Oh, Stanley

Column by tzo.

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Stanley Milgram was an American social psychologist best known for his Milgram Experiment, a study conducted in the 1960s.

Dr. Milgram wanted to research the relationship between obedience and authority, and he was at least partly motivated to do so by the events of the Nazi Holocaust. It greatly troubled him that so many supposedly good people could participate in such atrocities. How was that possible?
In 1974, he published Obedience to Authority in an attempt to explain his research and summarize his findings, but the poor doctor was at a bit of a loss when he tried to analyze just what his experiments had to say about human beings. The very first chapter of the book is titled "The Dilemma of Obedience."
Now a dilemma is a problem offering at least two possibilities, neither of which is practically acceptable. So it seems that whatever conclusion he does eventually reach—considering the chosen title—it must be an unsatisfactory one.
Let’s follow his line of reasoning in this, the summarizing chapter of his work. The opening sentence reads:
Obedience is as basic an element in the structure of social life as one can point to. Some system of authority is a requirement of all communal living, and it is only the man dwelling in isolation who is not forced to respond, through defiance or submission, to the commands of others.
Consider his foundational assumption. Society requires obedience to authority: Authority is apparently vested in certain individuals through some mechanism, allowing them to wield power over and command obedience from others.
I have written previously about where just authority originates (I will drop the “just” qualifier for the rest of this article, with the understanding that it is redundant when the proper definition of authority is used), and that it can only be bestowed from one individual to another on a voluntary basis, and that anything else is thuggery.
Milgram actually is asserting that society can only exist through thuggery, which he inaccurately conflates with authority, and this centralized concentration of “authority” is the indispensable government. By applying the label “authority,” a term associated with justice, he disguises government’s true essence and confuses himself to the point where he cannot come to a rational conclusion.
Now one of Dr. Milgram's motivations for conducting his experiment was to explain how the Holocaust could have happened. He also acknowledges in the following passage that in general, government (obedience to thuggery) has always been the main perpetrator of violence in society:
When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.
It seems to me that he has struck gold right here. Governments, operating under the guise of just authority, persuade good people to make other good people suffer. Sure, the holocaust could be identified as one of the more extreme examples of how this human suffering manifests itself, but the same mechanism responsible for the holocaust has been in place for centuries, churning out human misery and death, year after year.
In other words, government is the root and source of the problems that trouble human civilization. But Dr. Milgram could not see the obvious because he believed that this very mechanism of misery and death was absolutely essential—a vital good—to human society.
And so we have defined the dilemma according to Dr. Milgram. We need obedience to thuggery in order to have society, but then the thugs who wield the power rain down the most destruction upon society. But without obedience to thuggery, we cannot arrange a society at all and are doomed to live a solitary and brutishly miserable existence.
It seems we just can't win either way, and to this I wholeheartedly agree. Maybe we could just—I don’t know—leave the thuggery out of the equation altogether?
Because otherwise, Dr. Milgram expected something good (society) to be derived by instituting a bad idea (thuggery). Starting with such a premise can only lead to a messy conclusion. He continues:
Thus, obedience to authority, long praised as a virtue, takes on a new aspect when it serves a malevolent cause; far from appearing as a virtue, it is transformed into a heinous sin. Or is it?
Bowing down to thugs should never have been confused with virtue, because then it would have always been obvious that such behavior would inevitably lead to serving malevolent causes.
If authority is granted—and it is—then obedience to authority is merely obedience to self. Authority, a voluntarily granted power, can be revoked at any time. Obeying authority against your will is not possible. If you behave unethically, then you have chosen. The Nuremberg Defense didn't work for the Nazis and it doesn't work for IRS agents, soldiers, or any other human being.
And so, Stanley, what is the answer to the question you pose here? Is obedience to authority a virtue or a sin? Well, as we have been tipped off by the title of the chapter, we know that you believe that the answer is both and/or neither. Obedience to authority is necessary, hence good, but that authority can often be malevolent, and so one should obey the authority unless the authority is evil, then it should not be obeyed any longer. But who decides when the authority should not be obeyed? The individual with his own intact moral compass? But then he is the authority, no?
No, because society needs an authoritative structure that supercedes the authority of the individual. Unless it goes bad. And around and around we go.
If individual ethical behavior is intrinsically good and commands from authority—even when they conflict with an individual’s ethical training—are also intrinsically good, then what else but confusion can be the end result of this type of thinking? Consider the following question from the text that arises from this morass:
How does a man behave when he is told by a legitimate authority to act against a third individual?
Which just boils down to: How does a man behave when he tells himself to act against a third individual? Well, that is up to him, isn’t it? That would make it his responsibility, wouldn’t it? This is not at all difficult to figure out if we define our terms in a rational manner. And then:
Though such prescriptions as “Thou shalt not kill” occupy a pre-eminent place in the moral order, they do not occupy a correspondingly intractable position in human psychic structure. A few changes in newspaper headlines, a call from the draft board, orders from a man with epaulets, and men are led to kill with little difficulty.
Again, not seeing the obvious link between a coercive organization and its violent ends renders this mysterious. Lose the idea that authority exists outside of each individual and "Thou shalt not kill" will suddenly occupy a pre-eminent place in the human psychic structure. In fact, the phrase will become “I shalt not kill,” which is a much more powerful statement, as self-responsibility and understanding for the decision is being declared instead of some kind of mindless command(ment)-following.
And then:
Obedience is the psychological mechanism that links individual action to political purpose. It is the dispositional cement that binds men to systems of authority.
Is this not the description of brainwashing? Or perhaps even lobotomization? Doesn’t this describe the psychological mechanism utilized by cults? Especially when the system is thuggery masked as virtuous authority? Blind obedience to authority is a mindless action undertaken by dogs and other such non-rational creatures, not by rational human beings who understand who they are as autonomous individuals.
Think back to the earlier quote about how most of the misery suffered by the human race is due to obedience to government thugs. By stating that obedience is the cement that binds good men to evil thugs, shouldn’t the logical conclusion be that obedience is a very dangerous and undesirable trait for humans to acquire? And yet we cannot exist in any type of organized society without it?
Oh, Stanley.
He concludes the chapter with the idea that fragmentation and dissipation of responsibility in modern society due to the increasingly fine divisions of labor that distance people from the end results of their actions can explain the phenomenon of good people doing bad things:
This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.
