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Is Genocide Worse than Other Mass Murder Because it Targets People Based on "Immutable" Characteristics?

Some commenters on my earlier post arguing that international law should not consider genocide a more severe crime than other types of mass murder argue that genocide is worse because it targets victims based on immutable characteristics, such as race and ethnicity. This is a common argument. But I don't think it works.

First, the current international law definition of genocide is not in fact limited to immutable characteristics. It includes targeting of victims based on religion, which is most certainly not immutable.

Second, and far more important, many mass murders that are not genocide under current international law also target people based on immutable characteristics. For example, communist regimes routinely target people based on their economic class origins. Obviously, you can't do anything to change the fact that your parents were "bourgeois" or "kulaks."

Even in the case of targeting based on characteristics that can be changed, it is often too late to change them at the time the mass murder occurs. For example, my great-grandfather was arrested by the NKVD (as the KGB was then called) in the 1930s for having attended speeches by Leon Trotsky years before. At the time he went to the speeches, such attendance was not only legal but actually encouraged by the communist government, since Trotsky was a high-ranking Party leader. Years later (after Stalin had his rival Trotsky exiled and executed his most prominent supporters), such attendance became a crime punishable by a term in a Gulag (which often resulted in death). There was no way that my great-grandfather could have foreseen this at the time he decided to attend Trotsky's speeches. Fortunately, he was able to persuade the NKVD investigator that he really hadn't attended the speeches in question (although he actually had been present). A great many others were not so lucky.

Finally, even if the current definition of genocide really did capture a neat divide between mutable and immutable characteristics, I don't see why the mutable-immutable distinction should carry any moral weight. Killing a person because of his political affiliations wrong; so is killing a person because of his race or ethnicity. I don't see why the latter is somehow more wrong than the former merely because political affiliations can be changed and racial ones can't. The key question, it seems to me, is whether the killers are justified in demanding such a change as the price of allowing their victim to live. If not, their actions are just as reprehensible as murder based on characteristics that the victim can't change. If future technological developments allow people to rewrite their DNA and thereby change their race, would racially-based mass murder become less reprehensible than it is today? I think not.

Oren:
Religion has historically been considered immutable since we tend to inherit it from our parents. Add to that the fact that most people feel so strongly about it as a core component of their identity and it amounts to immutable in practice, if not in fact.
4.10.2008 8:51pm
CDU (mail) (www):
Oren said:
Add to that the fact that most people feel so strongly about it as a core component of their identity and it amounts to immutable in practice, if not in fact.


According to the Pew Religious Landscape Survey recently released, 25% of Americans have left the religion they were raised in (44% if you count switches between various Protestant denominations). That doesn't sound very immutable to me, in practice or in fact.
4.10.2008 8:57pm
alias:
Prof. Somin, does this mean that you find hate crime legislation morally incomprehensible as well?

In response to your last point, perhaps the distinction lies in whether the killer has any entitlement to moral disapproval of the victims. If he has a smidgen of such entitlement, then killing is a disproportionate response. If he has none, then there is no justification whatsoever.

Political parties can have morally odious platforms, and their adherents can be morally disapproved of for making the choice to adhere to those platforms. Race, on the other hand, is not a legitimate reason for disapproving of someone.
4.10.2008 9:03pm
alias:
Also, Prof. Somin writes: Even in the case of targeting based on characteristics that can be changed, it is often too late to change them at the time the mass murder occurs

Isn't this just a complaint that some mass murders by the government are effectively ex post facto laws? If a choice is morally odious, and the government decides to condemn it after the fact and without prior notice, then the problem is lack of notice, not that killing people for choices they make is never justified.
4.10.2008 9:08pm
Oren:
CDU, the modifier 'historically' was important to my argument. Try doing that Pew survey 50/100 years ago, and we'll see something quite different.
4.10.2008 9:44pm
TyWebb:
Prof. Somin:

Before I begin, let me preface my statement by characterizing it as concurring in your result. I agree that international law should consider mass murder and genocide equally severe and heinous. Nevertheless, there are occasions on which murdering an individual might rightfully be subject to increased sanctions, not because of the odiousness of the motive, but because of the need to provide a more stringent deterrent.

