Why is Murder Abhorrent?
I know what you’re thinking: What a foolish question, to ask why we’re repulsed even by the thought of killing someone. Most of us are mentally incapable of killing even an animal, let alone a person.
It’s obvious why murder is terrible, right?
But often when we think something’s obvious, our presuppositions are philosophically questionable. So let’s put this to the test. I’ll play devil’s advocate in considering a series of reasons we’d likely give for why we detest the prospect of intentionally killing someone.
Remember, though, the question at issue isn’t why we usually don’t commit murder; rather, it’s why we’re disgusted by that act. In developed societies, murder is relatively rare because there’s little need to eliminate people in that way, and thus there’s little interest in killing people. Our civilization satisfies many of our reasonable desires, thanks to our collective abundance.
Also, we don’t kill others because we abhor the very idea of doing so, and it’s that underlying revulsion that’s at issue here.
God Forbids Murder
The most prevalent historical reason for this disgust with murder has been the religious one, which is that murder is abhorrent because the gods forbid it and we want to please the gods out of self-interest, since they control our fate.
If this had been the primary reason for our revulsion for murder, we’d expect the murder rates to have skyrocketed as a result of what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “death of God,” when the Copernican Revolution set in motion the overturning of all medieval dogmas in the West. If anything, though, as I said, science and technology improved the living standards in developed societies, which seemed to pre-empt most motives for killing outside of war.
We should be thankful also, then, that religious myths and institutions evidently only codified some more fundamental reasons for the revulsion in question. After all, theism is no longer taken for granted in well-educated, technologically advanced societies, since modern science and philosophy show that religions are probably based on gross misunderstandings and that there are no gods in the naïve, literal sense.
Even if this were still your main reason for the revulsion, religion would be like modern material abundance in explaining why you refrain from killing, but not why murder deserves your contempt. This is because our reasons and motives can act as mental causes of our actions or of our inaction, without necessarily providing adequate justifications of those choices.
In other words, you might be horrified by the thought of killing someone because you believe God would punish you severely for committing murder. But religiously motivated fear isn’t philosophically respectable.
The Preciousness of Spirit
A related defense of our anti-murder attitude is that people are precious because we have immaterial, immortal spirits or sparks of divinity at the core of our being.
Yet this metaphysical reasoning, too, has been problematized by advances in our understanding of nature. For one thing, the contrast between nonliving and living matter has been somewhat undermined by the overthrow of the Newtonian, clockwork conception of objects, which presupposed the absoluteness of space and time. Quantum mechanics further undermines this dualistic assumption about the relation between mind and body, since matter isn’t as substantial as it seems to our five senses.
A more updated view of the mind’s place in the world would return to prehistoric animism while shedding the naïve, childlike optimism about the sociability of natural forces and elements. Philosophical naturalism should be fortified with something like Lovecraftian cosmicism or with an appreciation for the real absurdity of nature’s mindless, living-dead or zombie-like form of ordered self-creation.
Be that as it may, the appeal to supernatural spirit hardly justifies the revulsion towards murder. On the contrary, an immortal spirit should be impossible to destroy, which means this metaphysical dualism would have the opposite effect of trivializing murder. Perhaps this is why most wars have been theologically motivated or at least exacerbated, because theists who kill can take comfort in believing that the spirit lives on in the afterlife.
Life becomes much more precious without this theological baggage, when we understand people are rare and fragile natural things.
The Illegality and Punishment of Murder
We might appeal instead to the law and to the social contract, and say murder is grotesque because the law forbids it.
But once the religious foundation of the law is dismissed with the answer to the first response above, the law loses much of its mystique and majesty. We move from the divine command theory, which justified the king’s decrees by assuming that the king spoke for a god, to the more cynical, late-modern view which is that legal matters are politically tainted.
Waiting in the wings is Kafka’s suspicion that our confidence in the law sets up a bureaucracy which is liable to abuse its power by issuing arbitrary, obviously unjust rulings, thus simultaneously automating our behaviour while depriving us of pride in our social system’s sophistication.
Note, for example, how in the United States, lobbyists pay to write laws (with huge political campaign contributions and with the revolving door in the private and public sectors) and to add loopholes to the advantage of their companies, how rich people can hire superior lawyers to game the system and get away with their crimes or intimidate the prosecutors, or how the prison industry can be privatized and can turn a profit on the back of the poor and the mentally ill.
Of course, murder is indeed illegal, which can help explain why we refrain from killing, because we fear we’d be caught and imprisoned. The lack of respect for the law and for many of our other hypermodern institutions, however, entails that the illegality isn’t potent enough to fuel our persistent revulsion for murder.
Now, the fear of being imprisoned or executed is indeed sufficiently visceral. But this fear directs our attention away from murder and towards the punishment for the crime. This means we’d be opposed to murder only indirectly, because the true source of our contempt would be the prospect of spending years in prison.
Again, then, the fear of punishment explains why we don’t actually kill, but not why our disgust for murder itself is justified.
