Culture and genocide: what relationship?

genocide-convention-1948-signatories-genocide-rwanda-tutsis-hutus-kagame-iraq-myanmar-burma-rohingya-pakistan-bangladesh-bosnia-yugoslavia-international-court-justice-icjby Dan Tippens

[This essay is a different take on thoughts about the concept of genocide by NYU philosopher Paul Boghossian. We have previously published Massimo Pigliucci’s analysis of the same topic in Scientia Salon on 15 October 2014, under the title The Philosophy of Genocide.]

Most of us think we understand what genocide means. Perhaps this is the case for the lay concept of genocide, but it might not be for the legal definition of it adopted by the United Nations. And I think this latter possibility is disconcerting.

The UN defines genocide as any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the 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.

At first glance, the UN definition appears to be very clear. We might then be tempted to believe that when determining which actions or events count as genocide, deploying this concept accurately would be pretty straightforward. However, closer examination runs us into several practical and philosophical problems as it may admit of too many vague terms, leading to ambiguities and moral puzzles such that we might think it best to just set the term aside and not employ it in legal or day-to-day judgments.

In fact, it has recently been argued that these problems run deeply through the UN definition of genocide. In his paper, “The concept of genocide”, Paul Boghossian of New York University has made the point very persuasively.

In this essay I will take a look at some of the problems that Boghossian points out with the UN definition of genocide. I will not discuss everything Boghossian addresses, but rather select a few issues that I find to be the most philosophically and practically worrisome. The goal is simply to try to offer a plausible framework for solving three major problems, sort of a prolegomenon to a full solution. As we will see, my view here is not entirely new, but I think it could use more attention, and hope to steer people in a direction that is worth pursuing further, if the concept of genocide is to be salvaged at all.

Boghossian’s three problems

Boghossian is quick to point out that there are significant issues with the condition that an agent must “intend to destroy in whole or in part” in order for genocide to have occurred. First, it seems that there have been almost no cases in which an agent or party has intended to destroy a group in whole [2]. Even Nazi Germany, one of the paradigmatic examples of a party that committed genocide, would permit the existence and survival of some Jews when these Jews brought Nazi Germany pragmatic benefits. Interestingly, Hitler personally spared a Jewish-Austrian named Eduard Bloch, even going so far as to issue him protection during World War II, since Bloch had formerly been Adolf Hitler’s family physician [3].

Since the Jewish Holocaust is considered one of the most obvious examples of genocide and yet it doesn’t satisfy the “in whole” condition, it seems that such condition excludes too many, even possibly all, cases that are commonly considered instances of genocide. To correct this problem, perhaps we should say that Nazi Germany satisfied the “in part” condition (they intended to destroy the Jewish group in part), and had thereby committed genocide.

But then Boghossian asks us to consider what would count as satisfying the “in part” criterion of the UN definition. While “in whole” excludes too many cases, “in part” seems to conversely include too many. Consider the instance of the Jewish revenge gangs that targeted Germans (presumably former Nazi officers) after World War II, resulting in the death of some 1,500 Germans [4]. The action of these gangs seem to satisfy the UN’s definition of genocide. They intended to destroy in whole or in part the national group of Germans simply because they were Germans. However, we probably still wouldn’t say that the Jewish revenge gangs committed genocide, most likely because too few members of the German population were killed. So, the “in part” condition needs to be either revised or done away with.

Boghossian proposes that we could try amending the condition to say “in whole or in substantial part.” Unfortunately this will not do: he points out that the idea of a “substantial part” is hopelessly vague. What counts as a substantial part of a group? A certain percentage of the members? Some number threshold, of, say, 3,000 individuals? Boghossian notes that the attacks on the World Trade Center might count as genocide since over 3,000 people were killed, but it is not clear if this was as a “substantial part” of Americans or not.

Here I think it is worth pausing to examine what is going on in Boghossian’s arguments. He is claiming that it is difficult to determine, i.e., it is vague, when a party or person intends to destroy a substantial part of a group of people. However, my suspicion is that this is a problem when it is the case that a substantial part of a group has actually been destroyed. The UN definition of genocide includes both a consequence and an intention condition. It is not enough for an agent to just intend to commit some crime; the agent must also actually commit the crime in order for the crime to have occurred.