Often, certain immutable groups (I'm setting aside the religion question for purposes of this argument) present criminals with a greater opportunity to commit crime and get away with it. Often this opportunity, and the attendant benefit that accrues to the criminal, is a larger motivating factor than any intrinsic animus toward the victim group. Take lynching--evidence suggests that lynchings increased in times of regional economic downturn, and vice versa. This correlation cannot be explained by variations in hatred towards blacks, but it can be explained by a greater demand for black sharecropping land, property, etc. Confidence schemes in the gay community is another example--criminals understand that embarrassment and difficulty dealing with the police present a great opportunity to victimize certain groups.

In the context of government sponsored murder and genocide, I suppose this is a distinction without a difference. Governments inclined to commit mass murder (regardless of their motives) have the opportunity to do so given their monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. Nevertheless, I would urge caution in categorically rejecting any criminal schematic that takes into account victimization of an immutable group. Such criminal activity may not be any more evil than victimization without regard to someone's race or gender, but it may present unique challenges for deterrence that are best met with increased penalty.
4.10.2008 9:52pm
Ben S2 (mail):
Race, on the other hand, is not a legitimate reason for disapproving of someone.

Racial judgements aren't inherently bad or automatically wrong. It's when you judge a person to be subhuman that it becomes racism. And when I think of the various "-isms," only sex and race are usually used to mark another person as less than human. Even in the case of Jews, there seems to be a strong racial element to anti-Semitism (or Judaeophobia, if you prefer).

Mass murder of the members of a competing (and because they're competing they are inherently your equals) ideology is mass murder. Mass murder to "cleanse" subhuman characteristics is what I'd call genocide. I don't mean to oversimplify it all, it's just that dehumanization seems to be an important element in making the distinction.

The other reason I think it's a relevant distinction is a practical one: it's easier to convince a mob to select people to dehumanize based on skin color or other obvious features. In the case of the Nazis, they made lists based on names and made the Jews wear armbands precisely because, except for a few small groups, Jews look pretty much like everyone else.
4.10.2008 9:58pm
Ilya Somin:
Add to that the fact that most people feel so strongly about it as a core component of their identity and it amounts to immutable in practice, if not in fact.

Not true. People change religions all the time. It has happened on numerous occasions throughout history. Obviously, some people feel so strongly about their religion that they would never convert, even under the the threat of death. But the same is true for some people's attitudes to their political and other affiliations.
4.10.2008 10:01pm
Ilya Somin:
Prof. Somin, does this mean that you find hate crime legislation morally incomprehensible as well?

Not incomprehensible, but unjustified.
4.10.2008 10:02pm
Ilya Somin:
In response to your last point, perhaps the distinction lies in whether the killer has any entitlement to moral disapproval of the victims. If he has a smidgen of such entitlement, then killing is a disproportionate response. If he has none, then there is no justification whatsoever.

Political parties can have morally odious platforms, and their adherents can be morally disapproved of for making the choice to adhere to those platforms. Race, on the other hand, is not a legitimate reason for disapproving of someone.


The fact that a political affiliation may be justification for disapproving of someone in some sense doesn't mean that it can justify killing them or otherwise violating their rights. Moreover, being the some of a kulak or bourgeois (a common basis for repression and mass murder under communist regimes) is no better a ground for "disapproving" of someone than being the son of a black or a Jew.
4.10.2008 10:04pm
George Weiss (mail) (www):
Like any other criminal hierarchy-some crimes lower in the hierarchy will sometimes-or even frequently-be just as heinous as the top crime. But this doesn't mean the top crime isn't still the top crime.

sometimes, a person who is speeding at 80mph in a 60 mph zone will do as much damage in an accident as a drunk driver. But nobody would say that, because of that, drunk driving isn't worse.

Similarly

it is true just because its not genocide does not mean its not an immutable characteristic thats being targeted. But genocide is ALAWAYS immutable. Thus, it may deserve its own category.

b) true, just because the killing isnt based on immutable characteristics doesn't mean its not wrong. But sometimes, when the characteristic is not immutable, the murderer will argue that the population is not innocent based on their choice of that characteristic. But when the reason for the killing was immutable-its hard to justify based on them not being innocent.

so what you have is genocide and mass murder are sometimes equivalent-and sometimes not. but when they are not equivalent-genocide wins.
4.10.2008 10:15pm
alias:
The fact that a political affiliation may be justification for disapproving of someone in some sense doesn't mean that it can justify killing them or otherwise violating their rights.