...it is psychologically easy to ignore responsibility when one is only an intermediate link in a chain of evil action but is far from the final consequences of the action.
Thus there is a fragmentation of the total human act; no one man decides to carry out the evil act and is confronted with its consequences. The person who assumes full responsibility for the act has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organized evil in modern society.
I agree with his assessment that evil is currently best organized under the illusion of doing good, and by recruiting good and unwitting people to the cause. This is indeed the modern way of slaughtering mass quantities of human beings—they are being “helped” by the humanitarians.
But who engineers these socially organized evil acts that have been fragmented and distributed among society’s members so that responsibility dissipates into vapor? There is only one answer to this question: Government.
The problem has been defined and the cause has been identified. Any rational man of science would have to conclude that the solution to the problem is the removal of its cause. What else?
Now in the epilogue of the book, Dr. Milgram reaches some more conclusions and comes agonizingly close to proposing voluntaryism. He makes all the correct arguments that lead him right to the very threshold, but then he simply cannot even see the door that is open right in front of him.
He states, for example:
For the problem is not "authoritarianism" as a mode of political organization or a set of psychological attitudes, but authority itself.
Let's remove all the extraneous verbiage, and we see the statement quite literally says that "the problem is authority itself." So once again, I contend that he has reached the logical conclusion with this statement. But then this immediately follows:
... authority itself cannot be eliminated as long as society is to continue in the form we know.
Which of course provokes an obvious line of inquiry: So why can't we continue society in a different form? Without the thugs? But instead, he finds himself at an impasse. Authority has been identified as the problem, but the solution cannot possibly be to remove the problem.
And he understands quite clearly that it matters not the form taken by the government—the fact that government is necessarily authoritarian (thuggish) is the central and inescapable matter of fact:
In democracies, men are placed in office through popular elections. Yet, once installed, they are no less in authority than those who get there by other means.
He so wants to be a voluntaryist, but refuses to follow the trail of breadcrumbs beyond a certain point.
Voluntaryist: OK, Stanley, what three numbers come next in this sequence: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ..."
Stanley: Six...
Voluntaryist: Good!
Stanley: Umm, seven...
Voluntaryist: Excellent, Stanley. One more...
Stanley: Uhh...
And he just can't do it. He trips on his shoelace and falls three feet short of finishing the marathon and cannot get back up. He has all the information he needs, but cannot put the pieces together. And any other analogy you can think of to express vexation.
At the end of the epilogue, he shows his frustration by forcing himself to conclude the worst possible forecast for a lamentably defective human race:
... [It is ultimately revealed that] the capacity for man to abandon his humanity, indeed, the inevitability that he does so, as he merges his unique personality into larger institutional structures.
This is a fatal flaw nature has designed into us, and which in the long run gives our species only a modest chance of survival. It is ironic that the virtues of loyalty, discipline, and self-sacrifice that we value so highly in the individual are the very properties that create destructive organizational engines of war and bind men to malevolent systems of authority.
Each individual possesses a conscience which to a greater or lesser degree serves to restrain the unimpeded flow of impulses destructive to others. But when he merges his person into an organizational structure, a new creature replaces autonomous man, unhindered by the limitations of individual morality, freed of humane inhibition, mindful only of the sanctions of authority.
And finally:
The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or—more specifically—the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.
And again, he hits the nail on the head and does not realize it because he holds on to contradictory ideas. One the one hand, he claims that flawed human nature is to blame, but then he specifies that perhaps not human nature itself but, in his own words, “more specifically the kind of character produced in American society” is to blame. If character is produced by society, then it is learned and is not innate. Character flaws are therefore not birth defects and can be molded or changed by proper education.
The proper conclusion to draw from all of this, it seems, is that human beings must learn that they are each independent, sovereign moral agents who are solely responsible for their own actions, and that there are no exceptions to this golden rule. Done. That is merely education.
The chimera of obeying some font of just authority that descends from the atmosphere and infuses itself into some group of transformed superhumans never even comes into being. Government finds itself at the Santa Claus level of existence.
A critical examination of Dr. Milgram’s assertions reveals that government is thuggery and obedience is the mechanism that binds good people to these thugs and their evil ends. The thugs develop ingenious ways to perform evil under the guise of doing good, recruiting good people to be obedient cogs in evil machinery that has caused most of the human misery that has existed during the entire era of human civilization. Understanding all this, shall government then be categorized as good or evil?
Once government is correctly identified as evil instead of good and necessary, the inevitability of the bad results from instituting it becomes obvious. The only solution, then, if one wants a truly civil society, is to remove government from the equation.
For Dr. Milgram, and all others who hold onto the idea that human society cannot be organized without a coercive government at its core, I contend that they must bear the burden of proof for such an assertion. Where is the empirical grounding in fact that gives validity to this claim?
Because if government is not in fact integral and vital to civilized society, then all logical arguments point to its elimination in order to improve the world, as it has been shown time and again to be the main source of human suffering.
Dr. Milgram also worried that the prescription “Thou shalt not kill” did not occupy an intractably high position in the human psychic structure. He then argued that this was an innate flaw in human design, but also hinted that society’s influence may cause such ideas to be undervalued and subordinated to obedience. I strongly believe that the latter explanation is the truth, and also that this unfortunate condition can be remedied.
When enough people understand that “I shalt not kill”—a principle that comes from the authority of self—must take up a prominent spot right behind “I must eat and have shelter in order to survive” because “we must all voluntarily cooperate together in order to have a society,” then the problem resolves itself.
And since I possess the ultimate authority over my actions, and since I am ultimately obedient only to myself, “I shalt not kill” implies that I cannot grant any “Thou shalt kill” power to others. “I shalt not steal” implies that I cannot grant any “Thou shalt steal” power to others.
And since government is defined by “We shalt kill and steal,” it necessarily disappears in a puff of logic in such an ethical and intellectual environment.
Dr. Milgram was convinced that human society could only exist if it had some group of humans with superhuman authority to organize and control it. What he failed to recognize, just as many, many people today fail to recognize, is that no human being can possess superhuman authority, and that those who do claim to have such power are merely thugs and nothing more.
When humanity begins to understand that authority is an inalienable individual attribute—as is the self-responsibility that is the natural result of possessing such a natural endowment—only then will we finally emerge from the long dark age of government and begin the renaissance of human freedom.
Teach your children well.


