06 December 2007

The Ten Commandments

One difference between territorial and tribal morality is that, within a territorial system, a certain number of people may freely choose to live according to tribal morality among themselves, but the reverse is not true. You cannot have a small free market society within a communist society, but within a capitalist society it is quite possible for people to set up communes or co-operatives if they wish. Tribal morality depends on making various assumptions, amounting to a belief system, about the psychological motivation of people other than oneself. Territorial morality does not, being almost entirely negative: do not interfere with anyone else’s territory. It is not necessary to have any opinions about the likelihood of people invading one another’s territory with benevolent motives.

Consider how many features of the Ten Commandments are at variance with modern neo-tribal morality. We may suppose that the Commandments represent a fairly primitive form of territorial society, and these principles are enunciated in breaking away from earlier tribal societies, which would not have observed them. A territory is defined within which the individual is not to be interfered with. He owns his life and property; he should not be killed or stolen from.

His property may include oxen and asses, men servants and maid servants, and these are not to be stolen or even coveted. Marriage partners own one another, and they alone have the right to have sex with one another.

Fathers and mothers are to be honoured, presumably to preserve the solidarity of the family unit; in particular, the solidarity of the offspring, that is, with the only two people on whose good will he has any claim. Further, it is immoral to bear false witness against someone else. This falls rather short of the respect for objectivity and contract required for commercial transactions, but perhaps refers to the commonest use of dishonesty in tribal societies. You see how easily, nowadays, fictional slanders of a socially acceptable kind can be used to damage people to whom one feels hostile.

This is only a territory-defining ownership, and falls somewhat short of an abstract recognition of an individual’s right to freedom of decision. Nevertheless, you will see how many features of it are rejected in modern television morality.

(extract from Letters from Exile)