Of course not, but you're making a relative argument, not an absolute one. I think we all agree that mass murder and genocide are both wrong, but you're after the question whether one can ever be more wrong than the other, then I don't think that answer is responsive to my point.

And what do you mean exactly by "violating their rights"? Would you argue that it's morally unjustifiable (as opposed to just bad policy) to make laws in Iraq that make it more difficult for former Ba'athists than for others to get political office?
4.10.2008 10:17pm
Freddy Hill:

being the some of a kulak or bourgeois (a common basis for repression and mass murder under communist regimes) is no better a ground for "disapproving" of someone than being the son of a black or a Jew.

You know, communist regimes didn't always kill people for being bourgeois. They often tried very hard to reeducate them in the Gulag or in Cambodian reeducation camps. If they failed to be sufficiently enlightened according to the commissar's standards, well, then, that's too bad.
4.10.2008 10:21pm
kadet (mail):
being a Jew was no way out of it, being kulak did not necessarily mean certain death- labor camps, renouncing his class and becoming "kolhoznik" etc....
4.10.2008 10:49pm
Displaced Midwesterner (mail):
One of the very rational reasons to have crimes like genocide internationally and hate crimes laws domestically is not because they are more reprehensible crimes per se, but because they are crimes that target groups that are generally more vulnerable. Such vulnerability arguably calls for more punitive measures to provide for more effective deterrence.

The Genocide Convention was the product of its historical circumstances, right after the Nazi genocides, which targeted religion, race, and ethnicity, but before (from my understanding, though I could be wrong about the degree of knowledge people really had about the issue at the time) people really understood how horrible the class, ideology, race, religion, and ethnicity based genocides of Communism were. This is the pre-Black Book of Communism era. Once the definition of genocide is locked in, path dependency makes it hard for people to change, and by the time it really considered again, such as in the Rome Statute, Communism is out of the picture as a serious threat, so people aren't really worried about the kinds of mass crimes perpetrated by those regimes.

This I think is a very plausible account of why the genocide definition is the way it is. It also, I would agree, means that other categories should be brought within the definition of genocide. But I think the idea of having genocide and hate crimes laws, for the reasons I mentioned in the first paragraph, do make sense.
4.10.2008 11:01pm
TomHynes (mail):
Mass murder based on mutable characteristics is a greater threat to freedom.

"Change and join our side or we will kill you" vs. "We are going to kill everybody not on our side". The first policy leads to a more rapid growth of the murderous society.
4.10.2008 11:42pm
Bama 1L:
The fact that a political affiliation may be justification for disapproving of someone in some sense doesn't mean that it can justify killing them or otherwise violating their rights.

Aren't you in some cases talking about activity, not status? Do you think it is necessarily wrong to punish political activity?
4.10.2008 11:44pm
Richard Campbell (mail):
I don't see why the latter is somehow more wrong than the former merely because political affiliations can be changed and racial ones can't.

1) It seems unfair to hate someone for something they cannot change.
2) As noted previously, religious affiliations are historically considered "close enough" to immutable. While I myself consider myself an ex-Presbyterian, that is very different from the experience of an ex-Catholic (to say nothing of the experience of an ex-Muslim or ex-Hindu).
3) If one removes the things that someone cannot change, and accepts religion as immutable, that pretty much leaves political affiliation as the only fair reason to hate...
4.10.2008 11:59pm
Richard Campbell (mail):
And yes, political affiliations in the past can be considered immutable, and therefore unfair to base hate on.
4.11.2008 12:00am
Richard Campbell (mail):
whether the killers are justified in demanding such a change as the price of allowing their victim to live
To help us here in commenter-land to calibrate, what changes would you see as potentially justified as the price of allowing a victim to live, keeping in mind that any principled opposition to the death penalty demands an answer of "none"?
4.11.2008 12:02am
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):

CDU, the modifier 'historically' was important to my argument. Try doing that Pew survey 50/100 years ago, and we'll see something quite different.



