Shall I be my brother’s keeper?

Dr. Udo Gößwald
7 min readOct 25


Cain slaying Abel, painting by Pier Francesco Mola (1650–52), Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y.

Thesis #9

Every human being is first and foremost a social being. He needs the integration into a community in which he can live freely and at the same time in responsibility. In the community he develops the ability to shape the world according to his needs and thereby for the benefit of all. As an individual, he voluntarily supports the productive and creative work of others according to his possibilities.

When Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve, sacrificed to God, the Bible tells us, God accepted only Abel’s offering. Because Cain feels unjustly treated and unappreciated by God, he slays his brother. When God then confronts him, Cain responds with the much-quoted phrase: “Shall I be my brother’s keeper?” In Christian theology, this becomes the commandment of brotherhood and the condemnation of Cain. But why did God not accept Cain’s sacrifice? Did he not realize that he had a special duty to the first children of men to be wise and just? According to the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg, if we see Cain’s act of bloodshed as an act of despair, another suspicion arises: by not sharing the good fortune that befalls him with his brother, Abel generates not only envy but also a deep sense of inferiority that may have motivated Cain to commit this cold-blooded murder. Blumenberg concludes: “No one must become happy prematurely, so that all can become so, and not the happy one, or even the one who appears happy, makes the others forget what they still have to acquire and drives them to work on the general.”

The 1960 movie “Rocco and His Brothers” by Italian director Luchino Visconti tells the dramatic story of a family that moves from the rural Italian south to the industrial city of Milan. After a failed career as a boxer, Simone rapes his former lover because he doesn’t begrudge her happiness with his brother Rocco. But Rocco forgives him and feels guilty for not realizing that Simone still loves her. He renounces his happiness in favor of his brother, starts his own boxing career and even takes on his gambling debts. Even when Simone, now a complete failure, kills his lover, Rocco is ready to forgive him, but her brother Ciccio reports him to the police and leads him to a just punishment. The conflict between loyalty to the family, one’s own desires and demands, and the need for a just and respectful life in the community is impressively reflected in this film. It depends fundamentally on what experiences the individual has had in the respective social context and whether he or she has the chance at all to live a dignified life.

The fact that people are able to declare the other — even within their own family — a “stranger” or an “enemy” and even take violent action against him or her is not due to an inherent aggression instinct in humans. Rather, a possible aggressive reaction is based on the fact that our brain feels an experienced exclusion or humiliation like physical pain, argues German neurobiologist and psychotherapist Joachim Bauer, based on neuroscientific research: “A main reason why aggression or violence often seems completely unfounded or incomprehensible is the phenomenon of displacement: readiness for aggression that has developed in a person can be stored by the brain in an ‘aggression memory’.” In this process, it is possible that the “pent-up aggression potential is not directed against the person who provoked the aggression” but against another person, or it is discharged with a considerable time delay. In this context, the German-British sociologist Norbert Elias points out that exclusion goes hand in hand with lack of attachment and loneliness. In his 1987 essay “Wandlungen der Wir-Ich-Balance” (Transformations of the We-I Balance), he speaks of the “we-less ego,” which he explains using the example of the 1942 novel “The Stranger” by the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus: “The peculiarity of the lonely man, as whom the hero of this book appears, includes a peculiar confusion of feelings. He kills someone, but the corresponding feelings, be it of hatred, be it of remorse are missing. His mother dies, but he doesn’t actually feel anything. The feeling of grief or abandonment is absent. Isolation, abandonment is the constant basic feeling. It is not linked to a particular person. The I is alone, without actual reference to other people, without the sensations that make the we-reference possible.” Elias describes the phenomenon of the “we-less ego” as “a basic feature of the personality structure of people of modern times”, of which there are numerous literary testimonies. He assumes that it is a conflict between the human need for an affirmation of feelings by another person and one’s own inability to satisfy this need. This suggests that the “we-ego balance” has shifted in favor of the ego, and that loneliness thus represents a potential obstacle to building genuine emotional bonds with other people. Already the British naturalist Charles Darwin saw in the striving for bonding and community one of the fundamental needs of man: “ Man finds, in agreement with the arbitration of all sages, that the highest satisfaction occurs when one follows very specific impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will experience the approval of his fellows and win the love of those with whom he lives; and this gain is, without doubt, the highest joy on this earth.”

