The philosophy of genocide

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Massimo Pigliucci*

New York, July 30, 2014 (Alochonaa): I have recently hosted one of my regular dinner & philosophy discussions in Manhattan [1], and this time we chose the topic of genocide. More specifically, we pored over an as yet unpublished paper by NYU philosopher Paul Boghossian on “The concept of genocide” [2].

I find the topic both fascinating and obviously urgent, and Boghossian’s paper is a study in how to write a good and accessible philosophy essay that actually makes you look at something allegedly “obvious” in an entirely new way. That said, naturally, I have my reservations about the paper’s central thesis, which we will get to in due course.

Right at the beginning of Boghossian’s essay we find out that, perhaps surprisingly, there actually is disagreement about the definition of genocide and — more importantly — people worry that the word is now simply been thrown around for cynical political motives, and is therefore in danger of losing whatever efficacy it may have.

The term “genocide” was coined by jurist Raphael Lemkin in the ‘40s, specifically to indicate what Hitler had done to the Jews and — similarly — the Turkish government had perpetrated against the Armenians living in Turkey [3]. The United Nations quickly adopted the term (in 1948), and its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide listed the following criteria for the definition of genocide (quoted verbatim by Boghossian):

(a) Killing members of the [target] group;
(b) Causing serious bodily harm;
(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.

Importantly, the UN legal definition of genocide makes no mention of the word “State,” meaning that the actions do not (necessarily) need to be conducted with explicit governmental support. According to Boghossian, then, the 1915 events clearly qualify, regardless of repeated denials by the Turkish government.

There are, of course, objections to this interpretation. One is based on the observation that the concept of genocide did not exist in 1915, so the Armenian event cannot possibly qualify. Boghossian rightly points out that this is as silly as saying — as postmodernist philosopher Bruno Latour actually did say! — that archeologists are wrong in saying that Pharaoh Ramses II died of tuberculosis, because you see, the bacillus responsible for that disease was discovered by Robert Koch only in 1882. Hopefully this sort of thing needs no further comment.

That said, and as Boghossian promptly acknowledges, the application of some concepts is indeed time dependent: for instance, nobody could be hip before the concept of hipness became a feature of our culture. However, it doesn’t appear that this presents a problem for the events of 1915, since the only concept actually required is that of an ethnic group, coupled with the intention to harm such group.

A second objection considered by Boghossian is based on the observation that the UN passed its legal resolution on genocide in 1948, coupled with the idea that laws usually are not applied retroactively. Again, this isn’t convincing according to the author, since it confuses the application of the concept with the application of the law. Even if the law is not retroactive, the concept can still apply.

Boghossian however arrives at a point in his essay where he begins to worry that the UN definition itself is deeply flawed, which may make any application of it problematic, and even morally troubling. Moreover, he does not seem to see an easy way out of the problem, in the end.

The NYU philosopher begins by articulating three purposes for using the word and then analyzing how they hold up against the UN definition: 1) to name a distinctive phenomenon; 2) to associate an unambiguously negative moral connotation to the term (i.e., there is no such thing as a justified genocide); and 3) to highlight that the crime is distinctively heinous.

Concerning the distinctiveness of the crime (#1), the UN wording talks about attempting to destroy a group “in whole or in part,” which of course immediately raises the question of how small can the part be before we stop talking about genocide. This may seem like a trivial, even pedantic, point, but it isn’t. Indeed, there are potentially major practical consequences stemming from it. For instance, a number of Jewish organizations engaged in systematic targeting and revenge killings of Germans after WWII. Was this an attempt at counter-genocide, so to speak? Hardly, but the answer does depend on just how small the “in part” clause of the definition allows a group to be.

Of course Boghossian is aware of the possibility of resolving this by changing the UN wording to “in whole or substantial part,” but then other problems arise: are the 3000 people who died on the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 2001 in the US a “substantial” (enough) part of the American people? If no (as I am inclined to say), then why is there a salient moral distinction between those 3000 deaths and the 8000 killed at Srebrenica, which the UN did declare a genocide (perhaps hastily?)? [4] You see how superficially simple things can unravel rather quickly once we look at the details.

Concerning #2 above, the unambiguously negative connotation of the term genocide, Boghossian points out that — contra to what is implied by the UN definition — it is almost never the case that groups are targeted only qua groups. There are always other motivations operating as well. For instance, the Turkish government had the clear intention (and additional motive) of building a Muslim state when it undertook the events of 1915. Obviously, however, this still does not make those actions justified (analogously, neither does Israel’s desire for security — as much as it is in itself a reasonable goal — justify the regular massive killing of Palestinian civilians that we have seen in recent times).

Two objections to #3 above (how heinous is the crime?) are discussed in some detail by Boghossian: first, why exactly is it morally worse to target a group rather than to just violate individual rights? Do groups have rights above and beyond their individual members? Second, if there are group rights, why are these limited to ethnic, racial and religious groups, but are not extended to, say, political ideology, social class, and so forth?