Oren, you might want to look up the history of the Moriscos and Marranos.
4.11.2008 1:15am
Charlie (Colorado) (mail):

To help us here in commenter-land to calibrate, what changes would you see as potentially justified as the price of allowing a victim to live, keeping in mind that any principled opposition to the death penalty demands an answer of "none"?



Congratulations, I think you may have just set a new record for hidden-assumption question-begging in a major blog.
4.11.2008 1:17am
wuzzagrunt (mail):
Ilya Somin wrote:

I don't see why the mutable-immutable distinction should carry any moral weight. Killing a person because of his political affiliations wrong; so is killing a person because of his race or ethnicity. I don't see why the latter is somehow more wrong than the former merely because political affiliations can be changed and racial ones can't.

That's an easy one! It's because the former is something that has been traditionally associated with right wing regimes, and the latter has been traditionally associated with left wing regimes. An odd exception to this rule is when a right wing religious type regime commits genocide--but when the perpetrators of genocide are considered one of the "oppressed" groups--great effort is expended by the international community of leftists in order to redefine the activity as "not genocide". This is similar to the laughable contention that victim groups cannot, by definition, be racist.
4.11.2008 1:45am
EIDE_Interface (mail):

alias:
Prof. Somin, does this mean that you find hate crime legislation morally incomprehensible as well?

In response to your last point, perhaps the distinction lies in whether the killer has any entitlement to moral disapproval of the victims. If he has a smidgen of such entitlement, then killing is a disproportionate response. If he has none, then there is no justification whatsoever.

Political parties can have morally odious platforms, and their adherents can be morally disapproved of for making the choice to adhere to those platforms. Race, on the other hand, is not a legitimate reason for disapproving of someone.


People like you would imprison people for thoughtcrimes. Welcome to 1984!
4.11.2008 2:06am
EIDE_Interface (mail):
Bottom line, killing is evil not thoughts. Those who who would decide which thoughts are good/bad are no better then the Stalinists.
4.11.2008 2:09am
Tony Tutins (mail):
Religion has historically been considered immutable since we tend to inherit it from our parents.

We get our names from our parents, too. What if some mass murderer targeted all the ilyas in the world? Our host could change his name -- if he knew in time.

For Europe's Jews, even conversion was not enough. My cousin the schoolmaster had to show that none of his great-grandparents were Jews to be eligible for his job.

Intuitively, killing a bald eagle is worse than killing a hundred chickens.
4.11.2008 3:35am
Houston Lawyer:
Jonah Goldberg has been posting on just this subject lately. It seems that the definition of genocide itself was politically shaped by the Soviets so that it wouldn't cover much of thier mass murder.

Lefties apparently don't have a problem with mass murder per se. Some mass murders are excusable because the survivors were promised socialized medicine and other state-provided services.
4.11.2008 11:01am
Cold Warrior:
Prof. Somin raises an excellent point.

For obvious, understandable, and perfectly appropriate reasons, modern international human rights law was a response to the horrors of Nazi Germany. So we spend an awful lot of time trying to shoehorn other horrific human rights abuses into the boxes created by the post-WWII human rights apparatus: was the situation in Kosovo a "genocide," or were the factions genetically indistinguishable? Is Darfur a "genocide," or is it based on something else? Was Cambodia a genocide, or more of a class-icide? Is persecution based on participation in Falun Gong "persecution on account of religion," or is it persecution on account of an exercise regime with quasi-religious undertones?

The modern world generally fails to conform to the rigid post-WWII categories. Rather than trying to make arbitrary distinctions, perhaps it's time to rework those categories?
4.11.2008 11:35am
Seamus (mail):
Prof. Somin, does this mean that you find hate crime legislation morally incomprehensible as well?

Not incomprehensible, but unjustified.


