Thursday, 25 December 2014

How I Wrote My Own Twelve Commandments

(From the archives: February 7th, 2004. I've made quite a few changes in this area in the intervening decade!)

It is a common human trait to want to divide people into two types; us and them. Racists, for example, like to divide people into white and black (or, more accurately, pink and brown). Nationalists like to classify people as citizens or aliens. I myself, indeed, distinguish the civilized from the uncivilized.

Some of these divisions are easier to measure than others. It is easy to measure someone's nationality; you need only demand their birth certificate or naturalization papers. But it is much harder to measure race. To assign people to the pink camp or the brown can be tough, particularly when they are of mixed descent, or their skin is dark yellow.

Some divisions, too, are more reasonable than others. Race and skin colour are outside an individual's control. Forward-thinking people, therefore, are coming more and more to dismiss them as reasons to treat someone as in or out. Nationality, too, is for most people a matter of accident rather than of choice. It seems, to me at least, rather stupid to bias acceptance or rejection of individuals according to where they come from.

My own preferred distinction is between the civilized and the uncivilized. Today, I want to put some flesh on this idea. I will address, in my own way, the question, what is it to be civilized? And, to start, I will trace the evolution of my own thinking.

I began by trying a personal view; the people I like are civilized, and the rest aren't. This way of thinking has the merit of making the distinction easy to measure. But it is a subjective judgement. Other people – even those I like – will often disagree with me about who is which side of the line. And there is no basis on which to resolve such disagreements. Furthermore, people change over time. And some people come to seem more likeable the better you get to know them, while some go the other way.

I needed a more objective test. So I looked around for ideas. My second candidate was one much loved by conservatives – the concept of the law-abiding citizen. Those who obey the law of the land, wherever they happen to be, are civilized; those that don't, are uncivilized.

If all laws, and all those who made them, were honest and fair, this test would be a good one. But laws today are not like that. We suffer legal penalties for many innocent acts or omissions, for no better reason than that some politician or pressure group decided it was a good idea. Yet those same politicians and their cronies do blatantly uncivilized things like lying, thieving and violating our privacy. And they go unpunished for them.

My third candidate came from the liberal corner – respect for human rights. Those who respect others' rights according to, for example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, are civilized; those that violate others' rights, aren't.

Respect for fundamental human rights, like life, property and privacy, is a hallmark of good people. Good people also respect others' freedoms, like freedom of movement, opinion and communication. So, respect for these rights and freedoms can form an excellent basis for a touchstone of civilized behaviour. But today's statements of human rights, such as the UN Declaration, have also been saddled with what are really no more than aspirations, like "free" education and a guaranteed minimum standard of living. And the unscrupulous use these aspirations as excuses to violate real rights, for example by stealing and re-distributing fairly earned wealth.

On to the fourth candidate, the idea that the civilized create wealth, and the uncivilized do the opposite. In this way of thinking, you measure individuals by working out how much wealth or well-being they create, and then subtracting the damage they cause.

This approach is commendable. But it has some practical problems. One, its supporters tend to concentrate on economic wealth, ignoring other forms of wealth like scientific knowledge and generally making the world jollier to live in. Two, to measure accurately wealth created and damage caused is a complicated and painstaking, and therefore costly, process. Three, the method is not entirely fair to those whose opportunities to create wealth are limited through no fault of their own.

By now, I was getting desperate, so I turned to the religious corner. I had noticed that people were saying things like, "If everyone obeyed the Ten Commandments, the world would be a much better place.” So my fifth candidate came from way back, more than three thousand years ago.

For its time, Moses' achievement was magnificent. To write down, so clearly and succinctly, a set of rules which many people still choose to follow to this day, was an amazing feat. However, as a yardstick of civilized behaviour for the 21st century, the Ten Commandments has problems too. For the first four commandments are religious in nature. They are irrelevant to those who do not subscribe to the religion. And the remaining six, while still valid as ever, don't cover enough of the spectrum of human behaviour. They are simply not broad enough to use as a test of civilized behaviour today.

If I can't find someone to do the job for me, I thought, I'm going to have to do it myself. So why don't I try to combine the best of all these ideas? I'll make a list of human duties, like the Ten Commandments. I'll make a list of rules of civilized behaviour, of obligations for civilized human beings. I'll include, in my list, respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms. I'll include creating wealth as a virtue. I'll include basics of law and justice. I'll try to bring my list up to date, by putting in the individuality, honesty and desire for peace, which are characteristic of the new outlook today among forward-thinking people. I'll add a seasoning of personal views, and a dollop of good old-fashioned common sense.

Oh yes, I thought, and two more things. One, I'll deliberately aim high. No-one will be able honestly to say that they keep, perfectly and at all times, to my standards. And two, in accord with my policy of going the extra mile, I'll offer twenty percent extra. Twelve commandments for the price of ten!

I started in the deep end, with individuality. My first law was: "Be your own proud, independent self.” For I wanted to bring out the importance of being an individual, not a herd animal just following leaders. I wanted to make plain that it is good to strive to be proud – that is to say, to be outstanding. And that it is good to take pride in your achievements where justified. I wanted, too, to stress the need for civilized human beings to be independent. To think for themselves, to take responsibility for their own lives, and to avoid willingly becoming a drain on others.

My second law was a law of peace. "Don't use, call for or condone violence or threat of violence against any civilized human being.”

