It’s time to repeal “Thou shalt not kill.”

September 16, 2007 | By | 2 Replies More

“Thou shalt not kill” (often translated as “You shall not murder”) has outlived its usefulness.   It’s time to repeal this Commandment.  Better yet, we should rewrite it to reflect society’s true moral policy regarding human conduct that causes death. Rewrite it as: “You may act in such a way that needless deaths result.”

“What do you mean?” someone might object.   “It can’t be OK to go around randomly killing people.” 

That’s correct.  It’s not a good thing to walk up kill other people.  We should imprison anyone behaving like this.  But we don’t need a Commandment to tell us not to do this.  It’s obviously wrong.  

But why tinker with a Holy Commandment prohibiting killing?  Because it is hermetically sealed—where we most need moral guidance in our convoluted world, “Thou shalt not kill” is useless.  For most people, this Commandment only prohibits affirmative acts of killing–murder–leaving unaddressed all of the acts of negligence, recklessness, thoughtlessness and failures-to-act that result in deaths. I cynically suspect that conservatives insist on displaying the Ten Commandments in public spaces to remind themselves that the only killing specifically prohibited by “God” is intentional murder. In other words, as long as they don’t take an axe to someone in cold blood, they can continue basking in God’s glory. 

As indicated above, many translations of the Bible indicate that the Commandment doesn’t prohibit every sort of killing, but rather only “murder.” What does it mean to commit murder?  Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Murder is the illegal killing of one human being by another. Murder is generally distinguished from other forms of homicide by the elements of malice aforethought and the lack of justification. 

Engaging in conduct that causes deaths is widely accepted.  Most conduct that leads to deaths is not considered “murder.” Almost every one of us is guilty every day.  We just don’t like to acknowledge this. If you’re still perplexed, allow me to explain.   There are many ways to cause the deaths of other people.  Many of them involve negligently or thoughtlessly depriving people of basic resources necessary for living.

Consider Mother Teresa, who exhibited great empathy but also contributed to widespread misery.  For all of the work she did tending to the sick, she was a significant part of a worldwide movement that has caused great despair, pain, sickness and death by preventing people from having access to birth control.  The policies she promoted have resulted in appalling overpopulation and death-inducing squalor in many parts of the world.  For those who dare question her conduct, her apologists can always argue that she didn’t violate “Thou shalt not kill” when she worked to outlaw birth control.  They would argue that there isn’t any Commandment that prohibits discourages responsible family planning, leading to the exhaustion of the Earth’s precious resources, leading to widespread sickness and death.  That’s true.  There is no such Commandment, but there should be.

Here’s another example of death-inducing conduct that, in many peoples’ minds, doesn’t violate a Commandment.  Millions of people are dying in Africa due to the spread of AIDS.  One way to slow the spread is to use condoms.  The Catholic Church, assisted by the United States, has discouraged the use of condoms among millions of people whose lives condoms could save.  It doesn’t take much of a brain to connect the dots.   No condoms means more AIDS and more deaths.  Depriving people of condoms doesn’t violate a Commandment, even though it results in foreseeable deaths.  There isn’t any Commandment such as “Thou shalt not cause millions of people to die by depriving them of condoms.”  There should be.

When people belong to outgroups, we don’t violate any of the Ten Commandments when we fail to assist them. There’s no Commandment that says to “Send food to starving people in Africa,” for instance.  Deaths by omission aren’t covered by the Commandment, only deaths by commission.  24,000 people die every day of starvation, most of them children under five years of age. Because no Commandment actually applies to our choices to not send available food to these starving people, it’s OK to spend that money on things like going to the movies or upgrading your expensive stereo system.  There’s no Commandment prohibiting us from purchasing frivolous things when a billion people are starving. Similarly, there’s no Commandment that declares the undeniable truth that hours and dollars are fungible.  Maybe there should be a Commandment to remind you that the money you blew on gambling last night should have (and could have) been used to save many lives.

I know that many people would protest these examples, claiming that Jesus gave a general Commandment requiring that we love one another.  But such a general formulation is much too prone to shameless self-centered interpretations.  Multitudes of preachers tell us that it’s OK to spend our money on luxuries rather than helping desperate people.  That’s what a general platitude like “love one another” gets you.  See here and here, for example.

