The Ten Commandments and the First Amendment

Fresno Bee, July 7, 2024

The Ten Commandments have long been controversial. So, it’s not surprising that Christians in Louisiana have resurrected this controversy with a law requiring the Ten Commandments to be posted in schools. Oklahoma and Texas are following suit. Donald Trump recently posted, in all caps, “I LOVE THE TEN COMMANDMENTS IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS.”

This appears to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits state entities from propounding religious doctrine. This does not mean, however, that schools and teachers cannot address the controversy.

At best, the text known as the Ten Commandments invites deeper conversations about religion, ethics, and political life. At worst, it becomes a meaningless idol, posted on the wall without thought.

Scholars refer to this text as The Decalogue, which means “ten sayings.” In the Bible, these sayings are not numbered and occur in slightly different forms in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The text has been interpreted in diverse ways. This includes a difference in numbering the commandments. Catholics think the sixth commandment is against adultery, while Protestants count that as number seven. For Catholics, the commandment against murder is number five. Protestants count that as number six.

Beyond the textual details is the deep question of whether morality must be grounded in religion. The first several commandments are religious, which may suggest that faith is before ethics. Does this mean that atheists cannot be ethical?

Another significant question is whether morality is negative, focused only on a few “you shall not” prohibitions. Should we donate to the poor, forgive our enemies, or give special consideration to the disabled?

The Decalogue is silent on these questions. It does not mention abortion, the death penalty, or war. Nor does it celebrate democracy or liberty. The Decalogue has always been the subject of interpretive disputes. When asked about these ancient laws, Jesus offered a succinct interpretation, suggesting that there are only two laws: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

Of course, this did not settle the matter. Benjamin Franklin suggested the existence of twelve commandments, with the first being “to increase and multiply” and the twelfth demanding us “to love one another.” John Adams and Thomas Jefferson discussed the matter in letters the two ex-presidents exchanged about a German book of Biblical criticism. Adams suggested that the book showed that the Ten Commandments were “not written by the finger of God on tables.” Jefferson expressed doubt about the authenticity of the Decalogue since, as he put it, the history of these texts is “defective and doubtful.”

There are lots of interesting questions here for student research and reflection. Consider the third or fourth commandment—depending on your tradition—which focuses on keeping the sabbath day holy. Does this mean that businesses must close or that it would be wrong to watch football on Sunday? Students might also ask whether Sunday is actually the sabbath. Most Christians think so. But Seventh-Day Adventists maintain that Sunday was imposed on Christians by the Romans. They follow Jewish tradition and view Saturday as the Sabbath.

Critical discussions of the Decalogue should eventually lead to a conversation about the value of the First Amendment as a response to religious diversity. When a state authority picks sides in religious and moral controversies, it ends up violating the Establishment Clause. There is no doubt that the Decalogue is controversial. But does posting the text amount to promoting a religious viewpoint?

If the text were posted alongside similar texts such as Hammurabi’s Code, Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, or the Five Pillars of Islam, it would be more obviously a stimulus for critical thought and lessons about history. Context matters. As does the intention of those who post such texts.

Christian culture warriors do not seem to engage in critical thinking about the Bible. Here is the irony: If the text isn’t used to spur critical conversations, it appears to violate the First Amendment. But once we engage in a critical conversation about the Decalogue, it becomes obvious that the text is controversial and that the Establishment Clause ought to prohibit it from being posted as an idol in classrooms.

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Social Media Warnings and Education

Fresno Bee, June 23, 2024

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s recent call for warning labels on social media is a good idea. He notes that children who spend significant time on social media are at risk for mental illness. Murthy concludes, “The moral test of any society is how well it protects its children.”

But how best should we protect kids? Murthy recognizes that a warning label is a simple solution to a complex problem. Last year, his office issued a more detailed report noting that schools, parents, policymakers, and technology companies have a role to play in protecting kids. And long-term solutions depend upon education.

There is probably also a role for prohibitions. Smartphones have been banned in schools in Fresno and recently in Los Angeles. This week, Governor Newsom called for a statewide smartphone ban in California schools. Social media and smartphones are not the same thing. However, a school ban on smartphones is effectively a ban on social media during school time.