Here, I wanted to reflect that civilized human beings are naturally non-violent. But I didn't want to fall into the pacifist trap of outlawing violence completely. For me, it's OK to use violence in defence of self or others against violent attack. It is also OK for a police officer, or anyone else, to use reasonable force to arrest a real criminal. For a crime is, in essence, a malicious and uncivilized act. To the extent that they commit real crimes, then, criminals are uncivilized, and therefore not protected by any prohibition against violence. However, to call for or even to lend support to violence or threat of violence against civilized human beings is an uncivilized act. No matter what the excuses given for it.

My third law was about being productive. "Create wealth through energetic co-operation and honest competition.”

I had come to understand, some time ago, that the creation of wealth or well-being, of products or services or an ambience for which others are voluntarily willing to pay in return, is the noblest of all human activities. I wanted to get over that most people become far more effective at creating wealth when they co-operate with others in a team. And that, in order to unleash your wealth-creating potential, you have to put in energy – lots of it.

I wanted to point out, too, an important factor in wealth creation – competition. By this, I do not mean nasty or dishonest beating off of rivals. Rather, I mean honest competition; striving to make yourself better at what you do, to make yourself competent.

My fourth law was about fairness. I found this perhaps the hardest of all to formulate. I wanted to encapsulate the spirit of Confucius' Golden Rule; don't do to others what you don't want done to yourself. I wanted to put it in a positive way, not a negative. But I didn't want to go as far as Jesus' version; always do to people what you would want them to do to you. For that would imply that we are obliged to treat others well, even when they treat us badly. And that, I think, is plain wrong. So the words I settled on were, "Treat others at least as well as they treat you.”

That, I think, gives a similar effect to Jesus' version of the Golden Rule, when we are dealing with civilized people. But it leaves us free to treat those, that behave towards us in an uncivilized manner. as the situation demands.

My fifth was, "Keep your freely made promises and agreements.” By this I mean, that when you make a promise or an agreement, you as a civilized human being must do all you have promised to do. (Or, refrain from doing what you have promised not to do). Provided, of course, that the other parties to the agreement keep their side of the bargain as well. And that you made the promise voluntarily and in full knowledge of what you were taking on. Promises extorted by violence, threats or dishonesty are not binding on anyone.

My sixth I titled the law of non-impedance. "Don't obstruct any civilized human being's progress, opportunity, wealth creation, trade or pursuit of happiness.” By this, I mean that we civilized people must not unnecessarily slow down our fellows' physical progress, personal growth, or making or taking of opportunities for themselves. We must not disrupt their lives. We must never on purpose hinder their economic activities. And we must not put obstacles in the way of good people achieving the happiness they deserve.

My seventh I called the law of non-encroachment. "Don't bully or persecute civilized human beings, or invade their lives; always respect their persons, property and privacy, and their fundamental human rights and freedoms.”

This is the flip side of the law of individuality. It comes from the recognition that other civilized people are individuals too. We must respect them as individuals. We must not encroach on them physically, or steal from them or damage their property, or steal into their lives. We must not take part in uncivilized schemes designed to harm them. And, provided of course their behaviour remains civilized, we must never violate their fundamental rights or freedoms. These include not only the rights and freedoms listed in conventions such as the UN declaration, but also the most fundamental freedom of all – the freedom to make, and to act on, individual judgements.

My eighth was about honesty. "Don't use or sanction lies, deception, fraud, dishonest rationalizations or mental manipulation against any civilized human being.” That, I think, just about explains itself.

My ninth was about restitution. "Take responsibility for your actions; compensate anyone you may harm through malicious, irresponsible or negligent acts.” Civilized people, of course, are rarely malicious towards their fellows; but all of us are sometimes irresponsible or negligent. And, occasionally, we get it wrong in a way that damages someone. This ideal of restitution, then, is civilized human beings' way of setting the record straight.

My tenth applies only to people who have children. "If you have children, protect, sustain and educate them until they have become civilized human beings.” Much of this is conventional wisdom. The idea that parents must take full responsibility for educating and bringing up their children to adulthood was argued forcefully by, among others, John Locke. But parents must also bring up their children to behave in a civilized manner. Put bluntly, it is uncivilized to beget uncivilized.

My eleventh is about wanting justice. "Desire individual, common-sense justice for everyone.” As I have observed before, common-sense justice is that condition where each individual, over the long run, is treated as he or she treats others. All civilized human beings should yearn for common-sense justice. For, under common-sense justice, peaceful people enjoy peace. Productive people enjoy prosperity. People who help to make others happy enjoy happiness. With individual justice, everyone has an incentive to behave well towards others. And the uncivilized get treated as they deserve, too.

My twelfth and last is the shortest of all. "Practise what you preach.” This is the one which binds all the others together. It links what an individual thinks and says, to what that individual does.

So, there you have my twelve commandments, my rules of civilized behaviour. I do not claim that my list is perfect. Many may want to re-word it, add to it or subtract from it. And some may want to burn it. But to those who would, to use John Locke's words, cavil or rail at my discourse, my answer is: If you don't like my ideas, roll your own.

Lastly, why have I done all this? You will be glad to know that I do not want to set up a government to enforce these laws strictly. I do not, for example, intend to station police to jump out behind people and shout "Sheep!" whenever they fail to think for themselves. Nor do I propose to position Lie Marshals with guns on every street corner, ready to shoot at the slightest sign of possible falsehood.

No, my purpose is subtler. But that is for another day.

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