The difference between the consequence and intention conditions can come apart philosophically. It is certainly not obvious that what it means to intend to destroy a group in substantial part is the same as what it means to actually destroy a group in substantial part. Let’s say I believe that a group is composed of 300 members. It turns out, unbeknownst to me, that the group is actually composed of 1,000,000 members. If I proceed to kill 200 members of this group, we can all agree that I have satisfied the conditions for intending to destroy a group in substantial part while failing to actually destroy a group in substantial part. This suggests that what it means for an agent to intend to destroy a group in substantial part has something to do with an agent’s belief system, while what it means to actually destroy a group in substantial part has to do with the way the world actually is, independent of what we believe.

I think it is important to keep in mind how the two issues interplay in the UN definition. Clearly we think that for an action to count as genocide it must meet at least two different necessary conditions: an intention condition and a consequence condition.

From now on, let’s assume that the vagueness problem that Boghossian raises for the concept of genocide is a problem with the consequence condition of the definition, and we shall see that the distinction between intention and consequence turns out to be very important.

The problem of figuring out when the consequence condition has been met, i.e., when a high enough percentage, or a high enough number, of people have been killed is what I call the vagueness and convention problem. This is the first practical and philosophical problem that Boghossian raises. We intuitively think that a certain threshold of people killed must met in order for genocide to have occurred. However, we don’t want it to be the case that the consequence condition’s threshold for satisfaction rests solely upon a convention, some arbitrary percentage that we agree on without any good reason other the pragmatic one of allowing us to use the concept of genocide in judgments and legal proceedings.

A similar kind of problem arises when we consider which groups are potential victims of genocide. The UN definition lists these groups explicitly: national, ethnical, racial, or religious. But why are these groups the only ones that can be potential victims of genocide? Boghossian suggests these groups may be chosen as potential victims of genocide because they all admit of indelible traits, traits that one cannot change from birth, and not traits that one has blamelessly acquired (a trait like, say, being wealthy). However, he then points out that it is not clear why, if indelibility is what matters, gender is not included while religion is. In other words, if indelibility is what makes groups potential targets of genocide, then the UN appears to have excluded some groups in the set of potential victims of genocide and included some groups that don’t meet the criteria of indelibility.

Additionally, why should we think that indelible traits determine which groups can be potential victims of genocide in the first place? Why should we think that you could only be a potential victim of genocide based on what traits you were born with, but not based on what traits you have blamelessly acquired over the course of your life? For example, why couldn’t the group constituted by people who have acquired the status of being “wealthy” be one capable of being subjected to genocide? It seems that holding the position that the indelibility criterion is what matters for determining which groups can be victims of genocide would require further argumentation, one that looks like a difficult road to travel.

So maybe we should sidestep the indelibility criterion’s problems and try something else. Perhaps the groups whose members identify themselves as part of that group are potential victims of genocide. This would allow for groups constituted by members who have shared indelible traits as well as groups constituted by members who have traits that people have blamelessly acquired to be potential victims of genocide.

But there is a problem with this too, one of inclusion. For there may be members of some groups, such as a group of people who attend a regular book club, who identify themselves as part of that book club group and would now fit the bill for being potential victims of genocide. Intuitively, the book club group doesn’t seem to be a potential victim of genocide.

This problem can be called the grouping and convention problem. We are inclined to believe that the set of groups that are potential victims of genocide shouldn’t be too inclusive or too exclusive, and we also don’t want it to be the case that the groups included in this set are decided merely by convention.

The last problem will not require an elaborate exposition. The badness problem is the problem of what makes genocide distinctively heinous. We tend to think that some actions have a greater moral magnitude than others. Lying is morally bad, but murder is far worse. What is it about an act of genocide, then, that makes it morally worse than mass murder? Why is it that targeting a people for the very reason of targeting a specific group has such great negative moral magnitude?

