A Polemical Essay
The Brother's Keeper Ethic: A Wrong Defense of Rights
By Wayne Dunn

Summary: Religious Conservatives unintentionally undermine freedom and capitalism when they try to justify individual rights on the basis of religion and faith.

The most effective way to undermine a rational idea is to "defend" it with an irrational argument. That is precisely what happens when religious conservatives try to defend or justify the idea of individual rights by appealing to Judeo-Christian ideals, ideals which hold that man is his "brother's keeper." What the religious conservatives fail to grasp is that the concept of individual rights is incompatible with the ethic of Brother's Keeper; the two cannot be integrated.

From where does the term "Brother's Keeper" originate? In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it first appears in the genesis story of the Bible. The tale goes like this: Cain and Abel (Adam and Eve's sons) each made an "offering" to God (the first sacrificial offering mentioned in the Bible). God rejected Cain's sacrifice, but accepted Abel's. Cain grew jealous and eventually killed his brother (the first murder mentioned in the Bible). When God asked where Abel was, Cain lied then said, "Am I my brother's keeper?" In the story, God does not answer directly, but other passages of the Bible reply with a resounding yes.

Unlike the God of the Old Testament, Jesus was not evasive when it came to explaining what being a Brother's Keeper entails. He said you should "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 19:19). The word "neighbor" is not referring merely to the folks next door, but to all of mankind. In other words, you should love everyone in the exact same way that you love yourself. You love yourself enough to pay attention to yourself, right? Well, pay the same attention to your neighbor too. You love yourself enough that you supply yourself with the things you need, right? Well, then, you should provide for your neighbor too.

But it doesn't end there.

To completely fulfill the demands of the Brother's Keeper ethic, one must not only provide love, attention, and resources to friends, family, and random strangers, but also to one's own enemies! In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44).

"Enemy" is the word one uses to describe a person or group whose actions or ideas one regards as wrong or evil. One can only conclude from the teachings of Jesus that the pinnacle of virtue is achieved, not by pursuing and upholding one's own values, but by surrendering those values to people one despises. In other words, according to the Christian ethic, a person must become his enemies' supporter, showering them with "love," "blessings," "prayers" and "good deeds." In real life this means that one should "do good to," "love," and "bless" the drug pusher on the corner, the wife-beater down the street, the thief in the workplace, the communist dictator in China or his friends in the White House. As Ayn Rand revealed, virtue, by this standard, consists of serving vice.

The morality of Brother's Keeper has its roots in a biblical myth of sacrifice and murder. But it is no myth that wherever such a morality is emulated, sacrifice and murder quickly take root. In fact, murder and self-sacrifice are the only "brothers" that ever seem to be "kept" in any faith-based society. Bearing tragic testimony to that fact is the history of Christian dominance in the Western World--a history that spanned almost fifteen centuries and was characterized by gloom, oppression, squalor, and stagnation.

The person most responsible for rescuing the West from religious faith, ironically, was a Christian--Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, a thirteenth century philosopher, attempted to reconcile man's undeniable faculty of reason with religion's requirement of faith in the supernatural. In so doing, he reintroduced the Western World to the reason-based concepts of the father of logic, Aristotle. That Aristotelian spark, rekindled by Aquinas and fanned by several other thinkers along the way, eventually ignited the Renaissance, the "rebirth" of reason. Out of the Renaissance grew a period that came to be called, "The Age of Enlightenment." In the wake of the Enlightenment atmosphere, faith gave way to reason, darkness gave way to light, and man--in spite of the frantic warnings of frightened priests---came to realize the might of his own mind. Religion became a shadow of its former self and has never recovered. (It grows weaker with each passing century.)

The Founding Fathers lived and learned in the intellectual climate of the Enlightenment. America was the result.

Certainly many of America's founders held sincere religious convictions, and some of them from time-to-time extolled the faith-based idea of Brother's Keeper. But the morality of the Bible simply could not have provided them with so much as one justification for creating a nation based on inalienable rights. Even the belief in the value of the individual soul--a belief that men held for centuries--did not produce even one individual right. There is nothing in Moses' Ten Commandments, in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, or any version of the two that can justify even basic voting rights, much less the more fundamental rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It was not a prophet of the Bible who provided the proper intellectual ammunition to our Founding Founders, but rather, a thinker of the Enlightenment--John Locke. Locke was a staunch advocate of reason and individual rights. He believed that man's nature is basically good and that his goal is, and should be, to seek happiness. Each man therefore should be free to pursue his own self-interest. The role of government, reasoned Locke, is simply to protect each person's right to life, liberty and property.

