The relativism of murder

The latest in my Learn Something New Every Day series, taken from The Great Courses’ Explaining Social Deviance – Lecture 1: Asking the Right Questions

Some behaviours or actions are totally accepted in one culture yet sanctioned in another; only a comparative few deviant actions are universal.  You would expect (and absolutists absolutely do) that the good old first commandment (‘Thou shalt not kill’) would be one of those—it’s a tenet found in all major cultures and societies and you’d think it would be immutable. But, clean as that rule might seem on the surface, it is anything but when you try to police it within a complex society.

Killing someone or something has become ‘relative-ised’ in our society and there’s now a whole bunch of exceptions to what should be a very clear-cut rule.

First, it doesn’t apply to any life other than human.  As a species and a society, we will kill pretty much anything other than ourselves and use if for its component parts. If an alien species landed their ships on this planet tomorrow they would absolutely be forgiven for scratching their enormous heads at this obvious and backward double-standard. And psychopaths can maybe be forgiven (though not excused) for failing to draw the line between how we treat other living creatures and how we treat members of our own species.

Inside our own species, though, taking a life can be excused (and even celebrated) if it’s

  • accidental – there are multiple and tiered breaches of the law that related to taking a life accidentally but if you didn’t mean to do it and couldn’t help it then generally no-one holds you responsible for the life you took.
  • authorised – acts of war, execution.
  • explained – self-defence, after prolonged abuse, temporary insanity, to save another life.
  • well defended –  murder charge can be overturned thanks to expensive or effective defence teams, technical arguments on points of law, procedural mistakes and even public opinion.

The phrase getting away with murder is pretty apt. There are any number of ways of getting around the most basic of human tenets. Hence the idea that murder is relative. It’s relative to circumstance, law and social expectation/tolerance.