A sketch of a solution

I think that the badness problem and the grouping and convention problem are intimately related, so I’m going to tackle these first. It may be useful to think carefully about what it is that makes genocide a distinctive crime, a crime that is different from mass murder. Boghossian himself thinks that the concept of genocide was introduced precisely to point out such distinctiveness [5].

A good starting point might be to look at clear cases where we consider two crimes distinct and ask what makes them different. It is a crime to inhumanely kill domestic animals; it is also a crime to torture and kill humans. What makes these two crimes different? Maybe part of what makes them different is that the crime necessarily takes away properties from a human that we value that it is not necessarily taking away from a domestic animal. A human has emergent properties that arise from his functional composition, such as mental properties like beliefs, desires, and intentions [6]. When you torture and kill a human, you necessarily take away these properties, whereas when you kill a domestic animal, you do not. Similarly, I think that there are emergent properties of certain groups that you necessarily take away when you target those groups that you don’t necessarily take away when you randomly kill a large number of people [7].

The classic example of an emergent property in physics is liquidity. Individual H20 molecules do not have the property of liquidity, but hydrogen-bonded groups of H20 molecules do. What are, by analogy, the emergent properties of certain groups of individuals? The are the properties that constitute a culture. A people is different from a group insofar as a people is a group that has the emergent property of a given culture. They have a shared set of mental states that lead to shared habitual behaviors. Devout Christians attend church weekly to worship their conception of God, southern European ethnicities tend to value family and consequently routinely make time to eat together, etc.

What makes genocide a distinctive crime, then, is that you necessarily take away the emergent property of a culture, whereas you do not necessarily do this when you commit mass murder. It is possible for a particularly extreme case of mass murder to result in cultural destruction, but this is not necessary.

Even so, what makes genocide distinctively bad?

In order to tackle this, we need to talk a bit about paralysis and murder, as tangential as this may at first seem. I have frequently heard people say that they would prefer death to paralysis or loss of autonomy. This seems to be rooted in the fact that paralysis prevents an individual from performing his/her normal daily functions and satisfying certain goals and desires.

Now, we tend to think somebody cannot both paralyze and murder another person at the same time. We typically think of a person as paralyzed only when that person is alive and has a loss of motor function(s). Conversely, we don’t think of a person as paralyzed, in the ordinary sense, when that person is dead and consequently has a loss of motor functions.

What I’d like to suggest is that while an individual cannot be paralyzed and murdered at the same time, a group can, due to its emergent properties. When genocide is committed against a people, the members of this group are unable to do certain things that we value: engage in daily customs and practices, perform behaviors that reflect their shared value systems, uphold certain goals of their group, etc. In other words, they are culturally paralyzed. In the case of the Jews during World War II, the killing of a large number of that group prevented its members from being able to go to synagogue, uphold the Sabbath, or celebrate Jewish holidays. In this sense, the Jewish people were in a state of what we can call “cultural paralysis.” The word “paralysis” is particularly appealing to use in this context, as it denotes a condition that isn’t necessarily permanent. Paralyzed individuals can recover, and so — a fortiori — can cultures. The Jewish culture has at least partially recovered from its paralysis, for instance.

What makes genocide distinctively bad, then, is that it consists in the conjunction of two morally repugnant actions at once: mass murder is bad, but mass murder that results in cultural paralysis is worse.

Since mass murder can sometimes result in cultural paralysis even though it wasn’t intended, more must be said here. I do think that some cases of mass murder can be just as morally bad as genocide in the sense that they can both yield the same consequence of cultural paralysis. However, there is still a different sense in which genocide is “distinctively heinous.”

Judith Jarvis Thompson draws a distinction between assessing an action and assessing an agent. She argues that intentions are used for assessing the moral character of an agent, while consequences are used for assessing the moral status of an action [8]. While genocide and certain extreme cases of mass murder (those that result in cultural paralysis) carry the same action assessment, they carry a different agent assessment. In genocide, the consequences of the actions that lead to cultural paralysis are on a moral par with mass murder that leads to cultural paralysis, but the intentions of the agent is what makes genocide particularly heinous. The agent intended to commit the conjunction of both murder and cultural paralysis, while the mass murderer only intended the former. This means that the consequences of a genocidal agent’s actions are necessarily either morally worse than or equal to those of a mass murderer, but the moral character of a genocidal agent is always worse. In this sense, then, genocide can be said to be distinctively heinous and deserving of a worse punishment.