It could be argued that only groups whose membership is not a choice should be considered as possible target of genocide, but this does not square with the inclusion of religion and the exclusion of gender from the legal treatment of genocide. And at any rate, asks Boghossian, why should choice on the part of the victims determine the degree of immorality of a crime?

One possibility is to amend the UN definition to include hatred of that group, thus assimilating genocide to hate crimes. Boghossian responds with a highly unlikely thought experiment involving a dictator who kills off random ethnic groups for the sole purpose of showing who’s the boss, and who acts without hatred. I think this is likely the weakest link in his argument, though, and I will come back to it below.

Another logical alternative would be to go in the opposite direction, and expand rather than limit the types of groups that could qualify. But this runs into the different problem that there is no clear stopping criterion: Boghossian asks therefore whether people that worked at the World Trade Center on 9/11 would make up a sufficiently coherent group, for instance. Self identified membership doesn’t cut it either, unless one agrees that, say, NYU faculty could be the target of a genocide attempt (on the part of the university administration, perhaps?). As usual in philosophy, don’t be fooled by the apparent triviality of the counter-examples. As contrived as they may seem, they are designed to make a conceptual point clear, and the implications need to be considered, not dismissed out of hand.

In the end, Boghossian puts forth the suggestion that the fundamental problem is the inevitable vagueness of the very idea of killing a people, as opposed to the clarity of the corresponding idea of killing a person. He thinks that the UN definition does not do well with respect to the three purposes outlined, and that moreover it is hard to see how it could be fixed.

He concludes: “Even without the availability of the concept of genocide, we can still point out that in 1915 over a million Armenian men, women and children were either intentionally killed or died during mass deportations that were conducted with wanton disregard for life. … What I think we should resist is the temptation to capture all this in one neat word.”

Well, yes, we could do that, but we would be missing something important, I think, something that goes back to the very reason Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide to begin with. For all the vagueness and pitfalls of the concept, it does seem to point toward a particularly heinous kind of crime, directed at a broad category of people largely, though not necessarily solely, precisely because they are members of that category. And yes, it does also seem that hatred is a crucial component, though by no means the only one making up the toxic cocktail that moves people toward genocidal actions. So the analogy with hate crimes is indeed apt.

Of course we can point to millions of Armenians, or Jews, and so forth that have been killed by one crazy group of people or another (the Ottomans, the Nazis, or what have you). But it wasn’t just that large numbers of people were killed. That, in and of itself, is unfortunately an all too frequent occurrence in human history, up to contemporary times. The point is that it is particularly heinous when the killing is specifically targeted, and systematically carried out, because of a will to eliminate an entire group of human beings. There is a good reason to bring up the analogy with hate crimes more generally — Boghossian’s attempt to undermine that parallel notwithstanding. Hate crimes are recognized in both civil and criminal law [5] as to be at the least in part the result of prejudice. They carry a higher moral valence than similar types of violence undirected toward specific groups because the intent is not just to maim or kill individuals, but to send the chilling message to anyone else who identifies with the same group that they’ll be next, or at the very least that they are not welcome here.

Moreover, the evidence is pretty clear that hate crimes do have measurable effects beyond the direct harm to the immediate victims. These effects are psychological, and range from affective disturbances to generalized terror among members of the targeted group. In the case of genocide, of course, it is also the sheer scale of the violence at which the mind balks, and which deserves singling out.

Yes, Boghossian’s specific points are good ones, and they do need to be considered seriously. Further, we should most definitely resist any cynical political use of the word “genocide” that risks permanently degrading its moral import. Then again, plenty of other words face the same threat. Just consider how easy it is these days to be considered a “hero,” for instance. And the vagueness of some concepts — as Wittgenstein famously pointed out — is often not a limitation of our understanding, not does it mean that the concepts cannot be used properly. Some concepts are inherently fuzzy, and we simply have to learn to live with their fuzziness and engage in serious conversations any time a significant borderline case comes up. Clearly, this is much more than an academic debate. As New York Times Nicholas Kristoff once wrote, we “will be judged in years to come by how [we] responded to genocide on [our] watch” [6].


*Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press). Cross posted via Scientia Salon under mutual agreement.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at

[1] Dinner & Philosophy meetup.

[2] Boghossian’s paper can be downloaded in draft form here. It was published in the Journal of Genocide Research in March-June 2010, together with commentaries by Berel Lang, William Schabas (the current head of the UN commission investigating war crimes in the recent Gaza war), and CUNY historian Eric Weitz.

[3] The Armenian Genocide, Wiki entry.

[4] The Srebrenica Massacre, Wiki entry.

[5] Hate Crime, Wiki entry.

[6] Quote from: “Nicholas Kristof: The Crisis of Our Times,” interview by Joel Whitney for Guernica, 28 June 2005.

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