Now compare Locke's ideas, which Thomas Jefferson adopted, to the teachings of the Bible: The scriptures pronounce that man is evil by nature. Therefore, his mind is depraved, his body is corrupt, his soul is degenerate, and his urges are wicked. Man's proper course, then, is to abandon his own "unreliable" mental faculties, which are tainted by original sin, and to have faith in the supernatural, in God. Further, man must stifle his "selfish" cravings and, instead, practice self-sacrifice. Moreover, early church fathers such as Saint Augustine taught that man must renounce this "fallen" world, where he will spend only a few tortured years, and keep his focus fixed firmly on the afterlife, where he hopes to spend a blissful eternity. In short, until such time as he is "set free" by death and united with God, man is commanded to act as his brother's keeper.

This attitude was prevalent in Europe in the Middle Ages and in the theocratic colonies initially established in North America.

Locke's theory of man's inherent goodness provided the logical foundation for his view of man's relationship to the state. Likewise, the Judeo-Christian doctrine of man's inherent wretchedness has produced governments and societies consistent with that view. When people regard themselves as evil by nature and the mind as impotent, they have no philosophical basis by which to even think they deserve rights, much less recognize they have them. If man is evil, why should he protest being treated that way?

While Thomas Jefferson was applying Locke's philosophical premises to the creation of a government, Adam Smith was applying them to the principles of economics. Jefferson wrote about free men, Smith, about free trade, but both applied the same means: reason. By the time the Continental Congress was assembled in Philadelphia, reason ruled virtually every area of human endeavor--with one unfortunate exception: The field of ethics. Morality remained, in the minds of most people, the exclusive domain of religion. And religion, then as now, propagated the Brother's Keeper ethic.

Basking in the glow of the Enlightenment, most people in Jefferson's day were too reasonable, too "this-worldly," to actually comply with the morality of Brother's Keeper. But as long as people regarded it as a moral ideal, they were impotent to challenge it. People simply pursued self-interest throughout the week, but then went to church on Sunday and probably shouted "amen" when the preacher talked about the "virtues" of self-sacrifice. The same is true today: People are generally charitable and benevolent toward others. However, they evade or simply fail to identify the underlying disparity between two philosophical ideas: One, religious faith, tells man that he is his Brother's Keeper, and the other, reason, recognizes man's inalienable rights. The first relegates man to the status of a walking sacrifice, demanding he place the interests of others above his own; the second elevates man to his status as a rational being, allowing him to pursue his own interests and demanding only that he respect the rights of others.

How, then, do the individual's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, for example, specifically compare to the teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition? To make such a comparison, one must first understand what those rights mean in the context used by Jefferson and the others: The "right to life," for instance, means that each person is the owner of his or her own life. It does not refer to "everlasting life" in some spiritual dimension--it pertains to life here on this earth. It is a right that applies to human beings, not plants or animals--to the living, not the dead--to an actual human, not a potential one.

The only time one hears religious conservatives speak of the "right to life" is in reference to the abortion issue. Once outside a womb and inside a church, one's right to life is over as far as religion is concerned. A living, breathing, cognitive human sitting in a pew is unlikely to hear so much as a peep from the pulpit regarding his or her actual right to life. Indeed, the scriptures teach that God owns all life. Furthermore, a preoccupation with one's own "earthly" existence is considered somewhat petty or spiritually shallow. And, of course, one's "worldly" possessions are of little account either. Jesus exemplified this attitude perfectly in his Sermon on the Mount, saying, "Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body..."(Matthew 6:25). Man's need for food and clothing, Jesus adds, will be met by God, just like He meets the needs of birds and flowers. People should stop worrying so much about the problems of "this" life, Jesus taught, and focus on the next one. Moreover, if one's earthly life is actually lost in pursuit of "otherworldly values," then so much the better. Jesus said, "He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (Matthew 10:39). Paul, one of Jesus' most zealous converts, took this idea to its logical culmination, saying, "But I hold not my life of any account as dear unto myself" (Acts 20:24). And again in 2 Corinthians 5:8: "We are...willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord."

