Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 22, 2010 in General Atheism

One of Bertrand Russell’s lesser-known pro-secular works is a 1951 piece for New York Times Magazine called “The Best Answer to Fanaticism: Liberalism.” In this, he wrote a “Liberal Decalogue,” what might be better called today a “Secular 10 Commandments”:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. 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.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

My personal favorite is #8. What’s yours?

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

cl August 22, 2010 at 9:23 am

I liked ‘em all, I just didn’t like that you called them a “secular Ten Commandments.” Nothing personal!

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Leomar August 22, 2010 at 10:31 am

#5, #7 and #8. But all are great.

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Reginald Selkirk August 22, 2010 at 10:43 am

Surprise, surprise: “Thou shalt not have sex with a woman who is married to someone else” didn’t make the list.

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Evolution SWAT August 22, 2010 at 11:01 am

I also like #8 the most. It is also good that so many talk about questioning authority and concealing evidence. Using authority instead of open argument and concealing evidence ‘for the greater good’ seem to be used by all oppressive governments.

Jocular Question: These commandments seem good, but how will someone who lives by them know it’s wrong to steal or murder?

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Hermes August 22, 2010 at 11:06 am

Well, he didn’t mention the other three commandments. Only people in the
EAC
know those, if there were three more and if the
EAC
exists. Which it does not. But if it did, number 13 would be undeniable. They are delicious.

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Márcio August 22, 2010 at 11:08 am

#1: 2 + 2 = 4 or maybe not?
#5: Why have authority then?

No comments on the others for now.

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Derrida August 22, 2010 at 11:43 am

“#1: 2 + 2 = 4 or maybe not?”

As Descartes pointed out, an evil demon could be deceiving us by making us think that 2+2=4, when it actually =5. We can only trust our beliefs, even seemingly certain beliefs, to the extent that we can trust our reasoning, of which we can’t be certain.

#5: Why have authority then?”

Well, what is an authority? I think it’s someone who understands, and has studied, the evidence and arguments surrounding a discipline. Non experts often have to rely on authorities because they don’t understand the arguments, and so have to rely on the secondary evidence of expert opinion: the fact that most well informed, rational experts say that the arguments show x implies that the arguments do show x. When the experts disagree, as they almost always do, you have to use your better judgment about the arguments.

The point is that we shouldn’t accept a claim because an authority endorses that claim, we should accept a claim because there is evidence for it. Sometimes the endorsement of the claim by an authority happens to be good evidence, but often it isn’t.

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Kyle August 22, 2010 at 11:47 am

I’m not sure I agree with 5. I have a deep respect for authority when I feel it has been earned. I’m not an evolutionary biologist; I really don’t have much of an interest in becoming one. Yet I still except the theory of evolution because I see the majority of the scientific community speaking with a unified voice that evolution is true. I also see that most of evolution’s opposition appears simply to be uneducated for the most part. I accept the authority of the scientific community. Is that wrong? To be able to validate for myself every scientific theory that I hear is accepted by authorities would take several lifetimes.

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Chuck August 22, 2010 at 11:53 am

#10 for sure.

I’ve dealt too often with people in my profession who have become very satisfied with fleeting success while being oblivious to the compromises they’ve made to their ethics in achieving it.

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Reginald Selkirk August 22, 2010 at 12:35 pm

I’m not sure I agree with 5. I have a deep respect for authority when I feel it has been earned. I’m not an evolutionary biologist;…

This calls for an important distinction. Scientists do not offer authority, they offer expertise. E.g. natural selection is not the mechanistic basis for evolution because Charles Darwin said so, but rather Darwin was considered an expert on the topic because he accumulated so much evidence and came up with the theory.

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Sandra August 22, 2010 at 12:35 pm

#4 for sure. “for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory” i’ll add that any spoils left after the battle are temporary.

another set of advisements a friend of mine put together for parenting and raising critically thinking kids – with an invitation to collaborate – can be found here..

uponhttp://advisements.blogspot.com/2007/03/asking-big-questions.html

good stuff.

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JS Allen August 22, 2010 at 12:48 pm

#2 and #9 are my faves. I think he’s wrong about #10, but it’s too late for me :-)

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Bill Maher August 22, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Does anyone have a pdf of the article? I am a huge Russell fan.

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Hermes August 22, 2010 at 2:48 pm

No, but if you can print to PDF you can make your own. (If stuck on Windows without a PDF print driver, I know there are some that are available. OSX or Linux/… has this built-in.)

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Leomar August 22, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Does anyone have a pdf of the article? I am a huge Russell fan. Bill Maher

Bill, use Google Docs, Paste it there and Save as PDF! problem solved.

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Beelzebub August 22, 2010 at 3:14 pm

#9, #9, #9:

Because lying is such a pernicious and almost universal scourge in public discourse. It’s the way a repeated lie starts to have the appearance of truth and how that can warp self perception, so lies are communicable and self-replicating. It’s important to start by admitting what you believe is true (whether it is or not) and sticking to it. There will always be plenty of falsehoods to go around without adding lies to the mix.

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Hermes August 22, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Leomar, good trick! Thanks!

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Leomar August 22, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Leomar, good trick! Thanks! Hermes

You’re welcome.

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Mo August 22, 2010 at 4:28 pm

#1

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lukeprog August 22, 2010 at 4:41 pm

I think Bill Maher is talking about the original article in New York Times Magazine. I do not have a copy.

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Kip August 22, 2010 at 6:23 pm

#8

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Muto August 23, 2010 at 1:44 pm

#8

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nate August 23, 2010 at 2:09 pm

#88

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Krista June 22, 2011 at 11:41 am

While I am not an atheist, I do think about all of the possibilities. I really love #10!

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Sam Acourt September 10, 2011 at 7:05 am

If you subscribe to the evolution of altruism in the human species, then all of us should have an instinctive knowledge against stealing or murder; although childhood lessons are also very important in the development of a person’s morality.

What are your thoughts?

I also like #8 the most. It is also good that so many talk about questioning authority and concealing evidence. Using authority instead of open argument and concealing evidence ‘for the greater good’ seem to be used by all oppressive governments.

Jocular Question: These commandments seem good, but how will someone who lives by them know it’s wrong to steal or murder?

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