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tzo's picture
Columnist tzo
Columns on STR: 64

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jd-in-georgia's picture

Great, tzo! Once again, you have provided a most thought provoking article. In retrospect, the most I was able to get out of a degree in psychology is that psychology is less a science than it is a cult. Milgram does a fantastic job in showing how this is possible.

Suverans2's picture

G'day tzo,

You mentioned "the proper definition of authority", but I can't seem to find it in your article.

Technically, "authority" is defined as "permission"[1], more to the point, it is permission from the "author" (creator) of a thing, "to exercise power". Only the "author" (creator) of a thing, (or things), has the "de jure (rightful) authority" to "pronounce law" [jurisdiction], over that which he, she or it, created. The "author" (creator) may either use that authority him/her/it self, or, he/she/it may choose to delegate that authority to his, her or its agent through “manifestations of consent”. It is this knowledge that motivated those desiring "authority" over their fellow man to fraudulently come up with the "Religions", "Divine Right of Kings", et al, which has now evolved into the "Divine Right of Governments".

Some people claim to be their own "authority", in other words their own "author". I don't know, with absolute certainty, who or what created me, but I am fairly certain that I did not create myself, and even more certain that the government did not create me.

And, while we are on the subject of "jurisdiction" we might also want to question who or what creates "artificial persons", i.e. a "juristic personalities", and for what purposes?

Artificial persons.. Persons created and devised by human laws for the purposes of society and government as distinguished from natural persons. ~ Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition (c.1991), page 113 [Emphasis added]

So, what do the PTB do when they tire of ruling over "artificial persons"?

You can bet your bottom doll-hair that this is why the people behind MONSANTO (My Saint?) are trying to "officially" claim the title of "God", by "patenting" living organisms.

[1] Black’s Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition (c.1991), page 133

Suverans2's picture

I apologize, tzo, you did define authority, here, (I have written previously about where just authority originates), I missed it.

Mark Davis's picture

Well done, excellent! I've always thought this was a great experiment with a crappy analysis and you nailed why Tzo. And using a proper analysis enhanced Milgram's work.

B.R. Merrick's picture

"'I shalt not kill' implies that I cannot grant any 'Thou shalt kill' power to others." That single sentence appears to be unassailable from all sides. That's something to always remember.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Tzo: This is one of your best and most valuable articles -- and there are a lot of them! I read the details of the various sets of his experiments some years ago, but I did not read at length his confused analysis as you have. This is vital, and your untangling of his problem is on target! This is a terrific piece, and I'm going to link it around. Thank you!

Glen Allport's picture

This is the best commentary on the Milgram experiment I've ever seen. Clear, intelligent, to the point.

I'll add two things: first, Milgram was wrong if he supposed the Nazi holocaust was anything unusual. History is filled with such horrors, and two even-larger holocausts happened in Milgram's lifetime: Stalin's and Mao's. But as R. J. Rummel documents in Death by Government, murder (mass murder, serial murder, all kinds of murder) is a very common behavior for governments and has been for thousands of years.

Second, there IS one more element that makes a big difference in whether such things happen and if they do, how badly they play out, and that is the typical level of emotional health in a society. Psychoanalyst Alice Miller spent quite a lot of time studying and writing about murderers, psychopaths, and about Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler in particular. After decades of this, she said that she never once found someone evil who hadn't been abused in horrifying fashion in childhood. She covers the topic at great length and with interesting references in For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence. Emotionally healthy people do not participate in evil; they're the ones who risked their own lives to help the Jews hide from the SS and who do other things to oppose power and evil, even when the odds are terrible and the penalties are worse.

Early -- very early -- affection and compassion are what build bonding with others in infancy and childhood, and create the sense of connection to others that no free society can remain free without.

Paul's picture

"Thou shalt not kill" is, I understand on good authority (!) a mistranslation, and nonsensical on its face, since it prevents even self defense. The correct translation is "Thou shalt not murder."

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Paul: Unfortunately you are incorrect on this one -- absolutely so. It is not a mistranslation. Correctly translated as "kill," the Hebrew word is the most undifferentiated verbal expression of cutting down and killing. It is not the specific word for "murder." The myth that you are repeating is a relatively new one, and it has a political bias. I would suggest that you explore the writings of Laurence Vance on lewrockwell.com for the pertinent word studies on this. Furthermore, if you are looking for a good translation accomplished by a superior linguist, you can do no better than the potty-mouthed St. Jerome, who was the foremost scholar of Latin, Hebrew, and Greek in the Mediterranean world in the 4th century. He, too, translated the Hebrew word into the Latin equivalent of "kill" in its undifferentiated form. Please don't repeat that error. You may check any word-study list to verify this. The recent invention is no more than an escape clause for state murder. We may complain that it does not leave room for self-defense, but that is an ex post facto argument and should not justify the politically charged mistranslation you have cited.
PS: Here's a Laurence Vance link that is must reading on this, and remember that Laurence does know something about Biblical languages as do his sources. I am limited to my Latin and reading of Jerome's Vulgate.

