the simple reality: God is an imaginary being, just like Zeus, Allah, Vishnu and all the rest. The concept of Goodness, therefore, has nothing to do with God. Goodness comes from human beings. Goodness springs from the human intellect and common sense. By understanding this fact of life, we give Goodness even more power.

God may not exist, but the concept of God currently plays one very important role in our society. Right now, God is our proxy for Goodness. When we talk about God in many cases, we are talking about the idea of Goodness. We are affirming that Goodness and moral behavior are important parts of our society.

The problem with using a non-existent God as a proxy for Goodness is that it places Goodness somewhere "else" -- in an imaginary being called God -- when in fact Goodness is a human concept that emanates from human intelligence. Human beings create and implement Goodness, and we do it for good reason.

We need to understand the power and the value of human Goodness. Then, as a society, we need to eliminate evil, because evil has no place or value in any human civilization.

The source of Goodness

It is very easy to demonstrate to yourself where Goodness comes from, and why humans create it. We can start the demonstration with a question that everyone understands: Is murder good or evil? Forget about God and just answer the question using your own common sense. Murder: right or wrong?

Obviously murder is wrong. Everybody knows that. How do human beings all know that murder is wrong? We -- each one of us -- can look inside ourselves and ask, "Do I want to be murdered?" The answer is, "No." Of course not. It is obvious.

Ask 100 people, "Do you want to be murdered?" 100 people will all say, "No." A person cannot "exist" to answer the question unless he or she is "alive," so obviously he or she does not want to be "dead" because of a murderer. If everyone on the planet were running around murdering each other, humanity could not exist. It's as simple as that.

Occasionally, in perhaps one out of 1,000 people, you will find someone who says, "yes, I want to be murdered." That person is mentally ill and the other 999 of us can help him seek treatment. Life is the most precious thing that each of us possesses, and we understand that. Without life, we do not exist.

As you can see, each one of us understands that we do not want to be murdered. The next step is extrapolation. We extrapolate our personal understanding to everyone else. We realize that what we believe is universal. No one anywhere wants to be murdered. That is also obvious. It does not take a genius, or a god, to figure out that no normal human being wants to be murdered.

Through the extrapolation process, we realize something important: we are all in this together. By protecting your right to live your life free from the threat of murder, I protect myself as well. By working together to prevent murder for everyone, we each improve our own individual lives. So we can draw a conclusion that everyone can agree on. Murder is wrong. "Thou shalt not murder other human beings" is the commandment that we create to project this universal truth. We enforce this universal truth with the laws, police departments and courts that we have created to protect ourselves and each other.

It is interesting to note that "Thou shalt not murder other human beings" is not what the Bible says. The sixth commandment in the Bible is actually "Thou shalt not kill." If we were to take this as God's word, the commandment is much broader. When we eat meat, we are killing. When people sacrificed animals as God prescribed in the Old Testament, those animals were killed. Cutting down a tree for lumber kills the tree. In fact, spraying Lysol kills millions of germs on contact. God's actual commandment is nuts, and that is why no one follows it. Nonetheless, we all understand the universal truth that murder is evil.

As intelligent human beings, we can also understand that there are valid exceptions to the commandment. With our brains, we can see situations involving a "higher good" and reason it out. For example:

  • If someone attacks you and tries to kill you, it is OK for you to kill that person in self defense if necessary. We understand that, on a personal level, we have the right to defend our own lives. We understand it at the societal level as well. As a society, this is where the whole notion of the Department of Defense comes from. Note that we do not call it the Department of Offense. Also note that we generally recognize the Department of Defense to be our last resort.

  • If a person has been in a car wreck and is brain dead but still "alive", we can keep the person alive indefinitely with a ventilator and a feeding tube. Knowing that the person will never recover, however, we can decide that the higher good is to turn off the ventilator and donate the person's organs to other people who need them. Technically we have "murdered" the person and defied the Bible, but everyone understands that it is OK. Humans are smart enough to make distinctions like these.
Murder is an obvious and straightforward concept. It is easy to create the commandment, "Thou shalt not murder other human beings" and we can all agree that it is a universal truth. We can also agree that there are valid exceptions to the rule.

What about stealing? It works exactly the same way. You don't need an imaginary god to know that stealing is wrong. You simply ask yourself, "Do I want to have my stuff stolen from me?" No, obviously not. Therefore, by extrapolation, you cannot steal from other people because they don't want to be stolen from either. So stealing is wrong. "Thou shalt not steal."