It is important to note that Boghossian discusses how some have tried to explain the badness of genocide in terms of a violation of group rights, but argues that this seems like a path best avoided. Accordingly, I have made no reference to a violation of group rights in my explanation. I have attempted to explain the badness of genocide solely in terms of the destruction of something we value, namely, a particular culture, linking it to the agent’s assessment of the action. Hopefully this will allow me to circumvent the complexities of tackling group rights issues, though of course it is possible that my idea of a culture being an emergent property opens up its own set of difficult problems.

This position about what makes genocide distinctive and distinctively heinous is certainly not radically novel. It has long been recognized that cultural destruction has an important role in what we think genocide is. Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide,” thought that what he called “cultural genocide” should be incorporated as a constituent part of the definition of genocide [9]. While what he meant by cultural genocide may be somewhat different from what I term cultural paralysis, the underlying theme is the same, and similar ideas have been expressed by David Nersessian [10]. If our intuitions are ever going to correspond with a definition of genocide, we have to include a type of cultural paralysis/destruction component into our definition.

Incorporating the idea of a culture in our concept of genocide helps to offer a solution to the grouping and convention problem too, since the groups of people that have the emergent property of a culture turn out to be the groups that are potential victims of genocide. On this account, we can say that religions, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, class status, intellectuals, etc. can all be potential victims of genocide, while groups such as faculty members at NYU and the book club cannot be because they don’t have sufficiently robust cultural emergent properties.

Granted, I have grossly oversimplified what a culture is, and consequently have likely oversimplified just how easy it may be to decide which groups can be potential victims of genocide. There may be another vagueness problem lurking here, concerned with when exactly a group has the property of a culture, but it still seems to me that this account doesn’t works better than the others that we discussed above. At the very least it looks like a more promising solution to the grouping problem, and one that should be explored further.

So, my provisional definition of genocide looks something like this:

Genocide has occurred when a group’s culture has been paralyzed or destroyed via the murder of members of that group with the very intention to cause such paralyze or destruction by violent means.

This definition focuses not on the number of members of a group killed, but on whether or not cultural paralysis/destruction has occurred. In this way we sidestep the practical issue posed by the vagueness and convention problem. However, as I hinted at above, we do run into another sort of vagueness problem, and not a trivial one at that: when does a group count as having a culture? What is a culture? Did the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, for instance, result in temporary cultural paralysis? Still, I think that if the concept of genocide is to be salvaged, this is the vagueness problem we will need to focus on.

Since our conditions for when genocide has occurred don’t revolve around quantity of people killed, but instead revolve around cultural paralysis, the number of people killed becomes a lens we can look through to see if a culture has been paralyzed. No doubt there are some clear cases where a certain number of people killed necessarily means that cultural paralysis or destruction has occurred, but when number-related evidence underdetermines whether or not genocide has occurred, we must look to other facts about cultures to come up with an answer, which seems promising.

I said at the beginning of this essay that I was only going to offer a prolegomenon to a solution. I have sketched an account of what we need to do in order to salvage the concept of genocide. I don’t think this account is detailed enough, nor is it likely to be right as presented, but I hope it is a step in the right direction. The first thing we need to do is include cultural paralysis/destruction in the definition of genocide, which would help explain our intuitions about the grouping and convention problem and the badness problem. The second thing to do is to solve the culture-related vagueness problem: when does a group count as having a culture, and what is a culture? This is a pretty deep problem, but I think it is time we revive discussion of it.


Daniel Tippens received his Bachelors of Arts in Philosophy at New York University. He is now a research technician at New York University School of Medicine in the S. Arthur Localio Laboratory.

[1] Boghossian, P. (2010) The concept of genocide. Journal of Genocide Research.

[2] Ibid. 10.

[3] The Nizkor Project, interview with Dr. Eduard Bloch.

[4] Jewish Revenge Squads.

[5] Boghossian, op. cit., 7.

