Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What's so bad about genocide?*

*And then the lawyer in me feels the need to quickly disclaim that the above question is obviously facetious, intended to pique interest rather than to suggest that genocide is anything other than heinous. That said...

Genocide is really the prototypical evil thing, both in terms of convenient rhetoric for a lot of debates and for international law purposes. And I agree that it's pretty darn evil. But I'm not entirely sure what about it is more evil than the murder of an equivalent number of people based on some other grounds. I should note that I also have some instinct that this is the case, although perhaps not so strong an instinct as is common. 

Okay, so is it a question of mens rea- the mental state of the genocider? It's less moral to kill somebody based on ethnicity because it compounds the offenses of murder and of racism, so assuming that racism has a non-zero evil quotient, the same murder will be x + y evil instead of just x evil (presumably the justification behind hate crime legislation as well). Although if we are accepting this as mathematical in any sense, at some point the genocide of a relatively small nation would be less evil than the non-racially-motivated murder of a whole lot of people. Which I'm not sure is the case, but it would be interesting to run experiments to see how people feel about that. However, I don't think it's just the compounding effect of racism. I don't really know the full legal definition of genocide (and I'm pretty sure that there's not a simple or uncontroversial one) but racially-motivated mass murder may not qualify unless there is some real goal of annihilation. (Interestingly, I'm not sure mass murder based on other discriminatory patterns- murder of gays or the handicapped or lefties- would count as genocide, even if the goal was annihilation).

This implies that the real concern is something closer to the value that we place in diversity. Perhaps a better analogy than hate crimes would be endangered species. We think that there is value to the continued existence of variety and diminishment of said variety is a real harm. This is all very well and good, but as Rachel (my older sister, for the, like, two readers who are not family members) has pointed out, the value is never to maximize the number of animal species. In fact, those who are most concerned with conservation of endangered species also tend to be those who are really offended by the idea of frankenfruits and so forth or any sort of human-created diversity. And back to the human example, I don't know of that many people who encourage more people to go split off and create new ethnicities or cultures or what have you. Although the general lamenting of globalization and so forth is prevalent, I'm not sure anybody thinks it's as evil as genocide. Is the difference intent? Or is genocide precisely as evil as mass murder + globalization? 


e-kvetcher said...

I think we humans find certain murders more objectionable than others. For example, we seem to justify crimes of passion - I walk in on my best friend in bed with my wife, grab my gun and blow both their heads off. Versus - I strap my kids in the back seat of my minivan and drive them into a pond.

Or a guy who kills people to take their wallets is not as objectionable as a guy who drugs teenage male prostitutes and buries them in his crawlspace.

Anonymous said...

The difference between genocide and mass-murder is really very simple. Nazi's committed genocide. Communists murdered all races and creeds.
The U.N. charter was partially written by Stalin - so it defined the crimes to make him look good. In fact, I've even seen Stalin defended on the grounds that he killed lots of Russians - and therefore he can't be guilty of genocide.

Tobie said...

E-kvetcher: Okay, but my real question is: is it about motive or about consequence? Your examples seem to be more on the motive side- how much justification did you have, but not entirely. I think that murdering kids than murdering adults because of the consequence, even if the motivation is identical. While killing for sadism or racism is worse than killing for money, even if the victim is the same.

So both factors may be in play for genocide, but which is the primary one? What if you were committing genocide for non-racist motives? It's hard to think of an example, but let's say that all the people of a certain ethnicity were rich and the state wanted to kill rich people and take their money? Is that as heinous as racially motivated genocide?

Rachel: Whether or not the differentiation started as a political move, I think it currently exists as some sort of moral instinct for most people, which is interesting to explore to see if it has any sort of internal moral consistency or if it really is jut a political fabrication.

Larry Lennhoff said...

Firstly, I've seen the word genocide used very loosely to mean 'killing lots of people'. See the allegations of genocide by Israel against the Palestinians, for one example.

Secondly, I think that you only outlaw things that people are doing. There are plenty of groups that see the destruction of another group as a desirable goal. There are almost no organized groups that favor killing as many random people as possible. We don't legislate against it because it doesn't happen.

I believe Stalin's crimes against other Russians fall under the rubric of crimes against humanity.

David said...

Deliberate removal of a population is defined to be genocide. I believe that this clause does not cover the Nazi genocide (the Jews were murdered), but would cover Stalin's removal of Chechens.

So the United Nations definition of genocide makes Stalin look worse than he other might.