Killing is acceptable in many other contexts, of course. Shooting someone in a “war” does not violate any Commandment, according to many Believers.  Even preemptive war is now considered to be a form of “self-defense” by many Christians.  Therefore, killing in “war” might be doubly-OK.   Yes, innocent people die whenever wars are fought.  There’s no commandment prohibiting bombing just because children get in the way of our bombs and missiles, however, even though such deaths are perfectly foreseeable and even though there are often better ways to resolve conflicts than provoking wars.

Does the Commandment against killing apply to those who drive while drunk?  Not on its face.  Same thing for those who fail to keep their small children out of busy streets.  And what about those who overeat so much that they cause themselves to have strokes and heart attacks?  Does the Commandment against “killing” prohibit obesity?  It should, but if the preachers start dissing fat folks, 2/3 of the congregation might get up and leave.

When we capture one of those “terrorists,” the U.S. policy is that it’s OK to water-board him, suffocate him or beat him, even though these techniques often result in deaths.  If he dies in our custody, he probably had it coming, since he hangs around with people who remind us of people we’re afraid of.  Is it killing when we recklessly drown a prisoner we know nothing about?  Certainly not, or there would have been an eleventh Commandment addressing this situation.  

Manufacturers often negligently manufacture goods and people sometimes die when those products eventually fail. Did somebody say “Vioxx?”  As many as 50,000 people dead from using Vioxx.  There’s no Commandment prohibiting the sale of dangerous pharmaceuticals, however, so it won’t send you to hell to work for a company that promotes the use of Vioxx.

Governments often fail to promote cheap and effective health care screenings, preventative measures and cost-efficient measures that could save lives.   Unfortunately, there’s no Commandment that requires us to provide critically important health care.  When the government lets people die, then, it is merely saving money, not violating God’s favorite ten laws.  When governments fail to regulate dangerous activities, people often die.   On their face, however, the Commandments don’t apply to governments.  They should on their face.  They should make it clear that people have non-stop obligations to help the poor avoid dying of preventable medical causes, even if we don’t like them, even if they are somewhat to blame for their predicament, and even if we’d rather cut taxes and spend that money on better vacations.

What about the situation where the federal government fails to conduct basic scientific research that has a 20% chance of resulting in a new method of saving lives, instead of spending money (money that dwarves those research dollars) on preemptive wars?  Some would argue that that is OK because there is no Commandment such as “Thou shalt conduct basic research that might save lives.”  Wouldn’t it be better to add a Commandment requiring us to conduct basic research that might someday save lives?  And how about a Commandment that tells people to not obsess over saving human embryos that don’t yet have any brain cells and, instead, to spend their energies saving real human babies by encouraging stem cell research?

You get the idea. People use blindered interpretations of “Thou shalt not kill” as a salve, as a license to engage in acts and omissions that result in widespread and needless deaths.  As that Commandment is currently interpreted, it constitutes a very low bar, indeed.

Therefore, let’s change the murder-prohibiting Commandment to reflect the cold nasty reality of the modern world.  Let’s knock down the facade of the current Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”  Let’s make it clear that we are allowed to go forth and cause deaths, as long as it is done with a good conscience.


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Category: Good and Evil, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Per The Onion, God clarifies "Do not kill" | Dangerous Intersection | November 16, 2008
  1. You say that murder is "obviously wrong" then spend a lot of effort showing that it is not obvious. The disconnect is apparently in application.

    The Commandments are not the problem. Ignorance of the Law is the problem, especially among believers. The Commandments, – and – the Statutes and Judgements must be taught and followed. The consequences are what motivate people to do what is right, or said another way, to not do what is wrong. And before anyone goes ballistic, I'm not talking about burning in hellfire for eternity. I'm talking about living in a lawless society, which we obviously are.

    "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the hearts of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil." Eccl. 8:11

    You cannot murder a murderer. Of course, under man's "law" this is not so. If you were to kill a murderer the "justice" system would swallow you

    and thus sustain itself. Biblical justice is based on restitution rather than punishment. Because man is required to restore a life that he has taken without cause, and is not able, his own life is forfeit.

    Will anyone be able to deny culpability by claiming they didn't believe what "believers" didn't believe? Should the question be, "What did you believe?" or "What did you do?".

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