[6] I recognize that an account of the mind that claims the it is an emergent property of the brain is controversial, as is the account of the mental life of domestic animals that holds that they don’t have the same morally relevant emergent properties that humans do. I am not trying to take a stand on either one of these issues; I am merely employing them for illustrative purposes.

[7] I thank Massimo Pigliucci for helping me articulate this point during one of his dinner and philosophy meetups.

[8] Thomson, J.J. (1999) Physician-Assisted Suicide: Two Moral Arguments. Ethics 109: 497-518.

[9] Cultural genocide, Wiki entry.

[10] Nersessian, D. (2005) Rethinking Cultural Genocide Under International Law. Carnegie Council, 22 April.

68 thoughts on “Culture and genocide: what relationship?

  1. Imagine a situation where a large group of immigrants had completely adopted the culture of the host society. Would the mass murder of this group count as genocide? Not according to the definition offered here. And remember that for the Nazis, Jewishness was defined in terms of ancestry, not culture.

    There may be an intractable problem of imposing legal definitions, which need to be clear, on a complex reality that is of necessity fuzzy.


  2. Paul, maybe, but I tend to think that Jewishness is actually defined largely by culture, and only superficially by ancestry. (And at any rate, the two are clearly tightly related.)


  3. I’ll jump right in. In comparing genocide to mass murder, is genocide really ‘distinctively heinous and deserving of a worse punishment’? Perhaps the former and yet not the latter? The same question is brought up by the concept of hate crime. I would suggest that the terms genocide and hate crime are products of justified political pressure rather than purely moral considerations.


  4. What do you make of the idea that the Holocaust actually was a key factor in spreading and reviving Jewish culture. Zionism was a fringe idea at best, mostly in Eastern Europe where Jews were already being victimized regularly. The Final Solution is what made it a mainstream idea and ultimately led to the creation of Israel. There is no doubt that Hitler’s plan was to eradicate Jewish culture, but, having failed and actually strengthening it (most European Jews were almost completely integrated into their home country’s culture at that point), does this create a problem for your definition?

    Also, and this could be because I’ve been reading a lot of Hannah Arendt for something I’m writing, what do you make of her idea that genocide is different from mass murder because the victims of mass murder are the people who died whereas the victim of genocide is all of humanity?


  5. You folks need to study the Pathogen Theory of Culture. People aren’t monsters. We all have the same biological drives. There are 2 great books Bloodlands and The Taste OF War.

    The main cause of death in WWII was starvation. Hitler and Stalin were trying to feed their growing cities, etc.

    Further, why ppl say they do stuff likely has no relationship to the biological imperatives that really drive individual behaviors in the moment.

    60% of Nobel Prizes are Jewish, with .06% of world’s population. The Holocaust and greater murders of Poles, Slaves, etc. was neighbor and local authorities stealing from and killing neighbors often the best and brightest. The ones with the most money.


  6. I’m a close friend of Daniel Tippens (btw, my name is Paul So) I was very supportive of his decision to submit his paper to Scientia Salon. However, when reading his paper, I presented an objection to his argument. The objection goes as follows. Tippens’ account of the heinousness of genocide requires that an intended mass murder must result in cultural paralysis, but I pointed out that it’s unclear how this account would deal with some aspect of the Holocaust. Specifically, mass murder took place in Europe such that it results in cultural paralysis among Jewish communities in Europe, but the Jewish diaspora in the United States and other parts of the world (besides Europe) are not undergoing cultural paralysis. Ultimately, we can agree that mass murder took place, but did the Jewish population as a whole underwent cultural paralysis? An intuitive answer seems to be that mostly the Jewish population in Europe underwent cultural paralysis, but other Jewish communities outside of Europe seem to continue their cultural practices.

    However, this may not undermine his account, since he can qualify his account by saying that genocide requires that mass murder results in cultural paralysis in *part or in whole*. So not all Jewish communities need to undergo cultural paralysis via mass murder, but at least some of them. However, this would reintroduce the problem with the “in part” account of genocide. Suppose that an intended mass murder took place on a small ethnic community of X. That small ethnic community is not the only community, since there are other ethnic communities of X too; it is part of the broad set of communities of X. However, mass murder took place only in that community and it resulted in cultural paralysis. Does it follow that genocide gook place? This seems a bit too inclusive.


