“A Better Ten Commandments” by James Miller

In writing this review, I am finding it difficult to concentrate on commenting on the writing and the way it is presented. I keep getting sidelined into imaginary arguments with the author about his ideas.
Which, if you are a writer of this sort of book, is a good sign. If your readers are caught up in your ideas so much that they miss the little errors that interfere with the reading, then you’ve got powerful ideas. A benefit that this writer needs, because the execution of his philosophy is not as smooth as the ideas that produce it.
So, Let’s Get Content out of the Way First
I had all sorts of fun with Miller’s discussion of the biases that keep humans from making logical decisions: conformation bias, the placebo affect, and my favourite, the blind spot bias, where you don’t believe that you have biases at all. Which, I’m afraid, applies to most people. Perhaps even me, but I don’t think so
On the other hand, I find it hard to agree with his argument that ethics can be objective. “I think, however, that ethics can operate just like chemistry or biology.” Given the changing nature of human society and ideas, I’m not sure that an ethical ideal that seems perfectly logical and correct today might not be anathema in a hundred year’s time. Dare I mention Manifest Destiny and the White Man’s Burden?
Another one that bothered me: “To a certain extent, we are by nature fundamentally good.” This strikes me as just the flip side of the old coin that mankind is inherently sinful, and hardly belongs in the philosophy of an atheist who finds the absolutes of organized religion the source of many of our society’s problems.
But in the long run, I have to agree that these new commandments are far more appropriate to our society than the original edition, so in that respect, Miller has achieved his objective.
As with most of this type of literature, this book contains a lot of great quotes. Miller states that he doesn’t take credit for the great thoughts, just the act of compiling them. So he borrows freely from Buddha, Aristotle, Thoreau, Einstein, and Yogi Berra for his ideas. He doesn’t pretend to be creating a new ethos. He just draws our attention to ideas that have stood the test of time.
Most of the arguments are presented in conversational language that is easy to follow, with regular dips into more complex philosophical style, lightened by a few small dashes of humour. I greatly enjoyed the latter, and would prefer the more elaborate concepts cleaned up and straightened out a bit.
One suggestion for improvement would be the addition of at least two more layers of headings. In Nonfiction writing of this sort, creating headings and subheadings is a useful technique to keep readers in touch with the logic. Also a great way to keep the writer from wandering.
A last minor point, but still germane: if you are discussing ideas, where the simple insertion of a comma can completely alter the meaning of a sentence, it is even more important not to disturb the flow of the reader’s involvement with poor sentence structure and the misuse of words. This book could use one more pass through by an editor who understands that grammar was created to enhance meaning.
To Sum Up
One of the most useful and enjoyable parts of reading a book like this is not what the text tells you, but where it sends your mind wandering when you lose track of what the author is saying.
As with all books in this genre, there is one criteria for deciding whether to recommend it or not; is it worth the time it takes to read it? In my case, the answer is yes. It wasn’t so much that I’m going to take Miller’s advice verbatim. It’s the thought processes and the introspection that those ideas sparked in my own head and my own life that were most worthwhile.
(4 / 5)

About the Author: Gordon Long

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