There are people who like to claim that an atheism means rampant immorality and lawlessness – as if a deity is the only proper basis for morality and lawfulness. Well, in the news the other day was this article: Mafia’s ‘Ten Commandments’ found:
Italian police have found what they say is a “Ten Commandments”-style code of behaviour for Mafia members, at the hideout of a captured Mafia boss.
The Mafia’s “Ten Commandments”
1. No-one can present himself directly to another of our friends. There must be a third person to do it.
2. Never look at the wives of friends. (Parallels the Ten Commandment’s “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife”.)
3. Never be seen with cops.
4. Don’t go to pubs and clubs.
5. Always being available for Cosa Nostra is a duty – even if your wife’s about to give birth. (Possible parallels with “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”.)
6. Appointments must absolutely be respected.
7. Wives must be treated with respect.
8. When asked for any information, the answer must be the truth. (Parallels the Ten Commandment’s “Thou shalt not lie”.)
9. Money cannot be appropriated if it belongs to others or to other families. (Parallels the Ten Commandment’s “Thou shalt not steal”.)
10. People who can’t be part of Cosa Nostra: anyone who has a close relative in the police, anyone with a two-timing relative in the family, anyone who behaves badly and doesn’t hold to moral values.
This isn’t that surprising. Groups often devise rules to define the proper ways to interact with each other – even thieves have rules when dealing with each other. Why? Is it because they want to “do the right thing”? No, what it does is establishes a reasonable code of “wrong behavior” – and this aids in preventing conflict between individuals. Imagine a group where there are no defined rules, and anyone can do anything to anyone. One person does something harmful to another person (steals, rapes, murders, etc). In that case, the victim, family of the victim, or friends of the victim will be offended by the attack, and will retaliate. This can spiral into cycles of retaliation (as in the case of the Hatfields and McCoys), which ends up harming everyone.
When someone violates this code of conduct, it is apparent both to the individual, and to the group as a whole. This makes it easy for the group to decide who to side with – afterall, by creating the list of “wrong behaviors” beforehand, the individual knows when he’s crossing a line, and the group knows that the individual knows he’s crossing a line. If there is no list of wrong behaviors, there is still a general knowledge of what is fair and unfair behavior – but it might vary from one person to another (which creates for potential deception “I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to do that”), making it more difficult to pick sides in a conflict.
The main point, though, is that being fair prevents unnecessary conflicts – many of which end up harming both parties. So, there is a real reward for “doing the right thing”, even if there’s no deity or karma to reward and punish people.
While I’m not a follower or fan of Taoism, this reminds me of something I read a long time ago in ‘Lieh-Tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practical Living’:
Softness and Hardness, Yielding and Resisting
There are many things about the way of heaven and earth that people find puzzling. For example, strength does not always win, and sometimes softness may be a more effective strategy.
If you routinely try to overcome strength with strength, then one day you will meet someone who is stronger than you are, and you will be defeated… If you are competitive, there will always be that one time when you will lose. If you are noncompetitive, you will not have to worry about winning and losing.
There was once a king who was only interested in hiring men who were strong and brave because he believed that strength was the best way to protect himself.
One day, a wandering philosopher visited the king. The king was in a bad mood that day and was scowling and pacing around. He saw the philosopher and said, “I am only interested in hearing about strength and courage. If you are going to talk to me about virtue and morality, then you are wasting my time.”
The philosopher said, “If I had a strategy that will guarantee that anyone who attempts to stab you will miss, would you be interested?”
“Of course I’d like to hear about it.”
“If someone tries to stab you and misses, you will still be humiliated by the attempt on your life. Therefore, a better strategy would be one in which people will never dare to strike you in the first place.”
The king reluctantly agreed.
The philosopher continued, “Now, if people do not dare to harm you, there’s no guarantee that they will not wish to harm you. Therefore, an even better strategy is one that will make people not want to harm you at all.”
The king nodded thoughtfully.
The philosopher then said, “But just because people do not want to harm you doesn’t mean they will respect you or love you. Suppose you had a strategy that could get them to love you and respect you, so that your concerns are their concerns. Would this strategy be several times better than just strength and courage?”
The king exclaimed, “This is exactly what I am looking for.”
The philosopher said, “Confucius and Mo-tzu were not princes. They never became leaders or held any political office. However, people gave them respect equal to that of kings and nobles. Everywhere they went, people craned their necks and stood on tiptoes to catch a glimpse of them. Everyone respected them and wished them well. Your Majesty, you already have political and military power. If you rule your people with virtue and integrity, wouldn’t your greatness surpass that of Confucius and Mo-tzu?”
The moral of the story is that even kings (who have disproportionate power to abuse others) benefit from being fair and just. Yes, there is an obvious hole in the claim that being just and fair completely protects the king – it doesn’t protect the king from power-hungry men attempting coups, or from foreign nations. However, being just and fair does reduce the problems and threats a person faces – and we don’t need to invoke heaven, hell, or karma to make that argument.