  7. A few basic thoughts:

    1. The UN definition of genocide, per page 2 of this review of “Bloodlands,” is narrow precisely because the USSR insisted on it being made narrow.
    That page discusses some of the issues raised both by Massimo and in this essay. (And, I’ve read “Bloodlands” myself.)

    2. That said, BMM appears to me to at least pushing the envelope on acceptable discourse, with his “rich” comment seeming to play on the old “money-grubbing Jew” theme. That stereotype was held, of course, but the Jews of the Pale were, in actuality, generally far from rich. That, combined with the “smart as a whip” stereotype of Jews that he also is trying to perpetuate lead me to formally request Massimo not to remove the comment, but instead ban him from further commenting until BMM at least gives us a clarification and preferably more than that, if it’s heartfelt.

    Beyond that, a Googling showed only two hits for “pathogen theory of culture” and one of these is BMM’s comment right here. The other is on a LinkedIn page in the last 30 days by a “Kevin Kind,” identified as a “management consultant.” Since BMM’s website has no “about” page, I don’t know for sure if it’s the same person, but I’m suspicious.

    Hinting that culture is a pathogen seems worse given the above stereotypes BMM is perpetuating, hence my call to Massimo to address this issue.

    3. Back to the essay itself. I think Tippens does some good legwork on the intent idea and its relation to the actual number killed. In criminal law in most of the developed world, our law codes reflect that. We have “attempted murder” but not “attempted manslaughter.”

    4. I appreciate Tippens also raising an idea or two from Massimo’s essay and comments there by me and others, such as, why aren’t women included in genocide-related categories of people. They should be. Probably, just as the USSR resisted a wider definition, though, certain Muslim-culture countries that still support the idea of honor killings would baulk. Given how said countries have tried to use the UN as a forum to promote international support for blasphemy laws, issues of atheists as a genocide-related class, based on the religious issue, probably also should be added.

    On the issue of separating “culture” from “group,” Tippens’ referencing of a book club is going, as long as we remember that’s only a one-way street. Every group doesn’t have a culture, but every culture is a group as part of maintaining its culture.


  8. Trying to find a general definition of genocide is best done through examples: was what Australia did to the children of Australia pre-European population in the 1960s genocide? Or was that just a good gesture to give those children a chance?

    Was what the USA do to American First Peoples genocide? Did the invasion of America by Europeans constitute genocide, and, if so, was it necessary? Was the genocidal English American invasion model superior to the French “Mission Civilisatrice” in Canada? And if so, in which sense?

    The point is that studying particular examples informs the general definition.

    Exterminating the most spectacular aspects of the Aztec civilization was certainly culturocide, and, according to some, all too broad definitions, would also constitute genocide.

    In general stamping out a nasty religion does not constitute genocide, just well-deserved ethical cleansing. Nobody is crying because we don’t conduct human sacrifices, Celtic, Punic, or Aztec style.

    However, extermination of 15/16 of the Aztec population, including its leaders and thinkers, certainly constituted genocide. After a spectacular trial instigated by rancher cum adventurer and bishop Las Casas, the highest authority in Spain and the Roman Empire, Charles Quint, decided to stop the Conquista.

    Revenge and exemplary killing do not constitute genocide: they may be viewed as measures to prevent future genocide, by telling future perpetrators that they could not get away with it.
    An example is the 40,000 collaborators executed by France in 1944, and thereafter. Although they all got justice, as deserved, some of this justice was express justice, as deserved.

    On the other hand, the behavior of Stalin in Ukraine in the 1930s, or Putin in Chechenia around 2000, seems to fit the definition of genocide. The latter case is an example where a bad man and his collaborators (say the French actor Depardieu) could be put under public disapprobation (Depardieu actually owns property in Chechenia: does that make him an accomplice of genocide, and a violator of the Fourth Geneva Convention?)

    And the awkward questions keep on coming: when a nation commits genocide (say Turkey with Armenians) do other nations which conduct business with it become accomplices of said genocide?

