reads "I am my brother's keeper" as a short-hand for an ideal of self-sacrifice and service to the group. In other words, it stands for altruism in its true sense: service to others for their own sake. Ayn R
and titled a chapter of Atlas Shrugged
"Their Brothers' Keepers." In that chapter, and in the book as a whole, she shows the parasitism that lies behind the phrase.
In the Bible, the phrase originally referred to Abel, who was the actual brother of murderous Cain. But in time it has become extended, from loyalty to family... to loyalty to the tribe... to loyalty to the folk... to loyalty to the faith... to loyalty to the proletariat... to loyalty to all mankind. That last seems to be how President Obama means to use it.
Obama has described his politics as resting on the principle that "we've got a stake in each other; that I am my brother's keeper and my sister's keeper, and what binds us together is greater than what binds us apart." (From a speech
given Dec. 1, 2006, at Saddleback Church
If you listen to the speech in which Obama said those words, it's clear he means that government must force Americans to support every kind of person who is suffering, no matter what the reasons for the suffering nor what relation any individual American has to any of the sufferers. Your neighbors? Struggling Patagonians? You're responsible for them all!
It is telling when a man with the power of the gun and the jail in his hand, preaches to us about binding us together. Obama really can do it. And he really is doing it.
In the Objectivist view, it is fine to assume obligations to help those we love and value for valid reasons, such as spouses and friends. Ultimately in these cases we act for our own self-interest.
It is another thing altogether to posit an open-ended obligation to live one’s life solely to serve others, sacrificing one’s own dreams and aspirations. For one thing, it is impossible to fulfill such an obligation. Furthermore, the very concept of being a “brother’s keeper” contains a contradiction. I say to you, “Please, tell me what you want me to do. I’m at your service.” You answer, “No, it is I who will serve you and be at your service.”
If “helping your brother” is the standard of morality, then one sees the bizarre spectacle of individuals with guns forcing others to help one another, creating untold misery in the name of “helping one’s brother.”
You asked, though, for examples of how the ideal of being one’s brother’s keeper has lead to wars and bloodshed. Let me turn to some of those examples now.
The 20th century's great violent convulsions arose from the application of extended or universalized forms of the principle of altruism. Communism was perhaps the most complete application of the principle. It denied all distinctions between people, held that all property should ideally be held in common, and stood for a totalitarian system of government that managed all aspects of society through a bureaucratic, political process.
The Chinese Communist Party starved, tortured, or murdered tens of millions in the period from 1958 to 1972, the high tide of Maoist Communism which included the "Great Leap Forward" and the "Cultural Revolution." Its animating principle was that the individual only had meaning in the context of the collective, that it was wrong for people to deal for themselves alone. Instead, that all must work and think for the sake of their fellows, all property should be held in common, and all should be made to pull together.
The Communist Party of Cambodia murdered millions for insufficient service to their brothers in the infamous killing fields of the late 1970s.
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union liquidated whole peoples and slaughtered millions of small farmers, former aristocrats, and businesspeople. And this was the party acclaimed around the world for building a brilliant future based on brotherly love!
World War II was launched by three countries that had, each in their own way, accepted the fascist principle that the people or folk is all that matters. Each German, Italian, or Japanese citizen was to subordinate himself to the needs of his people. The very symbol of fascism (the fasces) is a bundle of rods tied together with an ax: the rods represent people who are bound to care for each other and not for themselves. The ideology of the fascist countries denigrated the individualism and selfishness of the "decadent" capitalist West. The fascists stood for solidarity, national unity, and service to the people.
World War I was produced by competing nationalist and imperialist political aspirations. It was made possible by peoples taught that to serve their nation or state was the highest honor.
And we could continue back into the past. You will find that few wars are fought for the sake of liberty, by individuals looking primarily to free themselves. Wars are fought when people hew to their group —their nation, their faith— and sacrifice their wealth and their very lives to act for its sake. You might want to read about the proto-communism of the Christian-inspired Taiping Rebellion of the 19th century. Or study the religious wars of Europe's reformation.
Finally, let's look at the wars and suffering around us today.
In many parts of the world, there are poor people struggling for their daily bread. Most of these people are unfortunate enough to live in countries where they are “protected” from the full force of international capitalism. In Zimbabwe, for example, the government demands that all serve their brothers and that no one be allowed to live independently. Of course, the result is poverty, starvation, and disease. In Bolivia, 2009 is seeing the passing of a new constitution, founded on the principle that all Bolivians are brothers and all must be bound to serve each other. But would you rather live in altruistic, brotherly Bolivia, or in selfish, privatized, capitalistic Chile, where poverty has fallen by nearly three quarters in the last thirty years?
Nationalist and tribal conflicts wrack the globe. Jews and Arabs get along fine in New York, where each is treated foremost as an individual. But put them in Jerusalem, and they go at each others throats, because there each man adheres to the needs of his brothers.
In the Muslim world, fanatics who take seriously God's demand that they care about the morality, behavior, and fate of their fellow men are attempting to institute the rule of God on Earth. In doing so, they seek to bind everyone within their reach into a single brotherhood of the faithful. In this, we have come full circle: the injunction from God to love our brothers is now acted out in the name of enforcing the injunctions of God upon us all, by means of war and bloodshed aplenty.
In the climactic speech of The Fountainhead
, published in 1943 at the height of World War II, Howard Roark, the hero, declares that "the world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing." That wasn't a metaphorical statement at the time. And though it admits of degrees, it isn't metaphorical now, either. It is only insofar as we have a culture that lets a person be a person —i.e., an individual responsible for his own life— that we can all have peace and prosperity.