Suverans2's picture

Lawrence M. Ludlow:

First Point: Paul is correct on this one -- absolutely so.

Dr. James Strong, in his Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary, correctly defined רצח, transliterated, ratsach, as "A primitive root; properly to dash in pieces, that is, kill (a human being), especially to murder". [Emphasis added]

Brown-Driver-Briggs' Hebrew Lexicon defines that same word thusly,
1) to murder, slay, kill
1a) (Qal) to murder, slay
1a1) premeditated
1a2) accidental
1a3) as avenger
1a4) slayer (intentional) (participle)
1b) (Niphal) to be slain
1c) (Piel)
1c1) to murder, assassinate
1c2) murderer, assassin (participle) (substantive)
1d) (Pual) to be killed [Emphasis added]

And, the so-called BIBLE defines murder, within its own text, as the shedding of innocent blood, to separate it from killing, which is generally in self-defense or as a punishment or retribution.

Jay P. Green Sr., in his Literal Translation of the Holy Bible, discovered this error and translated that commandment found at both Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17 as, "You shall not commit murder." And, the Institute For Scripture Research, defined those same verses this way, "You do not murder." And, I assure you, neither Jay nor the Institute For Scripture Research had a political axe to grind.

In the King James Version (KJV) we find in the so-called NEW TESTAMENT the Greek word, phoneuo, which Dr. James Strong, in his Greek Dictionary, defines as, "to be a murderer (of)", which is taken from the Greek word, phoneus, "a murderer (always of criminal [or at least intentional] homicide", which in turn evolved from the base word, phonos, "From an obsolete primary φένω pheno (to slay); murder". These words, too, were translated "murder" (Matt. 19:18) and mistranslated, or at the least, sloppily translated, "kill" (Matt. 5:21) within the same version (KJV).

Confusing these two words, murder and kill, is a very common error, in all languages, because, all murder (the taking of human life unjustly) is killing, (the taking of human life), but all killing (the taking of human life) is not murder, (the taking of human life unjustly).

Suverans2's picture


Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Suverans2. I wish you would have read and absorbed the content of the link I provided and read the 94-page word-study cited before simply turning to the Hebrew dictionary at the back of your Strong's Concordance and Googling a highly disputed issue. You are over your head as I am on this one. But since you have not read the argument and the historical context of how this erroneous view became established, you may benefit from this. And read closely...
The simplest way to water down the prohibition against killing is to redefine it. Since killing in the sixth commandment obviously doesn't mean "the taking of any life," it has been limited by some Christians to murder because, as everyone knows (so we are told), it is not murder to kill a man on the battlefield. Therefore, Christians can in good conscience enlist in the military knowing that they might be expected to travel halfway around the world and bomb, maim, "interrogate," and kill for the state. No Christian need fear any negative consequences by God at the Judgment because he can't be faulted for "following orders" or "obeying the powers that be." End of story. Case closed. Christians can join the military or the National Guard and kill heartily in the name of the Lord. We should support the troops. They are not responsible for anyone they kill during a war. We should support conscription if the state says it needs more troops. We should ask God to bless our troops.

On the phrase "Thou shalt not kill" in the sixth commandment, here is Kenneth C. Davis, author of Don't Know Much About the Bible: Everything You Need to Know About the Good Book but Never Learned (William Morrow, 1998):

This is another critical King James Version mistranslation of the original Hebrew. The correct reading is "You shall not murder" (NRSV, JPS, and others). As the rest of the Hebrew scriptures clearly indicate, God had no problem with certain forms of killing.

So, Kenneth Davis, who couldn't recite the Hebrew alphabet if his life depended on it, tells us that the most widely accepted Protestant version of the Bible mistranslates "the original Hebrew."

Where, then, is Davis getting his information? Evangelicals Robert Morey, in his book When Is It Right to Fight? (Christian Scholars Press, 2002, originally Bethany House, 1985), and Loraine Boettner, in his book The Christian Attitude Toward War, (Presbyterian and Reformed, 3rd ed., 1985), say basically the same thing. Morey mentions, but does not otherwise refer to, the definitive work of C. John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics (Headley Bros., 1919), in arguing that the early church did not reject war and military service for Christians. Boettner, manifesting a profound ignorance of American history, believes that "America is not and never has been a militaristic nation."

A noted evangelical recently wrote:

Previously we examined five ways in which God revealed that murder violates and perverts His moral absolutes and fixed order of moral law. The fifth way was through God giving Israel the following commandment: "You shall not murder" (Ex. 20:13). Some versions of the Bible use the word kill instead of murder. But since the Bible indicates that some killings are not murder but are permissible and, in some cases, required by God, "You shall not murder" is "a more precise reading than the too-general . . . ‘thou shalt not kill'" [quoting the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Moody, 2003)].

He goes on to quote from volume 13 of the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2004) regarding the Hebrew word for kill in Exodus 20:13: "It is noteworthy that rsh [rasah] is never used for killing in battle or for killing in self-defense. Neither is it used for suicide."

Even Norman Geisler, in his valuable book, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Baker, 1989), tells us that the prohibition against killing in Exodus 20:13 "is translated correctly by the New International Version: ‘You shall not murder.'"

Thus, the general evangelical consensus is that the Hebrew word underlying the word kill in the sixth commandment means "murder." Most of the Christians who make this argument do so, not because they know anything about biblical Hebrew or Bible translation, but because they are trying to justify Christians killing for the state in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever else the government has sent or will send its soldiers. This gives them something to fall back on when the recitation of their "obey the powers that be" mantra doesn't quite do the job.

This ideological desire to legitimize killing in war is an unholy one, and every Christian who attempts to do so should be ashamed of himself and repent "in sackcloth and ashes" (Matthew 11:21).

Kill or Murder?