    The question of the Kurds also surfaces: by cutting Kurdistan into little pieces thrown to the four winds, did colonial powers become accomplice of conditions conducive of genocide against the Kurds?

    The genocide of the Jews in World War Two was a mix of the deliberately vicious (Zonderkommandos, as early as June 1941), and deliberate happenstance. The latter means that one should include in the will to genocide, the will to create such circumstances.

    Rwanda’s Kagame is a modern example of that: after having shot down the Rwandan and Burundi presidents, or stealing through proxies the wealth of Congo, he deliberately created conditions for the evil spirits of genocide to raise.

    We need to refine our analysis not just of facts but mental plays on the fragile condition of the human spirit. This is true not just for genocide, but for war in general.


  9. I think the definition is certainly a step in the right direction in theory. It would be interesting, however, to determine whether such a definition would be more adequate given the realities of the international legal system.

    Dan does misconstrue the UN definition slightly, however. And perhaps this is due to his focus on the moral and theoretical aspects of a definition of genocide rather than a legal one. He is right in saying that the UN’s definition creates a sort of vagueness by only mentioning four groups (Daniel Tippens writes “The UN definition lists these groups explicitly: national, ethnical, racial, or religious. But why are these groups the only ones that can be potential victims of genocide? Boghossian suggests these groups may be chosen as potential victims of genocide because they all admit of indelible traits, traits that one cannot change from birth, and not traits that one has blamelessly acquired (a trait like, say, being wealthy”)”). However, his mistake is looking only to the definition and not Court decisions that have interpreted it.

    Specifically, in a Court decision against Akayesu, relating to the Tutsi killings, and international court explained the intentions of the drafters of this definition. This intention said that these four groups are not exclusive, i.e. genocide can occur even if it isn’t against one of these four groups. What other groups could be potential victims of genocide, that is for court decisions to decide. In the Akayesu case the Court decided that the Tutsi’s constituted such a group. Part of the evidence they looked to was the fact that Tutsi’s were given special identification that made them separate from the Hutus. This counters Boghossian’s point as well because the Court indicated that genocide can occur against a group that does not share indelible traits. Akayesu himself made the argument that a Tutsi wasn’t a cultural or religious group because they lacked indelible traits; that being a Tutsi was just a designation of sorts. The court rejected this argument and actually based part of their rationale on the fact that one could become a tutsi by acquiring a certain economic status (i.e. someone could become a tutsi without being born a tutsi). For the Court this ability to become a Tutsi and be designated as a Tutsi via identification was enough to constitute a stable and permanent group and therefore qualify as a potential victim of genocide.

    I’d like to stress however that I am not clear as to how strong of an actual objection this is to Daniel’s end view but it is perhaps a consideration he and Boghossian should take in developing a workable definition of Genocide.


  10. SocraticGadfly,
    I also was considerably disturbed by BMM’s comment. It is certainly badly, and somewhat offensively, phrased.

    The pathogen theory of culture (google Randy Thornhill and Corey Fincher), is the kind of ev-psych that you’ve complained of as being (at least border-line) pseudo-science. (Although Thornhill and Fincher have biology credentials, the research is done in departments of psychology.) It basically says that culture has been largely determined by our evolution-inherited fear of disease. It’s principle weakness is that it is largely constructed through correlations of statistics.

    I also visited BMM’s blog, and read a few entries there. BMM is a strict incompatibilist physical/biological determinist – probably the strictest I’ve encountered. He seems pretty convinced that neuroscience is revealing that humans are incapable of decisions not programmed, and draws the conclusion (which many others of similar position won’t) that this requires complete redefinition of how we address the world and our presumed values concerning it.

    I should also note that in his responses to neuroscience papers he quotes, he seems to be reading far more into them than their authors are really saying.

