When my Ethics class was about to get to the unit on Virtue Ethics, I began wondering what the interface or overlap with “Divine Commandment” theory might be. After all, both present a set of statements about what one should or should not do. The Jewish concept of “commandments” is that they are a gift to humankind, in being a set of instructions that enable one to live the best possible life, despite its usual difficulties. The commandments are thus understood as HaShem saying either, “Please do this; it will be good for you,” or, “Please don’t do that; you’ll hurt yourself.” (Hence it is clearer to call these “instructions to follow” rather than “commandments to obey.”)
The class discussion focuses on the famous (and overrated) Decalogue in order to consider whether those Ten Commandments constitute an adequate moral code, as many people suppose they do. The class usually ends up deciding that they are not adequate, partly because they are a legal code, not an ethical code, partly because eight of them state only what not to do. An adequate code should give positive instructions about what should be done. (All that is aside from the question of, “Why pick on just those ten when there are 606 others?”)
This line of thought led to an attempt to compile a more adequate set of instructions. The criteria for adequacy were as much esthetic as logical. For example, they should incorporate the various classical virtues; they should be neither too general nor too specific; they should not be redundant; and they should preferably be practical rather than abstract. Raw materials were plucked from many different ethical systems. The first draft was critiqued and reworked by the class. The resulting draft was then shown to friends who offered some valuable suggestions for refining it. The latest version is as follows. By its nature, it will never be finished. I will resist the temptation to annotate it, but some of these suggestions merit another essay.
- First, do no harm; then do what is best for all.
- Never be willing to allow harm that you can prevent.
- Since every life is infinitely valuable, treat every person with respect.
- Do not take unnecessary risks or go to extremes, except to save a life.
- Have the courage to risk yourself and to break any rule in order to save a life.
- Let everything you do contribute to the survival of the human race.
- Do unto others not what you would done to you, but what they would have done to them—and ask permission before doing anything.
- Become a better person by practicing being better.
- Surround yourself with family and friends.
- Be fair to all, including yourself.
- Care about yourself, in order to take care of those you love.
- You are not obliged to complete a good work, but you are obliged to keep trying.
- No one needs wealth, fame, or power; desire only enough to live on modestly, be worthy of love, be of service to others, and thus be of the most service to yourself.
- Give away what you do not need.
- Hope that some Higher Power is protecting you.
- Be grateful for every gift and blessing.
- Never promise when unsure, but then always keep promises.
- Be rigorously honest about yourself and to others.
- Be openminded: doubt what you think you know.
- Desire truth so much that you can live with uncertainty.
- Always be ready to learn more and to change your mind.
- When you are wrong, promptly admit it.
- Have the courage to always tell the truth.
- When all else fails, follow the instructions.
- Look for more instructions.