Fortunately, Christians who are beginning to question the lies of the Bush Administration and distrust the latest pronouncements of their "leaders" have some help.

Wilma Ann Bailey, an associate professor of Hebrew and Aramaic Scripture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, has penned a small (94 pages) book called "You Shall Not Kill" or "You Shall Not Murder"? The Assault on a Biblical Text (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2005).

I do not know Ms. Bailey, and doubt seriously that we could have much fellowship around any other thing than the subject of her book. She would probably consider me to be a fundamentalist, and I would probably consider her to be a liberal. I strongly disagree with her approach to Scripture (she believes that the source of Exodus 20 and 21 may be different because the vocabulary is different and Exodus 20 is apodictic law while Exodus 21 is casuistic law). I strongly disagree with her interpretation of Scripture (she denies that God sanctioned war, killing, and capital punishment in the Old Testament). I also strongly disagree with her political philosophy (she is in favor of gun control).

Nevertheless, Bailey has written an important work that I highly (but reservedly) recommend to anyone (Christian or not) who believes or is familiar with the "sixth commandment only prohibits murder" argument.

I have written briefly about this issue in my article "Humpty Dumpty Religion." There I showed that it was wrong to limit the sixth commandment to just prohibiting murder. I have also explained in my article "Is It or Isn't It?" that even if we grant that it is only murder which is prohibited by the sixth commandment, Christian warmongers are still responsible for explaining how U.S. soldiers killing for the state in Iraq is anything but murder. But because this is the first book on the subject that I have seen, the whole idea needs to be revisited and expanded upon.

Bailey's book focuses on "the meaning of the Hebrew word used in Exod 20:13 and the altering of the English translation of the commandment in several large traditions during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries." The book contains six short chapters and two short appendixes. The first chapter is an analysis of the Hebrew word underlying the prohibition against killing in the sixth commandment. This chapter is not only the longest; it contains the meat of the book. The next four chapters survey this commandment in Evangelical Protestantism, Mainline Protestantism, Judaism, and Roman Catholicism. The final chapter is her explanation of why "killing is not the solution to the problem of killing." The first appendix is a helpful list of the major translations of the Bible with an indication of whether they use kill or murder in the sixth commandment. The second appendix is a technical study of the Hebrew word underlying the prohibition against killing in the sixth commandment. It is basically an expansion of the first chapter for scholars. All Hebrew words in the book are transliterated, except for those in the second appendix. (Bailey transliterates the Hebrew root in question as rtsh. Other acceptable transliterations are rsh, rasah, and ratsach, which is the form I have used in previous articles.)

We need not read far into the preface to see the direction in which Bailey is headed:

The sixth commandment is perhaps the most disturbing of all the commandments. This is evidenced by the lengths to which scholars and church folk go to explain it away. Most killing throughout history has taken place within the context of what is legal (e.g., war, capital punishment) and therefore exempt from this commandment in the minds of many people. Interpreters narrow the prohibition to what relatively few people do, a criminal act — a person illegally killing another person — while allowing for the bulk of killing that takes place in the world to continue.

"This commandment," she continues, "exposes the true moral substance or vacuity of its interpreters. The Quaker Elton Trueblood once observed: ‘The ultimate moral principles of a people are revealed, not by what they do but by the way in which they defend their actions.'"

Bailey argues four things in her first chapter:

* The English word "murder" is too limited and too varied a legal term to function adequately as the translation for the Hebrew word rtsh.
* The use of rtsh in other biblical texts indicates that the word is meant to be translated more broadly.
* The verbal form of rtsh often appears in a list or an ambiguous phrase that makes it impossible to determine a precise meaning.
* Murder is too rare a crime to merit Ten Commandment status.

She first shows that "the word ‘murder' is a legal term," with a variety of meanings "from one jurisdiction to another." The fifty states each have their own legal code that defines what a murder is. Bailey then undertakes an exhaustive study of the Hebrew word rtsh in the Old Testament. Among other things, she points out that when this word is used in a list, "it is impossible to determine its precise meaning," Ahab is said to have killed (rtsh) Naboth (1 Kings 21), but never actually killed anyone, and a lion can kill (rtsh) someone, but would never be considered a murderer.

She concludes in chapter one:

This chapter has presented a biblical argument against the automatic assumption that the commandment "You shall not kill" must be understood as "You shall not murder." First, it is clear that the Hebrew word rtsh does not mean ‘murder' everywhere it is found in the Bible. Second, it is inappropriate to harmonize Scripture rather than letting the various theological traditions in the Bible speak for themselves. The English word ‘murder' is a restricted legal term. Last, the Ten Commandments are meant to be general and not to refer to one particular, rarely committed crime.

After refuting the arguments for the translation "murder" in the sixth commandment using the biblical data, Bailey turns to how that commandment has been interpreted and translated in the various theological traditions: Evangelical Protestantism, Mainline Protestantism, Judaism, and Roman Catholicism.

The second chapter, "The Sixth Commandment in Evangelical Protestantism," is the most important of these because of the unholy alliance that exists today between evangelical Christianity and the military. Bailey shows that evangelicals were pacifistic during the period between the world wars, but notes that "by the 1960s the argument that the word ‘kill' in the Ten Commandments really means ‘murder' was being used by evangelicals even though the primary Bible translation used by evangelicals, the King James Version, did not read ‘murder.'" This is no doubt due in a large measure because "in the latter half of the twentieth century being patriotic in the United States started to mean being pro-military and pro-war." In this chapter Bailey chronicles the shift in the rendering of the sixth commandment in the Bible translations of evangelicals from kill to murder. This change was accepted because of the "melding of evangelicalism, patriotism, and militarism."

"Although," as Bailey says, "a major American mainline translation did not read ‘murder' until the publication of the New Revised Standard Version in 1989," the notion "began appearing in commentaries and sermons much earlier." Why have mainline Protestants, who would be most open to critical scholarship, also produced a translation that reads "murder"? Bailey bluntly replies: "People want to kill people, and they want biblical permission to do so. The translators of the NRSV and the other translations of the late twentieth century gave them that permission."

