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Reflections on Ethics 72
The Sixth Commandment
Killing and Self-Preservation

by: Joseph Lewis

Editor's note: This is the opening section of Chapter Six of Joseph Lewis' book, The 10 Commandments.

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"Thou shalt not Kill."

Killing and Self-Preservation

Many theologians contend that the five previous Commandments are supposed to deal with man's relation to God, and the remaining five, beginning with this one, with man's relation to man. Assuming this premise to be correct, would that account for an important difference that distinguishes the first half from the second -- the element of reward and punishment?

The Second Commandment states that God was to visit the "iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate him, and show mercy unto the thousands of them that love him."

The Third Commandment warns that the Lord would "not hold him guiltless who taketh his name in vain."

In the Fourth Commandment, the Lord "blessed the Sabbath and hallowed" it.

For the observance of the Fifth Commandment, "thy days would be long upon the land that thy God giveth thee."

In this Commandment there is no stipulation of reward for its observance, or punishment for its violation. What is one to assume from this difference? Is it that the Commandments dealing with our supposed relation to God, as biblically recorded, are more important than the ones dealing with man's relationship to man? Is one half of the Decalogue more binding than the other half?

Consistency is one of the prime requisites of any code of living. Any inconsistency, particularly in a moral code, invalidates whatever value it might otherwise have. The Ten Commandments are no exception to this rule. To exempt the Decalogue would be to take from it the claim of infallibility.

If no reward is offered for the observance of this Commandment and no punishment is to be inflicted for its violation, why was it made one of the Commandments? Why was it prescribed, and what is its meaning? Was it intended to be a moral precept or a taboo? Has it any ethical or moral value for our own time? Can it be observed? Or was this injunction not to kill based on a belief in animism and the fear of blood contamination, as we discovered the previous Commandments to be based on animism and sympathetic magic?

It is universally maintained that there is nothing more valuable than life. The law of self-preservation prevails not only among the so-called civilized races, but also among the primitive. The highest authorities tell us "no known tribe, however low and ferocious, has ever admitted that men may kill one another indiscriminately."[1] The same condition exists even in the animal world and, from the most careful observation, among all the lower forms of life. To make a person pay the supreme penalty for any wrongdoing is to deprive him of his life. To kill is to commit an irreparable deed. Since this rule is universal, why was it necessary to repeat it in the Commandments?

As some form of killing takes place every moment of the day, does this Commandment apply to human beings only, or to all forms of life? At this very moment myriad forms of life are being killed that myriad forms of life may live. There are some instances where conditions are such as to permit only the alternative of killing or being killed. To tell us not to kill, when the fundamental law of life is self-preservation, is to force us into a conflict and contradiction; the stronger motive must inevitably prevail even though that stronger motive the preservation of one's own life -- is contrary to the explicit and unqualified edict of this Commandment. Man kills and will continue to kill those things which he feels to be a menace to his existence.

The instinct to kill cannot be eradicated by merely repeating the words of this Commandment. What kind of moral ruler of the universe was this Bible God who gave rules of life that are contrary to and in violation of the very principles upon which life itself is based? So far experience has not only made it necessary for him to kill, but has taught him, as the first law of self-preservation, that he must sometimes kill. At the present time, man's ignorance and fears make him kill needlessly and indiscriminately.

Therefore, "Thou shalt not kill," unless qualified, becomes a meaningless Commandment and an indefinite precept. Because it is subject to many interpretations, it cannot help but prove of little or no value. What one word suggests to one person may have an altogether different meaning to another. "Thou shalt not kill" may mean to one that he should not kill a human being; to another it may mean that he should not kill an animal for food. Some people advocate the killing of a few to save the lives of many.

If lightning, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and other death-dealing manifestations of nature are "acts of God," as they have been legally classified, then the Bible God himself is guilty of taking the lives of hundreds of millions of defenseless men, women and children, as well as other forms of life.

Vegetarians are constantly quoting this Commandment and substantiating it with the words of Isaiah: "He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man."[2]

"Thou shalt not kill" may mean to one child that he should not kill anything that lives; to another it would seem ridiculous not to use his rifle to kill rabbits and birds. Many a churchgoer who has repeated this Commandment over and over again engages in the sport of killing wild animals. Apparently he does not consider that wild animals come within the scope of this Commandment. In fact, the killing of wild animals is regarded by many as a great sport. Little do they realize the pain and suffering that follow such indiscriminate and thoughtless killing.

According to the Christians, if Jesus had not been killed, they would have been deprived of salvation. In other words, through the violation of this Commandment they claim the human race was saved. We are told that Jesus said:

"For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins."[3]

I cite the above not as an event that actually took place or which has any significance or value, but to show how utterly impossible it is to make so all-embracing a command as this one without qualifications as to its meaning, because Jesus also said:

"Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me?"[4]

To tell us not to kill, without defining the meaning of the word "kill" is to tell us to do something impossible of performance. Not only cannot man survive unless he kills, but no form of life can exist without killing. We must kill to live, and in turn we are killed that something else may live. Death is just as much the law of life as is living; nothing dies of itself. To be killed is to pay the penalty for living. How true are these words of Henri Fabre:

"At the banquet of life each in turn is a guest and a dish."

If the purpose of this Commandment is to prevent killing, has it had any influence? Or does the instinct of self-preservation nullify this edict?[5]


  1. Quoted by Westermarck, Morals, Vol. 1, p. 331
  2. Isaiah, Chapter 10, verse 3.
  3. Matthew, Chapter 16, verse 21; Chapter 26, verse 28; also, Mark, Chapter 8, verse 31; Chapter 9, verse 31.
  4. John, Chapter 7, verse 19.
  5. The question was asked in a newspaper editorial some time ago whether a man who had killed another could be President of the United States. "Can a hangman ever be President?" was the question. The amazing answer is that not only can a man who has killed a human being be President, but one actually was. The killing was not done in self-defense, but merely because he was paid to do it! It seems that in 1872, when Grover Cleveland was sheriff of Buffalo, New York, two men were sentenced to death for murder, and rather than delegate the task of execution to someone else, he sprang the trap that killed the men. -- New York Evening Journal, Apr. 19, 1931.