In her study “The Age of Loneliness” British economist Noreena Hertz sees a direct link between the loneliness of people and the worldwide rise of right-wing populist parties and movements. Among her constituents, she increasingly encountered interlocutors who felt “they had no voice, they felt unseen, unheard, forgotten, isolated.” Right-wing populist movements in France such as Rassemblement National (until 2018 Front National), led by Marine Le Pen, succeeded in “conveying a message: You are the forgotten people. We see and hear you.” Many of the people who feel addressed in this way have experienced a structural devaluation of their labor power and are the victims of a global transformation process marked by the disappearance of a culture that was characterized by industrial labor processes. French sociologist Didier Eribon believes that the lower classes’ approval of the Front National should be understood as a kind of “political self-defense.” “They were trying to defend their collective identity, or at any rate a dignity that had always been trampled on and was now being disregarded even by those (meaning the communists U.G.) who had previously represented and defended them.”

In his 1998 book “Flexible Man”, the American sociologist Richard Sennett already elaborated on the way in which certain virtues and values such as company loyalty, a sense of responsibility and work ethic have lost importance as a result of the changes in industrial culture. Sennett sees reasons for this development in the acceleration of work organization, the constantly growing performance requirements and the increasing insecurity of working conditions. Assembly line production has been replaced by specialized production and supply companies that are constantly adapting their location and work processes flexibly to the necessities of the globalized economy. Strict hierarchies have been partially replaced by small, more or less self-responsible groups with high risk. The pressure on the individual increases immensely as a result. In everyday life, weak ties and more ephemeral forms of commonality are gaining in importance. These are becoming more useful to people than long-term ties based on solidarity, which would have lost their importance to an increasing degree. All this contributes to an atmosphere of fear, helplessness, instability and insecurity in large sections of society.
This implies a fundamental cultural shift that leaves individuals much more at their own mercy in making decisions about how to form relationships, whether to continue or end them. “This structure of relationships,” says Norbert Elias, “demands of individuals increased circumspection, more conscious forms of self-regulation, a reduction of spontaneity in action as well as in speech in the shaping and handling of relationships in general.” Nevertheless, the need for “unreflective warmth and spontaneity” and “the desire for security and constancy of emotional affirmation” in dealing with other people has not disappeared with it.

In several respects, the desired collective well-being has shifted back to the nation-state level in many countries since the beginning of the 21st century. The creation of a new nationalism, which has emerged as a “we” identity, is accompanied in an increasing number of states around the world by an exclusion of the “foreigner” and everyday racism. “More generally, collective self-assertion now feeds on belonging to a country of which one feels oneself to be the natural master and owner and which guarantees its inhabitants civic rights or entitlements to which one feels one has an exclusive claim”, Norbert Elias argues. In view of the global threats posed by epidemics, climate change, and warlike conflicts, all of which imply more collective responsibility for the entire planet and humanity, such reactionary and regressive political mindsets naturally do not seem very solution-oriented. However, it must be taken into account that the willingness to assume supranational social responsibility diminishes to the extent that individuals feel that decisions are being made over their heads, thus violating their dignity as citizens. “People feel degraded above all when they feel like a quantité négligeable, a mere element of political accounting and thus a mute object of political decrees”, as Didier Eribon points out. For this reason, the stability of liberal democracies will depend on whether it is possible to create resonance spaces in which people can bring their desires, interests and needs to bear. On the individual level, this means supporting those who feel left alone and need our encouragement to develop their life dreams and creativity. On the societal stage, Eribon argues, the “question is who has the right to speak and who participates in what political decision-making processes and in what way.” In this respect, the political claim “We want to dare more democracy” made by German Chancellor Willy Brandt in his government declaration of October 28, 1969, has lost none of its validity. For, according to Willy Brandt, “We are not at the end of democracy, we are only really beginning.”

This essay is written complementary to Thesis #9 of our paper 48 Theses — How we can live together better, that you can find at This series will be continued. Further information about the author on my LinkedIn profile



Dr. Udo Gößwald

Former museum director, now freelance writer and blogger