Murder Gets our Hands Dirty
Perhaps we’re disgusted with murder because we loathe our bodies, especially our innards, and murder would require us to get blood on our hands, as in the act of stabbing a living body. Physicians being the exceptions who can stomach seeing an open ribcage, most of us would faint at the sight and feel nauseous at even a hint of blood. We’re conditioned to be dainty as a result of our domestication and infantilization in our consumer societies.
In any case, this defense of the revulsion would be quite shaky. Again, this basis of the disgust would make sense in the old world, when murder was mostly indeed a hands-on endeavour. With the advent of guns, poisons, hired hitmen, and so forth, we can theoretically kill from a distance without having to physically dirty our hands or view the traumatizing result of our action.
Our Conscientious Conditioning
A more promising answer is that we’re conditioned from a young age to respect other people, to play nicely, and to refrain from harming anyone. In short, we develop a conscience as children, assuming we’re enculturated in the customary manner, and the conscience remains with us as adults as the source of our distaste for murder.
I think this response uncovers the operative reason for our attitude towards murder, especially since religious people were likewise conditioned as children to be kind to other people. The theistic content of that conditioning didn’t matter as much as the fact that adults enforced the training, since we evolved as children to trust implicitly in the authority of our elders. Our survival depended on our children’s ability to trust and to mimic their guardians, since we’re not born with the capacity to protect ourselves.
However, there are a couple of problems with this basis for the prohibition: our revulsion towards murder would be an effect of our training, so different training would produce a different attitude. Amoral or reckless parents may raise their children to be sociopaths, in which case the act of murder loses its horrific status for them. So again, murder wouldn’t be objectively revolting or wrong, according to this explanation.
Moreover, the appeal to conditioning raises the question of why we train children to be conscientious. The problem thus reappears in a different form, since some yet deeper revulsion may have motivated our prehistoric ancestors to begin this kind of training.
The Social Refuge from the Wild
The deeper explanation, I think, is that the conscience is a prosocial development. What motivates this kind of conditioning of the young is that society would collapse from the chaos that would ensue were everyone encouraged to murder anyone they don’t like, and the alternative to human society is life as an animal in the wild.
Here, then, is the most viable source of our contempt for murder. What really disgusts us is that murder threatens to undermine society and to return us to our natural condition, and we pride ourselves on having transcended that condition.
What’s more, that pride isn’t wholly delusory. The Anthropocene is real as a matter of geology. Evidently, we can be vastly superior to animals in certain respects — as well as vastly inferior. That’s to say we’re freer than animals in that our intelligence and cultural development give us greater self-control, and that autonomy is largely what makes for the difference between personhood and animality.
Once again, though, it’s not murder itself that’s abhorrent, but murder’s larger threat to society.
A final question for us to ponder is whether murder would be abhorrent from an enlightened, transhuman outlook. What we might call human concerns are those that facilitate the societal enterprise. These concerns set the standards which the majority follow and take for granted, one of which, as we just saw, is the concern with using our freedom in some productive way. That social purpose is achieved by the training of children to have a conscience, which in turn makes us abhor violence and especially murder.
But even without the thought experiments of science fiction, which indulge in speculation of how society may have to evolve to keep up with advances in technological empowerment, there are actual examples of elevated perspectives that make human adult norms seem childish. These are the perspectives of the world’s religious, philosophical, and political leaders who are the geniuses that don’t require training or that transcend their social conditioning to perceive the social roles we play in a higher, cosmic context.
Take, for example, Buddhist enlightenment, according to which the ego or the so-called independent personal self is illusory, since the world is an interdependent field of conditions that encompass what we naively think of as individual persons. With that perspective in mind, the very notion of murder becomes likewise illusory or misguided. Murder as we naively think of it is impossible if there’s no such thing as the independent self.
This can be translated into secular terms if we assume, for the moment, the most austere version of “modern,” rational enlightenment, according to which we exist only as our material bodies, our identities being defined and supported primarily by our brain. According to this scientific objectivity that also transcends the myths and other noble lies we tell to cooperate in our collective endeavours, murder is likewise impossible, strictly speaking, since moral distinctions and persons in the subjective and normative sense are fictive.
Moreover, the loathing of murder would be as naïve as the dualistic, folk psychological conception of the self, as the view that the self isn’t just the brain but has some immaterial, mental, and supernatural control over its body. If the enlightened view is that only objects exist and that nothing is inherently right or wrong, we can hardly justify our loathing of murder without resorting to fantasies about our importance.
In my view, these ultrareductive, nihilistic forms of enlightenment aren’t the highest kind. They have kernels of truth, but they miss the self-creative and thus the aesthetic aspect of nature’s evolution as well as the Promethean or Luciferian importance of our creative potential as autonomous beings.
A transhuman take on murder might well be one of disgust, because this higher creature’s perspective would be grounded in an aesthetic vision and in the esteem for tragic beauty and originality. Murder might be repulsive not because it violates the herd’s moral code or our conditioned sense of priority, but because we have the cosmic opportunity to perfect or to annul nature’s mindless creations and to replace them with the nobler, mind-infused worlds we build.