While we're pointing out that genocide is just another species of murder, and hate crimes are just another species of murder, assault, vandalism, or whatever, I'd like to point out that what our rulers suggest is a separate crime of "terrorism" is just a species of murder, assault, or whatever. In all these cases, the problem is that the definition of the crime requires delving into the motivation of the perps, rather than looking at the objective facts.
4.11.2008 12:34pm
samuil (mail):
for Huston Lawyer.
Jonah knows about history or anything else as much as you know about specific tone passages in Chinese folk music
4.11.2008 1:11pm
Vivictius (mail):
It looks like the current (international law) definition of genocide would probably include the British elimination of the Thuggee and definetly the destruction of the Aztec religion. If that is the case, I'd have to say that genocide is not always a bad thing.
4.11.2008 1:46pm
c.gray (mail):

It seems that the definition of genocide itself was politically shaped by the Soviets so that it wouldn't cover much of thier mass murder.


In complete fairness, The USA, the UK and France were almost as concerned about the exact definition of "genocide" as their Soviet counterparts. The UK and France had relatively recent pasts involving large civilian death tolls in the administration of their colonial empires. The USA was worried about treatment of various ethnic groups in the USA proper as well as US controlled territory. And all the victorious powers had sanctioned the deliberate infliction of millions of civilian casualties during the war, and the ethnic cleansing of millions more in the war's aftermath.
4.11.2008 2:29pm
NickM (mail) (www):
Religion can be a crude proxy for race/ethnicity. Treating them as the same category makes sense, practically speaking (assuming you intend to engage in this sort of characterization).

Nick
4.11.2008 4:38pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
Religion has historically been considered immutable since we tend to inherit it from our parents. Add to that the fact that most people feel so strongly about it as a core component of their identity and it amounts to immutable in practice, if not in fact.
Interesting, then, that folks are being persecuted for converting from one religion to another.

Isn't this just a complaint that some mass murders by the government are effectively ex post facto laws? If a choice is morally odious, and the government decides to condemn it after the fact and without prior notice, then the problem is lack of notice, not that killing people for choices they make is never justified.
Well, no. It's an acknowledgement that governments kill groups they find dangerous. For instance the North Vietnamese and Cambodian murder of anyone who was educated. The victims did indeed "choose" to go to school, but once they did they were stuck with the choice.

just because the killing isnt based on immutable characteristics doesn't mean its not wrong. But sometimes, when the characteristic is not immutable, the murderer will argue that the population is not innocent based on their choice of that characteristic. But when the reason for the killing was immutable-its hard to justify based on them not being innocent.
So you base justification for murder based on what the murderer believes? By extension, are you saying persons living under such a regime are less worthy of protection because they can change whatever behavior the murderer finds objectionable? That people should base their behavior on what their potential murderer believes is right, rather than on what the persons believe is moral?

If one removes the things that someone cannot change, and accepts religion as immutable, that pretty much leaves political affiliation as the only fair reason to hate...
"Fair reason to hate." Wow.

Gun owner! Corporate shill! Shyster lawyer! Union organizer! Strikebreaker! Scab! Redneck! Feminist! Male chauvinist pig! Homeless bum! Peon! Patrone! Drug addict! Whore! Bluenose! Pornographer!

And the list goes on.

"Immutable=not a reason to hate." Humm. Most people recognize that pedophilia is immutable.

Arguing that genocide is worse than mass murder is like arguing that hanging is worse than electrocution. Either way, you end up with a dead body.
4.11.2008 5:16pm
J_A:
Just a question to Richard Campbell, to fully understand his coment:

1) It seems unfair to hate someone for something they cannot change.
2) As noted previously, religious affiliations are historically considered "close enough" to immutable. While I myself consider myself an ex-Presbyterian, that is very different from the experience of an ex-Catholic (to say nothing of the experience of an ex-Muslim or ex-Hindu).
3) If one removes the things that someone cannot change, and accepts religion as immutable, that pretty much leaves political affiliation as the only fair reason to hate...

You are of course aware that homosexuality was one of the categories the nazis targeted for extermination (hence the pink triangle), a category that, of course, doesn't seem to have made it to the definition of genocide.

My question is, are you counting homosexuality in your list of things people cannot change? It is far more immutable than religion.

Thanks
4.11.2008 7:51pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
You know, the people on the wrong end of genocide or mass murder probably don't care which is worse.
4.12.2008 7:38pm
Bob Goodman (mail) (www):
I don't see why the mutable-immutable distinction should carry any moral weight.