English translations of the Old Testament made by Jews did not appear until the middle of the nineteenth century. The earliest, that of Isaac Leeser in 1853, reads "kill," but this was changed in the Jewish Publication Society's 1917 translation to "murder." Thus, Bailey acknowledges, the translation of murder has a longer history in Judaism than Protestantism, but, as she also shows, "it is not an unchallenged reading."

In her chapter on the commandment in Roman Catholicism, Bailey finds that "all of the English translations produced in the Roman Catholic tradition have been consistent in the translation of the commandment." Yet, she believes that "the church developed ‘just war' theory in order to theologically cope with the incongruity between biblical teachings (particularly New Testament teachings) and the desire of the state to wage war. Wars that were declared to be just, however, tended to be wars the state wanted to fight."

In her concluding chapter, Bailey summarily restates her objection to the "movement away from the traditional wording of the sixth commandment" in the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first century: "This would be appropriate if it more accurately reflected the meaning of the biblical text, but it does not." Her argument in the end is that rather than being more precise, murder is much too narrow of a translation. The ambiguity of the word kill in English matches that of ratsach in Hebrew. And since "the vast majority of violent and unnatural deaths during the last century were not the result of murder, but actions that in English are covered by the word ‘kill,'" to limit "the scope of the commandment to illegal one-on-one killing exempts the primary causes of unnatural deaths in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries."

There is no disputing the fact that many modern versions of the Bible narrow the prohibition against killing in the sixth commandment to murder. There is also no disputing the fact that many Christians appeal to the sixth commandment, not to condemn killing in war, but to countenance it. But does the first fact necessarily have to lead to the second? Has the change in the sixth commandment from kill to murder in recent translations of the Bible contributed to some Christians turning into Christian warmongers? I think not. And neither does Bailey. She is merely saying that the change was accepted and even welcomed by those seeking biblical permission to legitimize killing in war. Does she put too much emphasis on this change in translation? I think so, and for four reasons. First, the earliest major modern Bible translation to make the change from kill to murder was the Revised Version of 1885. This is much too early to substantiate Bailey's thesis. Second, the venerable King James Version of the Bible (but not the New King James Version), which is the only Bible used by some conservative Christian warmongers, contains the familiar reading "thou shalt not kill." But this hasn't stopped these Christians from defending the death and destruction meted out by "Christian" U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Third, a reviewer of Bailey's book from Denmark pointed out that "the Danish Bible changed from ‘kill' to ‘murder' in the late 1990s, but neither is capital punishment favored in the Danish society nor is there a growing positive attitude to (just) war but rather to the contrary." And then there is the matter of the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation — obviously not even the work Christians — which also reads "murder."

I have some other problems with Bailey's book as well. She does not address the implications of an absolute prohibition against killing that she seems to be sanctioning. Also, she unfortunately does not interact with the New Testament references to the sixth commandment (Matthew 5:21, 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20; Romans 13:9). The strength of Bailey's book clearly lies in the first chapter where she shows that the Hebrew word for kill in the sixth commandment doesn't mean murder in many contexts. Therefore, Bible versions that use the translation murder are wrong to narrowly focus the word.

The Unholy Desire to Legitimize Killing in War

Christians who desire to legitimize killing in war will attempt to do so no matter what any Bible says. Most, however, want some kind of biblical permission for their unholy desire.

If their Bible reads "murder" in the sixth commandment, then Christians will repeat the old canard that "All murder involves the taking of life, but not all taking of life is murder" and say that killing in war is not murder. And not only is it not murder, to kill for your county — regardless of the location of the war — is the quintessence of patriotism. To kill for your country — regardless of the cause of the war — is always the right thing to do. To kill for your country — regardless of the nature of the war — is a perfectly okay thing for a Christian to do.

If their Bible reads "kill" in the sixth commandment, then Christians can simply redefine it as "murder" and treat the text as if that is what it actually says. Therefore, everything said in the previous paragraph would then apply.

But just because the sixth commandment prohibited murder doesn't necessarily mean that it allows for killing in war. Would anyone say that manslaughter is acceptable because the commandment only condemns murder? Why, then, do people appeal to the sixth commandment to justify killing in war unless they have an ideologically desire to legitimize killing in war?

There are, of course, other attempts by Christians to legitimize killing in war by distorting the sixth commandment. They reason that one cannot apply the sixth commandment to killing in war:

* Because the prohibition against killing in the commandment obviously doesn't mean the taking of any life.
* Because God commanded the Jews in the Old Testament to go to war against other nations.

Paul's picture

A lot of vigorous arm-waving here, Lawrence. I must confess I don't completely understand all the points you are trying to make. I thought this was rather amusing: First, you write (with apparent disapproval), "The simplest way to water down the prohibition against killing is to redefine it." But then you seem to do the same thing, re-defining "kill" as excluding self-defense. Either that, or you don't think self-defense is justifiable. Neither one of these conclusions appears tenable to me. The only other conclusions one can draw, are either 1) the word was not correctly translated, and really did mean "murder", or 2) God was either mistaken, and needed to edit his pronouncement on Mt. Sinai, or God was just insane, or 3) Moses wrote it down wrong, or 4) There was never any God up there talking to Moses in the first place. There may be others.

This extra business about war, I don't see how it applies at all. There is still a prohibition on murder, and that is what war is about. Anyway, just as you noted, whatever the Bible says, these people will justify their murder. WMDs, or whatever. So the fact they do so is hardly an argument that the correct word is other than "murder".

I'm not a Biblical scholar; I'm not even Christian. Using "murder" in that commandment simply makes more sense to me, because "kill" leads to the reducio ad adsurdum that self-defense is not possible, in an Old Testament filled with God-approved crimes. It just doesn't read true. This is not an ex-post facto justification for war, not even close.

