Moral commandments vs. the heart

After throwing a worldwide dragnet and sifting through it, an atheist group has published “Secular 10 Commandments”. As it happens, I found myself reading them at the same time that Fr. Edmund’s wonderful extended argument that we live in a Pelagian age inspired me to re-read Augustine’s The Spirit and the Letter. The apposition of the two is remarkable: Augustine is arguing that all commandments destroy and condemn the self, and so he sees the question of life not as (a) the opposition between secular and Christian commandments but (b) the opposition between commandment and reform of the heart. Taken in the first way, we simply disagree about where reason leads and what exactly the right formulation of the demands of reason are, taken in the second sense we are disputing whether reason by itself, or any power of the self suffices to accomplish what reason demands, and it’s interesting to read the Secular Ten Commandments in both ways.

The phenomenology of Commandment is that it is extrinsic and binding upon choice. Moral commandments are not declared in matters that everyone freely decides to do anyway, and so the one giving such a commandment always recognizes the necessity of resistance to what he is declaring. Commandment therefore always comes with the threat of violence – not necessarily violence in the sense of bloodshed but in the sense that it allows us to perform some actions that are against the will of another – and in fact it is precisely these persons for whom the moral command must exist at all. Moral command always presupposes a field of resistance to the command, and therefore presupposes the opposition of the heart to the command. At the same time, moral command always sees itself as rational in one way or another. We don’t think we simply declare any old thing good or evil by sheer fiat. This is precisely why the atheist group mentioned above crowdsourced the discovery of their ten commandments to a worldwide search, sc. because they see moral commandments as there to be found, and as somehow objectively “out there” in moral space. Perhaps the items in this moral space are only questionably subsistent, like the objects in logical or mathematical space, but there can be no doubt that they are as objective as logical implication or geometrical reasoning. Why else would we try to discover them by looking?

But if this is right, then moral commandments of any kind, whether secular or Christian, all testify to one and the same thing: the resistance of the heart to what is objective. This resistance is as universal as the extension of the commandment, though this universality should not be understood in a mechanical or ridiculous way – it’s not as if every person resists every objective moral fact in every way. At the same time, the universality of the command assumes that a resistance to the objective is creeping in somewhere, and though a person might look fine before those who can only see how his actions appear, he doesn’t look the same “before Him who looks into our very heart and inmost will, where he sees that, although the man who fears the law keeps a certain precept, he would nevertheless rather do another thing if he were permitted. The Spirit and the Letter, c. 14” We only need to impose commands on ourselves so far as we would view the (at least occasional) suspension of those commandments as a relief. So let’s stipulate that these Secular Commandments are correct, perfectly objective, and conducive to happiness. Still, like all commandments, they do not so much solve moral problems as they manifest that deeper level of human existence in the face of which all moral problems become vitiated and insoluble: the foundational level at which the heart resists the objective and real, whatever we think it is.

In this sense, the traditional Christian doctrine of grace is equally a critique of Moses’s ten commandments, the secular ten commandments, and even all the modern and contemporary Christianities that see Christ’s teaching as simply the perfect expression of the moral law. We don’t need more moral truths or research into cognitive biases or rational and scientific morality – we’ve already got untold milleniae-worth of perfectly objective commandments to annoy and condemn us, and which we are no more eager to follow than when we discovered them at some time out of mind.  The truer they are, the worse we’ll feel – the letter killeth. All this can only succeed in convincing everyone, whether sacred or secular, that reason requires that  the human person needs to be somehow remade by a will other than his own. And who, morally speaking, will be allowed to do that? God, if he exists, at least has some claim to act upon the heart since he made this heart for himself; moreover, God can act on the heart from within, taking the heart according to its unique, contingent, and infinitely varied circumstances. But human being have no such divine right, and they can act on it only extrinsically, i.e. by violence; and in uniform circumstances, like re-education camps and campaigns, propaganda, universal shaming etc. True, many religions have also claimed this power, and try again and again to find a letter that will not killeth – Sabbath laws, forced conversion, religious violence, etc. But all this means is that the Augustinian doctrine critiques some religious practices equally with all secular ones.

For the secular moralist, the vision of the human heart that opens up with the articulation of rational commandment  can only to despair or totalitarianism. This present list of commandments chooses despair, and mentions blithely in its ninth commandment that there simply is no right way to live. This of course undermines all else that they say, but what else could they say? Only that the success of moral living requires that one group is entitled to use violence on another. I’m of course relived that they don’t yet advance this option, but I can’t say that, based on their principles, it is any better or worse than their choice of despair.

1 Comment

  1. December 24, 2014 at 12:20 am

    This reminds me of Philip Rieff and his continual harping on Matthew 18:18. He called it the fundamental maxim of sociology,  or something similar, the idea being that a society is constituted by what it forbids and forgives.

    Rieff was no believer, so he saw ‘interdiction’ and ‘remission’ as the only game in town. Grace on his accounting just opened the door for a regime of ‘radical remission’ which amounted to an ethic or aesthetic of puerile transgression. This was inevitable once Christianity set the ball rolling, and will persist until everybody forgets the old interdictory modes of social order and a new one arises. If that order is not religious,  it could be medical/therapeutic, political or purely conventional.

    It seems he boxed himself into the party of violence, since he wouldn’t accept the modern safety valve (therapy and despair) but wanted order without credo. I don’t see any way out: If we’re all we’ve got,  and we need commandments, but those commandments need made-up stories for their force,  someone has to lie and someone (maybe the same, maybe a deputy) needs to bust heads.

    This invites a parallel to some recent posts around here: just as both energy and physical law don’t account for their initial conditions,  which must appear unexplainable if we limit ourselves to physics, so the will (the energy of practical action) and whatever formalisms of moral law or social relations don’t account for their telos: what is good. If we limit ourselves to politics and ethics,  sociology or psychology,  the good will appear arbitrary and unexplainable – maybe something we just make up.

    We need the metaphysical if anything is to move. We need the meta-ethical (no, not that meta-ethical) if anyone is to be good.


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