And just how can one attain this "absence from the body"?: Death.

Incidentally, if one is supposed to have such little regard for one's own life---if self-love is so undesirable and discouraged---then Jesus' commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" does not bode well for one's neighbor. But that Biblical inconsistency aside, the point should be obvious: America's Founding Fathers believed in the right to life. The heroes of the New Testament longed to be "absent from the body."

Jefferson's concept of the "right to liberty" relates to political liberty, not to "liberty from earthly suffering" or "liberty from sin" or "liberty from material concerns." He was writing about freedom in this world, not freedom from this world. To word it in the negative, the right to liberty means that no person has the right to enslave another person.

The Bible, far from extolling political freedom, teaches that one should be satisfied with one's station in life--even as a slave! Ephesians 6:5 instructs servants to "be obedient to them that are your masters." And 1 Peter 2:18 goes even further, commanding servants to be "subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward [harsh]." Incidentally, Jefferson may never have tried to justify his shameful ownership of slaves by resorting to the scriptures, but he certainly could have found a hearty defense therein.

But far worse than the Bible's acceptance of literal slavery, is its glorification of self-imposed humility and servitude. Serving the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden, and the sick, is part and parcel of Christianity. Such altruistic behavior is not merely a suggestion but a moral imperative. Man, according to the New Testament, should follow in the footsteps of Jesus, transform himself into a meek and humble servant, and sacrifice for the sake of his brothers--who consist of the whole of mankind. Furthermore, "good deeds" of a self-sacrificial nature, though not viewed by all doctrines as essential for one's "eternal salvation," are often seen as an indicator of one's "spirituality."

One of the most peculiar displays of this Brother's Keeper spirituality can be found in John 13:5: Jesus, setting an example of servitude for others to follow, washed the feet of his disciples. Christians regard Jesus' foot-washing episode as the exemplary gesture of servitude and humility---and they are absolutely right.

Jefferson enshrined liberty. The Bible enshrines servitude.

When Jefferson wrote of the right to pursue happiness, he was referring to happiness here in this world. He was not referring to "eternal happiness," nor was he redefining happiness to mean "the joy of serving" or any other such nonsense. He meant "happiness" by its actual definition. The emphasis of the Bible, on the other hand, is on the "virtue" of suffering. Jesus said, "Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven" (Matthew 5:11-12). In other words, "earthly" suffering should not merely be expected and tolerated, but celebrated. And if you are specifically persecuted for your Christian beliefs, then so much the better, according to the Bible. By this standard, one's virtue is defined, at least in part, not by one's convictions or actions, but by the negative reaction of others to one's convictions or actions.

Historically, religionists have poured spiritual significance into personal calamities, physical discomfort and bodily afflictions. Illness or misfortune, according to the scriptures, may be a test of one's faith or perhaps a punishment for one's sins. Even self-imposed hardships such as fasting or sexual abstinence are supposed to make one more "spiritually receptive" or somehow bring one "closer to God."

The Biblical prophets provide extreme but eloquent examples of self-induced suffering. One, Jeremiah, bore a particularly heavy burden--quite literally: He wore an ox yoke around his neck! And then there was John the Baptist, a New Testament prophet who immersed people in water, wore a shirt made of camel's hair, and ate only wild honey and locusts. But John's diet was infinitely superior to Ezekiel's. This Old Testament prophet was supposedly commanded by God to eat food cooked with human feces! Observing Ezekiel's protests, God slightly altered the menu, permitting him to substitute cow manure.

Apart from observing that lunacy is apparently a precondition of prophecy, one can see that the Bible's emphasis is definitely not on pursuing happiness. The prophets, whom religious followers are taught to admire, were certainly not men who sought "earthly pleasures," nor would they likely have had anything good to say about people who did.

Jefferson exalted the pursuit of happiness. The Bible exalts the "virtue" of suffering.

The incompatibility between the concept of individual rights and the Biblical morality of Brother's Keeper should be strikingly apparent. Nothing in the Bible even hints at the idea that the individual has any rights whatsoever. Moreover, nothing in the scriptures can even support the right to religious worship, which all rational people uphold.

