Dec 28

Are the Ten Commandments just?

Here is an argument with premises that are fairly easy to defend, but which leads to powerful conclusions where traditional theism is concerned:

1. Justice means to give people what they deserve.

2. People do not deserve to be punished for acts in which they had no role.

3. Descendants who are not yet born (or are very young) can play no role in the acts of their ancestors.

4. Therefore, punishing said descendants is not just.

You might think this is an obvious conclusion to draw. Good; I hope you do think that. To be safe, though, Ill defend the premises briefly.

I almost consider (1) to be a tautology. I have a hard time separating the notions of justice and desert. If necessary, we can fall back on discussions by Aristotle and many others defending this concept of justice. If someone wants to propose a different definition, I’m willing to entertain it, but I can’t imagine any definition of justice that would escape the problem of this argument.

I also think (2) should be fairly obvious, but I want to bring in support from a theist here before we discuss possible further conclusions. William Lane Craig had the following to say in his debate with Sam Harris:

“His [Harris’s] thoroughgoing determinism spells the end of any hope or possibility of objective moral duties because, on his world view, we have no control over what we do.”

Craig clearly thinks that control over the act is required to create any sort of duty or obligation. If no obligation is violated, it is not clear how any reciprocal punishment for the act can be deserved. I welcome some argument to the contrary.

I can’t imagine anyone denying (3) without invoking some kind of very strange backward causation. Time travel could potentially be trouble (I don’t actually think it is), but I’m going to set that concern aside for this discussion.

Then, the conclusion simply follows from the premises.

So, why does this matter? Well, it creates a tension between certain theistic claims: (i) God is completely just; (ii) The Ten Commandments were given by God.

There are actually multiple versions of the Ten Commandments, but I will be specifically quoting from Exodus 20:4-6 (NIV):

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

Here, God is promising to punish descendants to the third and fourth generation specifically for the acts of their ancestors. Given the argument above, this means we should at the very least reject either (i) or (ii), both of which are central components of Judeo-Christian theism.


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