Published Humanitas, Volume XVII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2004
  1. The Right to Life

Many things are not fully intelligible to us unless understood within the context of culture. The story of Cain and Abel, if read in the traditional Judeo-Christian cultural context, teaches us much about the historical conflict in human nature between an irascible demand for autonomous right, or license, and an instinctive and sensible submission to ordered liberty under a rule of law.

As originally conceived the story had five dramatis personae; the Lord who commands, and his fallen creatures Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel who “ought” to obey. The creatures’ freedom of action is circumscribed by their pre-existing duties to their Lord, and their “rights” could only be conceived as correlative to obligations for the stewardship and beneficial use of the Lord’s properties, which included the creatures themselves. A violation of those obligations by the prohibited action of one creature against another—in this case the violation of an implicit commandment not to murder that was later made explicit at Sinai and re-stated in the Sermon on the Mount—would result in a claim to the Lord signified by the blood of the transgressor’s victim.

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