Tools and technologies can be employed in good or bad ways. A hammer can be used to build or to destroy. Prohibitions are justifiable when the risks are obvious and severe, and when the purported benefits of a tool are unclear. And with kids, their relative immaturity matters. A ban on social media access for kids might be justifiable and there is some wisdom in prohibiting smartphones at school. But at this point, a ban on these technologies is akin to closing the proverbial barn door once the horse has already galloped off.

People disagree about the risks and benefits of various technologies. One might argue against these bans by claiming that these technologies are more beneficial than dangerous. These tools help us stay connected, access the news, and conduct business. Of course, these tools also provide instant access to cyberbullying, exploitation, scams, and disinformation. But there is some truth to the claim that with smartphones and social media, it’s not the tool that is to blame, but how it is used.

Some technophobes are opposed to any innovative tool. Calculators were once viewed with skepticism, as was the Internet. These days technophobes are worried about artificial intelligence. But skeptics often adapt to new technologies, when their safety and usefulness are proven.

Hard-core libertarians resist every effort at prohibition. The recent Supreme Court case allowing “bump stock” weapons is worth mentioning here. The decision depends upon a technical matter involving trigger mechanisms. But the bigger question, not decided in this case, is whether there should be limits on dangerous weapons or whether individuals have a right to own even very dangerous weapons.

Social media and smartphones do not seem as dangerous as machine guns. So, it is easy to imagine a libertarian argument against Newsom’s proposed ban. Furthermore, social media is useful for kids. It’s how they socialize, organize clubs and teams, and how they communicate with each other and even with their parents. Smartphones can be useful in education when used properly to access information.

An outright ban may take away useful tools. And a school ban will have no impact on after-school usage. But there is no doubt that education is part of the solution. Teenagers must take driver’s ed and pass a licensing test to drive. Perhaps a similar training course and qualifying exam could be created for social media and smartphones.

Kids need critical lessons about cyberbullying, peer pressure, the bandwagon effect, and the power of misinformation and exploitative algorithms. They also need frank examples of the dangers of social media and smartphone addiction. They would benefit from a training course that includes lessons in “digital citizenship,” “ethical A.I.,” and “virtuous virtual reality” that encourage best practices online and good moral habits in cyberspace.

A Surgeon General’s warning is only a starting point for a broader conversation. We need to continue this conversation. A ban at school might help. But the social media and smartphone horse is already out of the barn. Kids need to be taught the skills and virtues that are required to ride that horse without getting hurt.

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Revenge is wrong

Fresno Bee, June 16, 2024

Donald Trump recently said, “Sometimes revenge can be justified.” He was responding to a prompt from Dr. Phil, who had quoted Pope Francis on the importance of forgiveness and overcoming resentment. Despite this prompting, Trump opted for revenge.

Some Trumpians may agree that Trump would be justified in seeking revenge against his enemies. And of course, there is an open question about what Trump’s vengeance would look like. In the Dr. Phil interview, Trump said he was hoping for “revenge through success.” Maybe he merely means that electoral victory would be a kind of revenge.

But left-wing pundits have pounced on Trump’s remarks, warning that Trumpism has devolved into a cult of personal vendettas. And in fact, revenge has long been essential to the Trump brand. Long before he ran for president, Trump said, “Always get even. When somebody screws you, you screw them back in spades.”

This idea is immoral. Most adults agree that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” The world’s religious and philosophical traditions counsel against revenge. And many agree with the Pope’s plea for forgiveness and love.

Some go so far as to agree with Jesus about the need to evolve beyond retribution and vengeance. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

The retributive idea of eye for eye, tooth for tooth, may appear to have something in common with revenge. But revenge is wildly emotional and often exceeds the limits of retaliation. Retributive justice imposes strict limits on what can be done in return for wrongdoing. Only one eye for one eye—and no more.

The excessiveness of revenge is one of the reasons that criminal justice has nothing to do with it. Criminal justice is not meant to carry out personal vendettas. Rather, it is enacted by legitimate public authorities by due process. Punishments established by law are not intended to satisfy a victim’s desire for vengeance. Rather, these punishments are limited, rational, and calmly and deliberately imposed.

