Bertrand’s Ten Commandments

Bertrand Rrussell

I just came across philosopher Bertrand Russell’s ‘My Ten Commandments’, which apparently appeared in ‘Everyman’ magazine in 1930. Yes, I’m a bit late on this one. Still, better late than never.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) was a British philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic. I highly recommend his book ‘A History of Western Philosophy’, which is most enjoyable and useful to anyone wishing to gain a broad understanding of the development of philosophy throughout the ages.

Without further ado here’s Bertrand Russell’s Ten Commandments, along with some observations and thoughts of mine.

1. Do not lie to yourself

This goes back to Socrates who said “know thyself”. If you lie to yourself you prevent yourself from knowing yourself. Lying is the opposite of truth. Self-knowledge, like all knowledge, requires truth, it requires reason and evidence. If you cannot know yourself then you cannot help or improve yourself. For example, if a man who drinks a bottle of vodka a day tells himself that he does not have a drink problem, then he cannot solve his alcoholism. You can’t solve a problem when there isn’t one to solve. Furthermore, a person who cannot ‘see’ his own alcoholism is unlikely to be able to observe it in others and therefore help them. He will rationalise along the lines of: that guy who drinks a bottle of vodka a day can’t be an alcoholic because if he is, then that means I’m one – but I know I’m not one. Lying to yourself also means you’re more likely to think it acceptable to lie to others, which means people will find it difficult to trust you. Sound advice indeed. Do not lie to yourself.

2. Do not lie to other people unless they are exercising tyranny

This is an interesting caveat and I think a just one. Tyranny is defined as cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary use of power or control. Under such conditions an individual’s choices, his freedom to choose, will most likely have been removed as a consequence; in which case lying is merely an act of self-defense or survival and morality is not applicable.

3. When you think it is your duty to inflict pain, scrutinize your reasons closely

Bertrand Russell was an anti-war activist, he championed anti-imperialism, and was even imprisoned for his pacifism in World War I. A pacifist holds that all violence is morally unjustifiable, even self-defense. The doctrine of pacifism makes no moral distinction between who initiates the violence and who is on the receiving end; both act immorally when they act violently according to pacifism. This is different to libertarianism, which is founded upon the non-aggression principle, where only the aggressor is deemed immoral.

I don’t think this commandment was intended to apply to someone acting urgently in self-defense in response to an act of aggression. In such moments we are not obliged to act in the sense that we think it is our duty to act in order to help someone else or act in alignment with the principles of a doctrine; we are acting instinctively as creatures whose modus operandi is to strive for existence.

Duty is defined as a moral or legal obligation and so with this commandment Russell seems to me to be referring to those in society who have particular power and means to inflict pain on others, and who have some degree or other of freedom to choose whether or not to do so. People such as soldiers, policemen, judges, and parents. I would argue that those who work for government are unlikely to critically examine their reasons for inflicting pain on others because not only do they believe it is their moral duty, but it is also their legal duty according to the government. It is their job to uphold the law. If they refuse to do their job they get fired. Thus there is a very strong incentive for the soldier, policeman or judge to just do what they are paid to do and to not ask why, or whether it is morally just.

Parents have complete freedom to choose to inflict pain upon their children – i.e. corporeal punishment – especially when their children are infants. Parents should critically examine their reasoning each time they believe it is their duty to inflict pain (emotional or physical) upon their children. If done properly it should result in the parent refraining from doing so.

4. when you desire power, examine yourself closely as to why you deserve it

The previous commandment referred to those who already have power, this one relates to those who desire it. For this commandment it’s important to define what we mean by power. Power, or authority, is either peaceful or violent. There’s the kind of power that can be described as the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events. This is generally the peaceful kind. This is the sort of power or authority a doctor has over his patients. The other type of power is political or social authority or control, i.e. the type exercised by a government. This is the kind of power that requires coercion and the threat and use of physical force.

If you have extensive knowledge of biology and medicine as a result of several years’ study, and generally act according to rational moral principles, then most would agree that you have shown the qualities worthy of being an authority on health. You deserve to have the power to profoundly influence people’s lives in the particular aspect of their health. In society one must possess certain qualities, which themselves require much effort to obtain, in order to be granted authority over people’s health by people – and even then those same people can refuse to comply with your directions.

The violent power of The Law can be obtained by anyone who wants it enough, and once they have it those they desire to control cannot refuse to comply. They must obey. The type of person attracted to this kind of power is someone who prefers it when others are prevented from disagreeing with them or refusing to comply with their directions. The type of person with such a preference is probably either utterly convinced they deserve the power they wield or else considers their worthiness of it inconsequential.

5. When you have power, use it to build up people, not to constrict them

Here the word constrict is obviously meant in the metaphorical sense, as in constricting freedoms. The phrase ‘build up’ is meant in the sense of developing a person, improving them, or generally having a positive effect on them. I can’t think of a more pertinent example here than parents. It’s all too easy for parents to use the power they have over their children for their own benefit or to restrict their freedoms in order to allay their own fears. I see it often; parents needlessly or excessively restrict the freedom of their children in some situation or other by force in an attempt to alleviate an irrational fear of their own or to satisfy some preference of their own.

It’s easy for parents to fall into the trap of thinking of their children as little slaves whose purpose in life is to do whatever they tell them to. This can happen because the quickest and easiest way to get an infant to comply is to use physical force. Refraining from using violence means you have to use reason, and that takes much more time and effort. Parents that don’t have the reasoning skills, time and reserves of patience and love to call upon will find this method very unappealing. The problem with using physical force is that it becomes less and less effective over time as a parenting method, and therefore the ‘dosage’ has to be continually increased. Violence leads to more violence.

Teachers, actually, are another good example. Great teachers enable their students to develop by giving them the tools to do so; they teach them how to think, not what to think. Teaching what to think constricts a student’s ability to develop his own mind and reasoning skills.

6. Do not attempt to live without vanity, since this is impossible, but choose the right audience from which to seek admiration.

I think what Russell’s saying here is that it’s fine to seek some admiration but if the guild of thieves and murderers sends you fan-mail, then you’ve gone wrong somewhere.

7. Do not think of yourself as a wholly self-contained unit

I think what Russell’s getting at here is that it is a mistake to believe that we can exist happily without receiving emotional, spiritual and/or material support from other human beings throughout our lives. He may also mean that it is a mistake to believe that the development of our minds, our ways of thinking and our behavior are not influenced to some degree or other by the humans around us, especially in childhood.

8. Be reliable

This means to be consistently good in quality or performance; to be trustworthy and predictable. A reliable person will do everything they said they would. An unreliable person might only do some, or do all but only some of the time. Reliability is a highly valued quality both economically and socially.

9. Be just.

This means behave according to what is morally right. Almost all human beings prefer to avoid harming others in the course of living their lives and likewise prefer not to be harmed by others. Judging all possible courses of action against a moral criteria enables us to avoid courses of action that would harm others.  Morality is often abused and improperly used as a way to justify actions retroactively, i.e. to morally justify actions by their effects. Stay well clear of people who do this because in their minds any action can be just; and that’s dangerous.

10. Be good-natured.

This means have a cheerful willingness to be obliging. A splendid ideal.

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