Ten Non-Commandments – John Palmer
In 1963 the magazine New Society ran an article by Ronald Fletcher, then a lecturer in sociology at Bedford College, London, entitled “A Humanist’s Decalogue”. The author was suggesting an updated version of the Biblical list of dos and don’ts as a set of non-commandments – “principles on which the individual must work out his/her own conduct when faced by particular problems”. The article was one of a series dealing especially with young people’s values. Fletcher’s four page article expanded on each non-commandment. Ronald Fletcher finished his academic career as Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Reading.
Fletcher’s list made an impression on me, at that time a lad of twenty-something years of age, and I kept the article. I have it still, and although it’s brown with age and getting increasingly tatty, its content still seems relevant to me. I thought it might be of interest to Suffolk Humanist and Secularist Group members to read what was thought to be appropriate for a “good life” forty-five years ago. The article was originally printed in New Society, 2nd May 1963 and is the copyright of New Statesman Ltd.
The ten non-commandments, with Fletcher’s and my amplifications:
Never accept authority
Whether that of a jealous god, priest, prime minister, president, dictator, school teacher, social worker, parent, or anyone else whatsoever, unless, in your own seriously considered view, there are good grounds for it.
Base your conduct upon simple humane principles
Strive to eliminate war
A variant of “Thou shalt not kill”.
Strive to eliminate poverty, and work for greater material prosperity for all
Do not be a snob
A variant of “Thou shalt not covet …”. Use material possessions for enjoyment and for enriching your own experience: not as an insignia of status for competitive snobbery.
In sexual behaviour, use your brains as well as your genitals and always in that order
Written when HIV/AIDS was generally unknown and abortion was not common.
Enjoy family life and marriage
Written when marriage was still the popular state. Fletcher says that the family you make for yourself will be the group which will be far and away the most important in your life for determining your happiness or unhappiness. These days, marriage may not be required, but family life is still considered useful, however broadly it is defined.
Keep the law
Commit yourself to active citizenship
Have confidence in the modern world and in your powers to improve it
See that the world does not end, either with a bang or a whimper, but lives a happier life.
A comparison with the Biblical commandments can be made by referring to the article at Wikipedia, for example. It describes the ten (or is it seven, or 14 or 15?) Judaeo/Christian moral imperatives.
There are many other decalogues or sets of commandments to examine. Bertrand Russell’s “Liberal Decalogue”, reproduced here by permission of the British Humanist Association from their publication entitled “A Short Course on Humanism”, was intended to supplement the Biblical commandments.
Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
Do not think it worthwhile to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your (partner) or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fools’ paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
Some humanists argue that sets of rules are unnecessary. We should know how to behave and don’t need to be told. Margaret Nelson, our group’s secretary, said in a recent article on the BBC Suffolk website that the important thing about humanism is that we haven’t got a set of rules like a Bible or a Qur’an. We should work things out for ourselves and be aware of the consequences of our actions. The whole article can be seen on the BBC Suffolk website. But Fletcher’s first non-commandment certainly agrees with Margaret’s view on external authority.
Perhaps, especially when dealing with young people, it might not be a bad thing to provide some sort of guidance. Even if religious education were to be removed from the school curriculum, advice on ethical behaviour would occur in other disciplines, and hopefully would also be provided by parents or carers. Why not have a handy checklist?
However, all humanists do appear willing to allow at least one “commandment”, the so-called Golden Rule. “Treat others as you would like to be treated.”