These limits are essential for overcoming cycles of violence and revenge. Revenge is emotional and often disproportionate. The desire for revenge quickly escalates violence. And let’s admit it, revenge fantasies can be fun. The Greek poet Homer said that the desire for revenge was like honey for the soul. This is why revenge may also be addictive, as Dr. Phil said in his interview with Trump. Resentful people seem to enjoy brooding over their injuries and plotting vengeance.

The unreasonable and emotionally excessive nature of revenge leads most philosophers to condemn it. Plato distinguished justice from the “unreasoning vengeance of a wild beast.” Four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon described revenge in similar terms as “wild justice.” He thought civilized law ought to “weed out” revenge.

Among the arguments against revenge is the idea that revenge harms those who seek it. This is the meaning of an old proverb that says, “When you seek revenge, dig two graves.” The Dalai Lama has said something similar, “Indulgence in resentment and vengeance will only further and increase miseries for oneself and others.”

The idea that revenge rebounds and hurts the one seeking it is a common theme in literature. Captain Ahab’s desire for revenge against Moby Dick leads to his doom. And Hamlet ends up dead at the end of his mad quest for revenge.

Another problem is that the spirit of revenge dwells on the pain of the wrongful deed. Bacon said, “A man that studies revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal.” Revenge broods over the past wrong. It prevents us from healing, reconciling, and moving forward.

Forgiveness and love work otherwise. Martin Luther King explained, “Man must evolve a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” This does not mean that we give up on justice. Wrongs must be redressed. But enlightenment is found beyond the noxious spirit of vengeance and the idea that revenge can be justified.

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The Decency Drain, the Doom Loop, and the Taint of Corruption

Fresno Bee, June 2, 2024

I recently asked a group of young people whether they trust “the system.” Most said no. Youthful alienation reflects the generally cynical spirit of the times. Trust is at an all-time low. The Pew Center reported that in 2023 only 16% of Americans trust the government to do what is right always or most of the time. Republicans are less trusting than Democrats. But the atmosphere of alienation is bi-partisan.

The Trump trials are a microcosm of the problem. The former president routinely lambasts judges and prosecutors as corrupt. Recently, he falsely claimed that the FBI, under Joe Biden’s direction, was seeking to kill him when they searched his compound in Florida.

If Trump is right, this is a “badly failing nation,” as he has put it. If he is wrong, we are still in the midst of a political disaster given that Trump’s party believes that the justice system is wicked and the electoral system is corrupt.

It is a wonder, then, that any young person would want any part of such a decadent system. The taint of corruption justifiably turns off decent people. Would any decent young person want to run for office, become a cop, a lawyer, or a judge in such a tainted system? Why would anyone want to serve on a jury, or even bother to vote in a badly failing nation?

This leads to the risk of what we might call a decency drain. Who will remain to run the system, if everyone thinks it is broken? As decent people get fed up and leave, those who stay behind get weirder and more extreme. This drives out the remaining normal people, making it easier for even worse oddballs to gain power.

Correlated with the decency drain is a cynicism doom loop. Cynicism ultimately empowers cynics, who are not ashamed to take advantage. When smart and decent people abdicate positions of authority, the resulting power vacuum will suck in crooks and con men. This can happen in community groups and entire civilizations. When good people abandon ship, the cynics will pounce and eliminate the last shreds of decency from the organization.

The solution is obvious. Decent people need to remain engaged. They must continue to fight the good fight. This is not easy, or pleasant. But it is necessary for organizations, and civilizations, to survive.

These problems are ancient. When Plato proposed that virtuous philosopher-kings should rule, he understood this was unlikely. Good people tend to view the ugly tumult of political life with disdain. Plato’s solution depended on the wise man’s sense of duty, which would compel him to engage in politics despite the ugliness.

In ancient reality, this did not work out well. Socrates was executed. Plato was imprisoned by a tyrant and sold into slavery. Aristotle was more prudent. But he fled Athens to escape political persecution.