However, I may well be wrong about this. Maybe it does really mean "kill", and that it just another indication that the Bible is full of nonsense. That is possible. I only brought it up because a Christian friend of mine made this point pretty vigorously.

Personally, for those who take the Bible seriously, I'd rather they thought it means "murder" than "kill".I don't think my Christian friends should be disarmed by their beliefs, any more than I think they should cook up justifications for war with them. There's got to be a reasonable middle ground there somewhere. Defense is justifiable, aggressive war is not.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

PS: You will note that in the excerpt above (from Laurence Vance), the argument is "front loaded" in favor of your argument, Souverans2. In other words, I have made your argument as you did and have cited your authorities. Then, however, we see upon closer examination, just how the idea of translating the word as "murder" instead of "kill" (which is the correct undifferentiated rendition) evolved. Unless you have a comprehensive knowledge of the use of words up to the point of its insertion in a text, you simply cannot make a judgment. That is why sources must be questioned. You may, indeed, question those cited by me. But at least I have provided an argument and a context. If one studies these things as the historians of the Annals School do, you will see how important this context is.
PS: I am not a Christian, but it is important to be more exhaustive and to know "why" before you pronounce on "what."

Suverans2's picture

Lawrence M. Ludlow: You accuse me of, "simply turning to the Hebrew dictionary at the back of your Strong's Concordance and Googling a highly disputed issue"? For your information I spent many years studying the so-called BIBLE, and by studying it I don't mean simply reading it; I mean learning the Aramaic language that the books of the so-called Old Testament were written in, (and a few of the oldest New Testament books), and ancient Greek (modern Greek is different), looking up damn near every word, ferreting out not only their definitions, but also how they were used, both literally and idiomatically.

You and your spin-doctor "experts" are going to have a difficult time justifying the "Thou shalt not kill" (thou shalt not take a human life [for any reason]) mistranslation of the Sixth Commandment, instead of the correct "Thou shalt not murder" (thou shalt not take life [without just cause]), when you, and/or they, try to make it work with other verses of the so-called BIBLE. Here are just a couple of examples.

Numbers 35:15 These six cities shall be a refuge, both for the children of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner among them: that every one that killeth [nakah] any person unawares [by mistake] may flee thither. 16 And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die [muth], he is a murderer [ratsach]: the murderer [ratsach] shall surely be put to death [muth muth]. 17 And if he smite him with throwing a stone, wherewith he may die [muth], and he die [muth], he is a murderer [ratsach]: the murderer shall surely be put to death [muth muth].

Muth, as you no doubt know, means, " causatively to kill" or "put to death", (and never murder), and the doubling of it is the Aramaic way of saying, "surely".

Deuteronomy 17:4 And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and enquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel: 5 Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die [muth]. 6 At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death [muth] be put to death [muth]; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death [muth]. 7 The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death [muth], and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you.

Tell me, Lawrence M. Ludlow, how you would translate the Sixth Commandment "thou shalt not take a human life for any reason" and still put a murderer [ratsach] to death [muth]?

One of your so-called "experts", Wilma Ann Bailey, uses, in my opinion, a lie, "and a lion can kill (rtsh) someone, but would never be considered a murderer", to support her mistranslation. But, at least, she got the correct transliteration for resh tsade chet, (rtsh), more than I can say for some of the others.

1Kings 13:24 And when he was gone, a lion met him by the way, and slew [muth] him... 26 therefore the LORD hath delivered him unto the lion, which hath torn him, and slain [muth] him...

1Kings 20:36 Then said he unto him, Because thou hast not obeyed the voice of the LORD, behold, as soon as thou art departed from me, a lion shall slay [nakah] thee. And as soon as he was departed from him, a lion found him, and slew [nakah] him.

Jeremiah 5:6 Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay [nakah] them...

"Lion" and "young lion" show up a total of 104 times in the KJV of the so-called BIBLE, and there is only one instance where they appear together and that is here, at Proverbs 22:13 The slothful man saith, There is a lion ['arıy] without [outside], I shall be slain [ratsach] in the streets. It should be duly noted that 'arıy, translated "lion" here, is also an Aramaic idiom for "violence", which is, in my opinion, precisely the way it was used here; it was a figurative lion in the streets, i.e. violence in the streets, and anyone who has actually studied the Aramaic, as Wilma Ann Bailey evidently claims she has, knows that. [Hint] So, you might want to check your sources credibility, and what axe they are trying to grind, before you quote them.

Thank you for your time.

P.S. If you were a Christian you'd probably know that at Mattith'yahu (gift of Yah) 19:18...

(KJV) Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness...

(KJV-1611) Iesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steale, Thou shalt not beare false witnesse...

(LITV) And Jesus said, "You shall not commit murder, nor commit adultery, nor steal, nor bear false witness...

(The Scriptures 1998+) And [1]יהושע said, “ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness’...

[1] That, by the way, is one letter short of the original spelling, יהושׁוּע yad hey waw shin waw ayin [Read from right to left]; a name that went through such violent transmutations that even the translators screwed it up. ;)

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Suverans2: Sadly, you have made the common anachronistic mistake of trying to make sense of (i.e., reading information into) a document ex post facto from a reference point that has no bearing on a text laid down by an original writer operating in another context -- i.e., one that differed from the one assumed by you. Your citations merely prove the point. Here are the reasons:

Textual studies in academic circles do not permit this imputation of meaning after the fact based on purposes laid down after an original writer sets down his or her thoughts. First, the idea that you can "make sense of" and iron-out contradictions in the disparate collection of heterogeneous works known under the collective name as "the Bible" is absolutely absurd. These books were written by dozens of people over many centuries in many places and have been pieced together in patchwork fashion with many replacements, alterations, and repairs. They are not, never were, and were never meant to be a coherent series of documents that were intended to make sense as a collective whole. To thus attempt to “make sense” of them is absurd. They are simply what they are. They are not a corpus of knowledge. They are bits and pieces and have been known to be bits and pieces for centuries. As you pointed out, the usage of the words “kill” and “murder” are absolutely contradictory. To try to make sense of Jesus’ use of a word and the meaning of a writer centuries before him is part of this absurdity – as if the two had to make sense TOGETHER. So-called “books” such as Exodus are not a coherent single record laid down by a single writer. These cobbled-together works have various authors with various usages over various periods of time. They cannot be brought into “harmony,” which assumes a relationship between them that simply does not and has never existed except in the minds of those who attempt to “unify” them in ways never intended – or even imagined – by their original writers

Your citations merely illustrate the problems in the arguments proposed by Vance and his sources. Furthermore, the sources I cited make this clear, and they tease out the contradictory usages just as yours do. Rather than meeting these arguments head-on in a dialog in which ideas are actually exchanged, examined, and disposed of in systematic fashion, you merely submit new claims without disposing of the arguments that I made. That is not a dialog, and as a result, it cannot take things farther along. You have merely made assertions without having addressed (and disposed of) the material at hand. At least I attempted to see where you were coming from, and my depiction of the exact process that you used to construct your original statement is dead-on accurate. I wish you would have paid the same courtesy to me.

The fact is that we are stuck with a statement (the original one under discussion) written long ago by a writer living in another context from ours. This writer put down a word that is so often used in a non-specific way that a long tradition of experts have rendered it in the non-specific sense rendered by St. Jerome, Origen, and other writers of the first five centuries of Christianity. You should remember that the Hexapla text used by Origen (and which probably was used by Jerome to make his revision of the Old Latin translation) contained what was – at the time and certainly is true with respect to the texts remaining today – the finest textual material available. That the introduction of the term “murder” by evangelical statists and Zionists in the last century has contaminated a long tradition of translation should not be swept under the rug. That these people, too, try to anachronistically “make sense” of documents that were never intended to be coherent parts of a larger whole shows how common your mistake is. But historians must always beware of this sophomoric error. Face it: these documents simply are. They cannot make sense together. They have numerous authors writing at numerous times and at various cross-purposes. To insist as you do that we must use the term “murder” so that it can make sense and meet the requirements of a theology that is current today and will be gone tomorrow and did not exist yesterday is absurd. You could say the same for my interpretation, of course, but I at least have given you a reason to see how the current controversy was “invented” by the injection of politics into this theological discussion within the last century. It should make you feel better that this is a common mistake and has been made by those who are better than both me and you, but it is still an error.

Finally, you make a great point of using my full name in a sarcastic way in your reply. Unfortunately, I cannot do the same with respect to you. I do not write under a confabulated screen name behind which I hide and can make claims that I cannot live with. I cannot make claims about myself that cannot be verified. Likewise, I do not value my opinion so highly that I comment compulsively on every topic that finds its way into STR regardless of the level of energy and skill I command. I have opinions, yes, but I know that in most cases, somebody else has an “informed opinion” that matters much more than mine, so I usually keep my silence. I note that your comments in dozens of articles are frequently tangential and allow you to sidetrack a conversation into a rat-hole of one sort or another. This is a case where you have weighed in and have forgotten that a pseudonym may protect your non-cyber identity, but it cannot disguise what you are doing.

Suverans2's picture

Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

Darkcrusade's picture

Most Excellent!!! Ten Stars! You should send this review to Stanley. Or post your review on Amazon,to awake the sleepy.

Sharon Secor's picture

Suverans2 and Lawrence M. Ludlow -- I want to thank you both for the time and effort you both invested in your comments. It was a pleasure to read such detailed discussion, a real pleasure.

Thanks Again and Best Regards...

Suverans2's picture

G'day Sharon Secor, (Hope you aren't offended that I used your full screen name, as I try to do with everyone; I assure you none is intended.)

You are very welcome.

While I am back here, there is one thing I would like to clarify. I was accused of writing "under a confabulated screen name behind which I hide" and of lying [i.e. "making claims I cannot live with"]. Neither of these accusations are true. I am not hiding, I am private, and I am not lying about my studies, or anything else, (notwithstanding I am, no doubt, in error on some issues).

As difficult as it is for members of the STATE to imagine, I am an individual secessionist, and as such I haven't used a "legal name" issued by any STATE in over ten years, nor have I used any STATE issued Taxpayer Identification Numbers, licenses or I.D. cards for the same number of years. I have no "ADDRESS", and no "MAILING ADDRESS" other than "To be called for in General Delivery". Therefore, one couldn't get the STATE to "verify" anything. I am civilly dead[1], I am an unperson[2], there is no "paperwork trail"; the "trail" ended well over ten years ago.

[1] civil death. Law. The change of status of a person equivalent in its legal consequences to natural death. ~ Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, copyright 1960, page151
[2] Main Entry: un.per.son
Pronunciation: '&n-'p&r-s[^&]n, -"p&r-
Function: noun
Date: 1949 : an individual who usually for political or ideological reasons is removed completely from recognition or consideration ~ Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary & Thesaurus

Suverans2's picture

And, speaking of "civil death", did anyone happen to catch these pearls, in the movie Castaway, starring Tom Hanks: "Get some sleep. We got another big day tomorrow. It takes a lot of paperwork to bring back a man. - Bring you back to life, man. - "

Did Chuck, (Tom Hank's character in the movie), need to be brought "back to life"? No, he was very much alive! However, he was "civilly dead". What the "lot of paperwork" was about was the legal gyrations it was going to take to re-attach the living man to his old STATE created "artificial person", i.e. his "legal persona", or "juristic personality". I was yelling at the screen, "Tell 'em, "No thanks", Chuck, tell 'em "NO THANKS!".

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

@Sharon. Thank you for your comments, but also thank Tzo for providing yet another insightful piece!

@Suverans2: Thanks for explaining your nameless status.