Principles for Neighbors: The “Second Table” of the Decalogue

AEI Newsletter, February 01, 2009.


Murder, adultery, and theft are outlawed by virtually all civilized peoples. These legal prohibitions are not only the necessary condition of civil peace; they erect important boundaries, not to be violated, between what is mine and what is thine: life, wife, property, and reputation. . . . Here, the principles acquire the elevated standing of sacred teaching, ordained by a divine law-giver and resting on ontological ground firmer than mere human agreement or utilitarian calculation:

Thou shalt not murder.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his [man-] servant nor his maidservant, nor his ox nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.

The first three absolutes defend the foundational–rather than the highest–human goods: life, without which nothing else is possible; marital fidelity and clarity about paternity, without which family stability and responsible parenthood are very difficult; and property, without which one’s chance for living well–or even making a living–is severely compromised.

American Enterprise Institute