Wise and decent people have often been the victims of corrupt regimes. This is another version of the decency drain. When the good guys are all either dead, in prison, or in exile, who will be left to fix things?

At that point it is too late. Which is why we must respond before the doom loop cuts too deeply. We must call out the nihilism of the cynics while reaffirming our commitment to basic decency. Young people, especially, need to be encouraged to seek justice, wisdom, and virtue in service to the common good. The future of “we, the people” depends upon the hope of the citizens of the future.

The coming months will likely be difficult for our democracy. There will be even more cynical words thrown around about a corrupt and broken system. It may become tempting at some point to succumb to cynicism, or to opt out entirely. But the system is not as corrupt as the cynics make it out to be. There are decent and honorable people working to do the right thing. And the system won’t improve unless good people remain committed to fixing it. We the people must believe that the system is worth fighting for, and that it is in our power to fix it.

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What do we owe the dead?

Memorial Day reminds the living that they remain connected to those they have lost.

Fresno Bee, May 26, 2024

Memorial Day commemorates those who gave their lives for the nation. Beyond those fallen soldiers we also remember our other dead. But the flags and flowers are as puzzling as they are poignant. What do we owe the dead?

The dead are likely indifferent to our commemorations. And yet we feel compelled to remember. On birthdays and anniversaries, we raise a glass and toast the dead. Dia de los Muertos and the Japanese Obon festival honor the dead in their own ways. Remembrance is fleshed out in diverse traditions and funerary rites.

Some worry that hungry ghosts demand that we honor them with gifts and sacrifices. Behind this are metaphysical theories about the destination of the soul after death and profound questions about what matters in life, and death.

One famous example of these questions is found in Sophocles’ tragedy “Antigone.” The play’s title character buries her dead brother in defiance of the authorities. She explains to her sister that our obligations to the dead are deeper and longer than our obligations to the living. The moments of this world are fleeting. But in the end, Antigone says, we will lie with the dead forever.

Now a skeptic may wonder what all the fuss is about. Can the dust we scatter over a corpse really matter? Do the flowers we leave in cemeteries really accomplish anything in the metaphysical realm? Why would the dead care whether we decorate their graves? Will those ghosts even notice?

In response, we might say that memorializing the dead is more about the living than the dead. When we honor the dead, we express our values in the here and now. A flag, a flower, or a toast is a message to other living human beings who stand beside us. These symbols comfort the grieving. They express solidarity with a cause and link us to traditions that extend back through our ancestors. These ancestors no longer exist. But their memory gives substance to the present and orients us toward the future.

And despite what the skeptic says, we tend to feel responsible to the dead. This is linked to the puzzling topic of “posthumous harm.” Can a dead person be harmed if malicious rumors are spread about her? If we fail to fulfill a dead person’s wishes, has that person been harmed?

A will or organ donor card can create a legal obligation to carry out the wishes of the dead. But would the dead person be harmed if those wishes were not executed? A skeptic might say that non-existent people cannot be harmed. A more tender-hearted approach holds that the dead remain spiritually present. Their ethereal presence creates a real source of obligation and duty.

Our departed loved ones remain present with us even in their absence. This is not simply a hungry metaphysical ghost. Rather, it is the very real presence of the people we love. This happens all the time when friends and family are absent from us. Our loved ones are always here with us, even when they are far away. They are part of who we are. When they die, that absence becomes more permanent. But the presence remains.

We honor the dead not because we fear them or because we believe that they will be disappointed in their ghostly afterlife. Rather, our relationships, our promises, and our loves endure through time and across death.

This includes shared commitments to values and ideals. At Memorial Day, this shared commitment is understood in relation to the nation for which the fallen soldier has died. The rest of the year, we honor the dead by carrying on with the ideas and projects that gave shape to the lives of those we’ve lost.

This is part of what Sophocles called the wonder of being human. We transcend time. We create art. And we dedicate our lives to ideas that will outlive us.

The dead remain with us in the ideals they lived and died for. Beyond the flags and flowers, we honor the dead by carrying those ideals forward. We remember the dead because we love them and the values for which they lived. That love and those values endure in the hearts of the living.

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