Wednesday, February 6, 2013

My alternative to de Botton's commandments

Edit: Here is what I'm responding to

Edit #2: de Botton never said commandment or atheist. He called them virtues.

I really didn't care for the set up that de Botton used here. He is an immense thoughtful writer and is a massive influence on my thinking in these areas, but 10 commandments? I didn't like it. So I wanted to point out the direction I would have gone with this idea.

I think that there is room for a return of virtue ethics in our world. I see a way to use evopsych, neuroscience, and philosophy to build a secular ethic that would help guide people who run the risk of making mistakes of judgement or execution in their lives.

But this kind of sign posting, which is one way to look at this kind of blanket advice, always happens in a context. And if you are going to give someone advice without knowing them or their situation then you should allow for the possibility that your advice might be, not only unhelpful, but make you look stupid.

And one of the things about virtues that has always bothered me is that all too often I see them in toxic abundance in my friends in loved ones. The girl who prides herself on being self-sacrificing who takes on so much care taking that everyone around her ends up helping her. The man who boastfully can put up with anything, and then does, much to his own disfavor.

So I have written a couple of pairings, that talk about virtue continuums. These are things you don't want to be too far on either side of, instead of things that you Must do, or Cant do.

Tolerance and Intolerance. 

You should be able to withstand what you need to overcome in order to accomplish what you value. But you should not be so inured to discomfort that you are able to ignore serious problems.

The runner must run through pain, discomfort, early mornings, bad weather, sickness and stress. But if he runs through the pain of tendinitis then he is going to be injured. Giving up isn't the only mistake you can make.

Selflessness and Selfishness.

It is important to give of ones self at times. For your kith, your kind, or your brothers in arms. Sometimes diving on the grenade¹ is the only right thing to do.

But you must know when to look after yourself first. With airplane oxogen masks it is pretty strait forward, you wont stay conscious long enough to put the mask on your child if you don't put yours on first. But in day to day life it is more complicated. Sometimes you must put yourself first for the sake of those you care about. A dead man feeds no children.

Forgiveness and Anger

It is important to see the other persons point of view, and to understand why they have done what they have done. It is important to be able forgive and let go when you are insulted, or harmed. The effects of carrying a grudge can cause more problems than the original insults ever did.

But anger is an important motivator, and a valid emotion. Segregation was a moral outrage, and could not have been addressed without anger. And what sense does it make to forgive an ongoing assault on your freedom and dignity?

¹Important point of note, contemporary grenades are so powerful that this doesn't really help the way it used to.


  1. I like your idea of pairing the virtues. I have to admit that I prefer your method over the 10 commandments. Of course, I found the original post very well done and agree that de Boston's writing was very thoughtful.

    I would actually go a completely different way than both of you and reduce it to one simple idea. "Always choose the most rational option." This actually plays off my idea of morality and reason, but the short version is that as long as you are being rational then your decision is moral. BTW, this idea of mine is still a very open question for me but so far I like it. Check my blog if you are interested.

  2. Here is de Botton's Telegraph article. I notice he never calls them commandments, rather virtues. And while he acknowledges his atheism his list isn't "for" atheists exclusively. I wasn't too impressed. Here's de Botton's 9th virtue:
    Hope: Pessimism is not necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.
    This fluff is what Dan Dennett refers to as a deepity, i.e., true but trivially true. Most of the list comes off this way, let's keep our chin up, sacrifice, and carry on with good cheer Britishisms and appeals to the Golden Rule. de Botton does recommend self-awareness and confidence, virtues not often touted in Judeo-Christian theology.

    We are a list-making, order-by-importance species so maybe it is inevitable that we try to devise lists of best virtues. We can use neuroscience, psychology, the social sciences and our own experience to inform us on how to reduce suffering. Simply put as an example, we recognize that we are genetically driven to favoring our kin as a survival adaptation, that this tendency encourages in/out group discrimination and hostility, but that we also have genes for empathy, altruism, and joy that can be exploited to expand our concern for all humans, other species, and the planet itself. Philosophical atheism can be useful to keep our irrational superstitious tendencies to assign agency and demands for ultimate purpose out of the discussion. A list may be a helpful mnemonic to remind ourselves of these virtues, but if we develop them through sound rational deliberation, informed by science and logic, we have a chance to own them as authentic feelings.

    In the spirit of commandments for Atheists, here's my 2:
    Thou shalt reject all manner of magical thinking.
    Thou shalt demand extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims.

  3. Josiah, did you read the Sydney Morning Herald article you cited? The author, Judith Woods, is condescending in a way that religion writers excel, "Of course, the doctrinaire and the devout might argue that the term "virtuous atheist" is an oxymoron, but the less zealous among us are surely curious to know more about the (un) Holy Rule of de Botton." She takes an ugly gratuitous swipe at a strawman Richard Dawkins, "this manifesto for atheists is a 21st-century guide to pleasant coexistence with which no one could argue - except perhaps Richard Dawkins, because this list is all about the Unselfish Gene." He, of course, never advocated that humans are innately selfish.

    A Google search brings up a number of news media articles headlined, de Botton's 10 Commandments for Atheists. That's how it was headlined in the Telegraph article de Botton authored. Not his fault as he never calls them commandments nor directs them at atheists exclusively. But he may have anticipated that and expanded or reduced his list to avoid the obvious comparison. My cynical self can't avoid musing that de Botton consciously used the gimmick of a decalogue as a direct poke at Christians and Jews. If his list gains traction then we lowly atheists will be forced to defend him; "No, they are not commandments", "no they are not for atheists."