The idea that the Founding Fathers were trying to design a Christian nation is ludicrous. If such had been their desire, why did they not simply commission a committee of devoted, Bible-believing preachers to write the Declaration of Independence? (If such had been the case, one wonders how it would read. Perhaps it would go like this: "We hold these revelations to be prophetic, that all men are created evil, that they are encumbered by their creator with certain irrational plights, that among these are death, servitude, and the pursuit of suffering." That "Declaration" is far more closely aligned with the teachings of the Bible than is the one Jefferson wrote.)

There can be no compromise between individual rights and the Brother's Keeper ethic. Either one has the right to life, or one's life is owned by any random "brother" who declares his indigence. Either one has the right to liberty or one is humble, right-less, foot-washing servant. Either one is free to pursue one's own happiness or at the first sight of a tear or sound of a whine, one must help one's neighbor pursue his. Certainly liberty does not preclude charity; we should be free to assist whomever we choose (the key words being, "free" and "choose"). But the Judeo-Christian moral code, which demands all individuals sacrifice for the poor, the needy, the sick, and the inept, is not a moral code that can support the rights of any individual--including the poor, the needy, the sick, and the inept.

If, by claiming that America was based on Judeo-Christian principles, religious conservatives merely mean that the Founding Fathers had some traits that are also praised in the Bible, then that much is true. For example, the Founders certainly believed that it was immoral to lie, steal, murder or otherwise trample one's fellow man. And it is also true that the Bible condemns such behavior (though inconsistently and for the wrong reasons). But attributes such as honesty and respect for others are not the defining characteristics of any religion. All religions, and even pagan societies, have claimed to hold such beliefs in one variation or another. The fundamental question, then, is not whether or not the Judeo-Christian ethic has some good qualities--no religion could last if it were without even the pretense of virtue. The fundamental question is whether or not the Judeo-Christian ethic, and its corresponding morality of Brother's Keeper, is conducive to freedom and individual rights. And the answer to that question is: absolutely not.

Individual rights were advanced by the ideas of John Locke, not John the Baptist--Thomas Jefferson, not Thomas the Apostle--Adam Smith, not Adam the naked gardener. The Founding Fathers, though men of mixed precepts, created a nation which upheld life, not death--liberty, not servitude--happiness, not suffering--pride, not humility--self-interest, not self-sacrifice--and individual rights, not Brother's Keeper.

The religious conservatives are right about one thing: Some of America's founders expressed religious faith. But a mountain of faith cannot produce so much as a mustard seed of freedom--and never has. If faith were the primary requirement for individual rights, then men would have realized liberty centuries before Jefferson was even born. The world has never been short on faith. In creating America, the Founding Fathers applied something far more potent than any faith they might have had: They applied reason. Reason will always support individual rights, but it will never justify the Brother's Keeper ethic.

What religious conservatives forget--or more likely, evade--is that their political opponents, the liberals, believe in Brother's Keeper too. The religious right in America holds the same underlying moral premise as the liberal left: that all men should sacrifice for their brothers. The only difference is that the liberals usually drop any religious reference (though this is changing too). Legislatively, that is why the Republican Congress has been so consistently impotent to eliminate even the weakest government programs; they merely shifted some of the responsibility to the governors of the fifty states, arguing, essentially, that self-sacrifice is best administered at the lower levels of government. (Notice they do everything except argue against self-sacrifice or for self-interest.)

So despite the prayers of today's religious conservatives, one cannot advance an idea by preaching its opposite. One cannot effectively advocate freedom out of one side of the mouth, while preaching self-sacrifice out of the other. One cannot promote individual rights on Monday through Saturday by extolling the "virtues" of Brother's Keeper on Sunday. Fortunately, reason does not require a day of rest. And it is on the basis of reason, not faith, that the original American ideal of individual rights must be championed. As Ayn Rand pointed out, to defend rational ideas on the basis of faith is to surrender reason to your opponents.

There is only one way to successfully defend individual rights: The uncompromising advocacy of reason as an absolute. Educated in Enlightenment ideals, Thomas Paine, to the chagrin of the religionists of his day, unequivocally expressed such an advocacy of reason: "My own mind," wrote Paine, "is my own church." And to that we should shout, "Amen!"
Return to Home Page
Read: The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine
Suggested Reading: