08 February 2013
The 10 Suggestions
This week, Alain de Botton has released a list of 10 virtues for atheists. They are, rather predictably, being covered by the media as his “10 Commandments” and roundly dismissed for that reason. His list is inoffensive, so mild that it risks being dull, but in itself I can find nothing to quibble with.
The project is inspired, he says, by the fact that goodness has gone out of fashion. He suggests, and I would heartily agree, that thinking about how to be good is perhaps a better use of our time than thinking about how to be “hot”, rich or socially successful. Having a public conversation about trying to be more self-sacrificial, or resilient, or even self-aware and confident, is no bad thing.
However, what I believe this list does do is throw into sharp relief just how compelling and serious the Christian ethical tradition is in comparison. Having read Alain’s lists of commendable character traits, one is left thinking: why would you bother?
He doesn’t attempt to put them in the context of a world in which they are possible. He tries to explain them in very pragmatic ways - for example, self-sacrifice is important because without it you won’t do some things that are very worthwhile, like raising a family. If you become more patient, you will also be calmer. The virtues are mostly couched in self-interest. You are left with this feeling that this list is more well-meaning personal development than an ethical manifesto which really grapples with what goodness is. This is understandable. If the world in which you live is simply random, emptied of agency, design, or justice, why would you bother? Because Alain de Botton tells you that optimism isn’t necessarily shallow? It is easy to keep going when things are dark, as he suggests if you think you’re in a tunnel, but not if you believe you are in a cave.
Vitally, de Botton does not offer any resources for how you are supposed to go about, as he says “flexing your ethical muscles”. His project sounds like a lonely, tiring and unrewarding one. I genuinely think it’s a good thing, but likely to be little more effective than the New Year’s resolutions most of us have made, and broken.
In contrast, the original 10 Commandments, and Christian ethics in general, exist only in response to God’s generous action. We are able to love because he first loved us. We are able to forgive, to welcome the stranger, to sacrifice ourselves because he made the first move, he modelled goodness for us. That’s not to say we always do respond, in this way, but that we have a reason to, that is not just “trying to be a nice person”. Growing in goodness in the Christian tradition is not a pull yourself up by your bootstraps, willpower-based program. It is something that happens in relationship with someone you trust who has shown you how it’s done.
I’m a big fan of Alain de Botton (Status Anxiety is one of my favourite books) but there is just no comparison between this well-meaning advice and the goodness modelled for us in the New Testament. Goodness is not, as the saying goes, its own reward, but needs a reason. As Christians we know what, or rather Who, ours is.
Elizabeth Oldfield, director of Theos