I do. It gives you a way out in one case. "I'll kill you if you don't hop on one foot 3 times" vs. "I'll kill you, period." So if you don't hop on 1 foot 3 times, that's a kind of contributory fault in your death, so it's not entirely on the killer.

Plus, it's kind of a "good reason". You want to make someone do something, vs. you just hate that person's guts. Purposeful killing vs. senseless killing. At least the killer would be doing something useful by getting people to change behavior. Maybe hopping on 1 foot 3 times wasn't your idea of a benefit, but it was somebody's.

And in practical terms, I'd sure rather have the choice to change something and thereby not be killed.
4.12.2008 10:22pm
Brian Macker (mail) (www):
I read the definition of genocide in the article and it seems to me to apply to Islam.

1) The mental element. Islam does have tenets and religious texts that express the intent to destroy certain religious groups in whole or in part.

2) The physical element. All of the below are practiced by Islam.
(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

In fact Mohammad personally did each of these. Especially to the idolators. Killing all the male members of a tribe and taking the women and children certainly counts against several of these conditions. There are all sorts of laws in Sharia that tend to cause many of these effects.

The Islamic practice of keeping non-muslim eunuch slaves and turning females of non-muslim groups into sex slaves who's offspring are killed also counts. Note that this is why there are not large numbers of blacks in Muslim societies despite the fact that more blacks were enslaved into middle eastern muslim nations than were brought to the Americas.
4.13.2008 12:43pm
Brian Macker (mail) (www):
I don't buy that committing mass murder on the basis of immutable characteristics is worse than on mutable ones.

What I find to be more offensive about genocide is:

1) It's about killing individuals based on gross overgeneralizations about group they belong to. Because of this it should be obvious to the perpetrator that his acts are unjust and therefore murder. This is potentially not the case in other acts of mass murder.

2) The motive and justification for the crime of genocide is not a one time incident. This may not be true for mass murder, which may be caused by one-off motives or justifications.

3) Genocide prevents the victims from every having surviving peers to pursue justice on their behalf. Their peers are either eliminated or so terrorized or diminished in numbers that they cannot pursue justice on behalf of the victims. The very same reasons used to murder the victims may be used to discredit those who pursue justice. With mass murder this may not be the case.

A mass murder may occur due to a misunderstanding, a mistake, or a disproportionate response to some just reason for punishing many individuals of a group. It's still murder but the intent was not to destroy the group, and intent matters.

Mass murder may not even be directed at a broader group, and may have been intended to only target guilty parties. What made it mass murder vs. mass killing may be merely that available and proper judicial practices were not followed. It might have been that a properly constituted court might have executed all the victims anyway.

It's hard to imagine any properly constituted court every handing down execution orders on an entire membership of an ethnic group, nation, or sizable religious group.
4.13.2008 1:10pm
Randy R. (mail):
Well said, Brian. I agree with all your points. I would also add that genocide has a goal to eliminate people AND their culture. Mass murder merely eliminates people. There is a difference in my mind, and it's worthy of distinction.
4.14.2008 5:49pm
mischief (mail):

Well said, Brian. I agree with all your points. I would also add that genocide has a goal to eliminate people AND their culture. Mass murder merely eliminates people. There is a difference in my mind, and it's worthy of distinction.


There's absolutely no reason to think that genocide necessarily removes a culture, or that mass murder doesn't. Indeed, many mass murderers have targeted groups specifically because of their cultural differences.
4.14.2008 10:55pm
Randy R. (mail):
" Indeed, many mass murderers have targeted groups specifically because of their cultural differences."

Which, of course, is genocide. Perhaps we just have a definitional problem. I've understood genocide to mean that a specific ethnic, religious, or other group is targeted for elimination. Mass murder, on the hand, is more random, and contains members of various ethnicities.

"There's absolutely no reason to think that genocide necessarily removes a culture." Then how is genocide different from mass murder?

So, Hitler engaged in genocide because he wanted to wipe out the jews AND their culture. He also engaged in mass murder, because he killed many others, including good looking aryans who just happened to disagree.
4.15.2008 10:54am