This is not an attempt to appeal to tradition. Rather, general curiosity.

Brass Tacks

What list like ethical code of ancient religions is similar to the Ten Commandments or the five/ eight precepts of Buddhism?

Additionally, the difference between law and 'ethical code' lies in how each are followed (generally speaking). For example, the Code of Hammurabi is more of law. Laws are generally imposed, while ethics is more or less up the the individual.

  • 1
    Before Old Testament there was Zoroastrian Avesta en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoroastrianism#Principal_beliefs Christianity is believed to have borrowed mythology and ethical teachings from Zoroastrianism, and Nietzsche even took Zoroaster to be the founder of traditional ("slave") morality:"Zarathustra was the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the actual wheel in the working of things... Zarathustra created this most fateful of errors, morality: consequently he must also be the first to recognize it" philosophynow.org/issues/93/Nietzsches_Dance_With_Zarathustra
    – Conifold
    Aug 20, 2016 at 17:16
  • Regarding your exclusion of 'law' - the Ten Commandments are basically nothing more than 'religious laws'. Laws are written rules imposed by authorities. It is basically the appearance of any early written (i.e. known) ethics I am aware of.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Aug 20, 2016 at 17:41

2 Answers 2



Ancient Egyptian religions are not that well known. (The first civilizations where in Mesopotamia. You know, "the beginning" of civilizations.) The closest known-of list is the Law of Tehut. Yet, this may be more legislative (on page 135) than the type of list sought.


Ancient Western philosophies do not divide morality into bullet like lists. http://www.mesacc.edu/~barsp59601/graph/timelines/ancientphil.gif

Hinduism came before Buddhism. Although, Buddhist precepts are more list worthy than Hindu yamas and niyamas (which are more virtue ethics than statements). Strictly speaking, Buddhism also involves virtue ethics along with the precepts.


That leaves the Ten Commandments of Judaism. Even so, the Law of Tehut out-dates all of these written codes. Dave gives a excellent disambiguation on this, furthering the stream of thought as this question's true answer is not as black and white as one would like it to be:

So, that being the case, I would turn the question around: why does it matter? What benefit would be gained by drawing such a distinction? If we could answer that, perhaps we'd have a clearer way to finding an appropriate criterion. https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/1584/4506

Sources (timelines)

mesacc.edu/~barsp59601/graph/timelines/ancientphil.gif lycoming.edu/tolerance/images/timeline.jpg


Ancient ancestors of Homosapeiens, ala. "Cave-men" had ethical codes based on what anthropologists and archaeologists can tell although they did not have clear written records and it pre-dated religion. From an anthropological perspective, ancient superstitions were known to be gathered up and became the first psuedo religion which had rules to avoid risk if that counts as a religion. So the first pagan religion which is lost to the annuls of history of late stone age is likely the one you are looking for.

If you are looking for written records of one that is known by name this may fit your bill:

The oldest known law code is that of King Menes of Egypt. It is called the Law of Tehut and dates to about 5200 years ago. source

Following your line of questioning:

Additionally, the difference between law and 'ethical code' lies in how each are followed (generally speaking). For example, the Code of Hammurabi is more of law. Laws are generally imposed, while ethics is more or less up the the individual.

From a philosophical perspective:

  • Axiology gives us a way to measure value
  • Ethics gives us a list of "oughts"
  • Laws are suppose to be derived from ethics

In practice Laws come from traditions, politic, personal gain, maintenance of power, societal pressures, etc.. and rarely from well formed Ethical arguments of Philosophy to the great upset of many. This is for a number of reasons namely Philosophers have done a poor job making a compelling chain of reasoning going from Metaphysics -> Epistemology & Logic -> Axiology -> Ethics that has been widely accepted. There are a number of reasons for this, namely

  • People that currently hold political power have incentives to keep control of that power
  • People that are good are making logical arguments tend to be bad at communicating and convincing others of ideas (two different disciplines)

I would say that we are much closer to having a rational chain of reasoning for laws based in Ethics today, but we are not there yet.

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