Even when the Bible tells us something is OK, our brains can tell us objectively, and with moral authority, that it is wrong. For example, the Bible says that slavery is great. We discussed this problem extensively in chapter 13. The Bible clearly and unambiguously says things like this:

    Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. [Leviticus 25:44]
Do we allow slavery today? Of course not. Any human being can see that slavery is a moral abomination. We simply ask ourselves, "Would I like to be a slave?" The answer is "No." We extrapolate that obvious conclusion to others. Therefore, slavery is wrong. "Thou shalt not enslave others" should be a commandment. We all know that slavery is wrong, despite the fact that God condones slavery in the Bible. In the United States and other developed nations we override the Bible -- the error-free word of the Lord -- because we know that slavery is wrong. We override the Bible without hesitation. We do that so easily because human beings define Goodness, not an imaginary God.

We do not need an imaginary God to act as a moral authority. It is very simple for intelligent human beings to figure out right and wrong. We do it all the time. That is where our legal system comes from.

Creating our own commandments

You should now be able to see the power of what is happening here. Having proven that God is an imaginary being and that the Bible was written by primitive men, we are now free to discard the Bible. With it we discard the original Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments have performed a useful function in our society. They have acted as concise summary of our legal system. They have done that not because they were divinely ordained, but because most of them are common sense.

Now we are in the position to create our own commandments, designed to promote the general welfare and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. We should do that as a nation. We should work to establish a set of new commandments that we all agree to live by. What we are creating is a set of the big-picture commandments that act as the concise summary of our legal system.

We should not abdicate something as important as the foundation of our legal system to a 2,000 year-old book written by a bunch of primitive goat herders. We should control the commandments ourselves as intelligent human beings. We should arrive at our commandments through a normal political process (public debate, voting, etc.). Doing this ourselves is an extremely powerful idea because we can all take part in the process, and we will actually get a much better set of commandments.

As intelligent human beings, what commandments might we create? Here is a starting point for the new commandments:

  • Do not murder or harm other human beings.
  • Do not enslave.
  • Do not steal.
  • Do not destroy another's property.
  • Do not lie or cheat.
  • Do not discriminate against groups of people on the basis of arbitrary characteristics. (We could add a list of specific group characteristics like sex, age, race, etc., but there is no need to. It is impossible to list all the groups.)
  • Do not waste the time of another, for our limited time on earth is all that we have.
  • Do not pollute the planet, for we all share it.
  • Obey the laws and ordinances of the community. If you do not agree with them, work to change them rather than disobeying them.
  • And so on...
Ninety nine percent of the people in this country can agree that murder is wrong, for the obvious reason that no one wants to be murdered. Ninety nine percent of the people in this country can agree that slavery is wrong, for the obvious reason that no one wants to be a slave. And so on. We create our commandments based on strong agreement like that, and we vote on the commandments to ratify them.

Why are these concepts important? Because they allow good people to live their lives in peace and happiness. When evil people who kill, enslave, steal, destroy, lie, cheat, etc. move into a society, they ruin it for everyone else. Therefore evil people should be eliminated so the rest of us can enjoy our precious time on this planet. The way we handle evil people today is with jails, prison and rehabilitation.

These common sense concepts already are the foundation of our legal system. For example, the common sense statement, "Do not murder or harm other human beings" is one foundation concept. From that foundation we derive thousands of specific legal concepts -- first degree murder, second degree murder, vehicular homicide, armed robbery, medical malpractice, product safety laws and so on. The broad statement "Do not murder" comes from common sense, and so do all of the specific laws we create. We are also smart enough to make exceptions for things like self-defense and brain-dead organ transplants.

We should establish the fundamental rules of conduct that we expect of everyone living in our society. We might have 20 broad "commandments" like those shown above. We should post our code of conduct in our courthouses, malls, schools, etc.

This process of creating the "20 rules of conduct" is not based on "religion" or "God." It is based on common sense. "Do not murder" is simple and obvious, and it is essential if we want to live in a functional society. We post these rules prominently to remind ourselves of our standards and our goals as a society.

We each have approximately 30,000 days that we get to spend on this earth. That's it. There is no reason why we should tolerate the 1% of people violate the rules of our society and who make things miserable for the other 99%. Every human being with common sense can agree on that, even though there is no god.

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by Marshall Brain

New York Times Coverage
discussed in a
New York Times piece
by N. D. Kristof.
For a counter-point to Mr. Kristof, please see
Chapter 26.

Recommendation by Sam Harris
Sam Harris recommends WWGHA in his book Letter to a Christian Nation.

Endorsement by Richard Dawkins
In a New York Times Letter, Richard Dawkins calls WWGHA a "splendid Web site."

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