    These issues noted, and blending Bloodlands and, especially, Taste for War (a scholarly discussion on how food was used as a weapon in WWII) into this context, BMM is not only suggesting that the Holocaust is not so important an event as we make it out to be, since the war was brutal across Europe, but also that the whole war was predetermined by biological imperatives over which the participants had no control, no matter what they said about it, or what we now say about it. (Although I’m not sure why he made the remark about the Jewish Nobel prize winners, his remark reducing the Holocaust to economic motives is in keeping with his expressed interest in seeing all biological determinants in terms of economic logistics. However, the basic claim is empirically falsifiable by the evidence, even if we discount – as BMM clearly would – anything the participants and survivors had to say on the matter.)

    I agree that this is a Holocaust denialism, but it’s the oddest I’ve seen. BMM is not denying that the mass killings occurred, he is saying that they cannot have the value we struggle to clarify here, because such clarification is ‘scientifically’ mooted by the neuroscience revealing the determinism behind the events. (The effort to discuss value, if I understand this position, would be itself predetermined by the economic logistics of our biological programming.)

    So, I think BMM is saying, ‘stop talking about such matters, it’s unscientific.’

    Well, one doesn’t expect intrusion of the ‘scientism’ topic in a discussion on culture and genocide, but there you have it. This is probably as extreme as ‘scientismist’ thought can get.

    Any other ‘scientismist’ wish to hijack the thread to that topic? Or can the rest of us get back to considering the problematic relation between culture and genocide?


  11. 60% of Nobel Prizes are Jewish, with .06% of world’s population. The Holocaust and greater murders of Poles, Slaves, etc. was neighbor and local authorities stealing from and killing neighbors often the best and brightest. The ones with the most money.


    So, *that’s* why my grandfather kept getting beaten up in the streets of Mannheim, by the SA! Because he was rich! And here I’d always thought that he was a petite bourgeois shopkeeper, who came to Germany from a dirt-poor shtetl in Galicia (Ukraine) and that the SA were beating him up and destroying his shop because he was a Jew.

    After I read BMM’s post, I thanked God for the civil environment here at Scientia Salon. I mean, at least no one called anyone “silly” or described the discussion thus far as “unpleasant” or anything like that. This way, we can be sure to engage the Holocaust denier’s points on a purely substantive basis.


  12. Well, I find BMM’s post pretty despicable too. But once in a while I think it is good to be confronted by the reality of just how differently some people think about certain things. And there is value in responding rationally to nonsense.


  13. “But once in a while I think it is good to be confronted by the reality of just how differently some people think about certain things. And there is value in responding rationally to nonsense.”

    Might I ask, with all due respect, what the criteria for this is? As a regular reader who has seen SciSal bust people immediately for far, far, far less than this, I’m also puzzled at the delayed response (after three readers’ condemnations, no less) as well as the explanation. I mean, what, there’s now a quota for “despicable” comments (in reality, BMM’s comment is beneath contempt)? Furthermore, this entire discussion strikes me as wrong-headed. So, what, now we’re going to have a Sorites argument about what constitutes genocide? Really? Why isn’t a family-resemblance treatment of the term genocide good enough? Why should I have to reconsider whether the Holocaust was “really” a genocide and how can anyone ask survivors and their families to reconsider such a thing? Some of us had family in the camps. Some of us had family in Hitler’s army, which allowed the ovens to keep burning. Vertrauen Sie mir, es war wirklich ein Völkermord, ein Genozid.


  14. Massimo said,
    …there is value in responding rationally to nonsense.

    “Since our conditions for when genocide has occurred don’t revolve around quantity of people killed, but instead revolve around cultural paralysis

    “is genocide really ‘distinctively heinous

    “I would suggest that the terms genocide and hate crime are products of justified political pressure

    “the idea that the Holocaust actually was a key factor in spreading and reviving Jewish culture.”

    “Hitler and Stalin were trying to feed their growing cities, etc.

    “biological imperatives that really drive individual behaviors in the moment.

    “but did the Jewish population as a whole underwent cultural paralysis?

    “In general stamping out a nasty religion does not constitute genocide, just well-deserved ethical cleansing.

    “Revenge and exemplary killing do not constitute genocide: they may be viewed as measures to prevent future genocide

    Yes, Massimo, I agree that “it is good to be confronted by the reality of just how differently some people think about certain things” and “there is value in responding rationally to nonsense.“.

    But for now my response is one of anger, pain and sorrow. It is informed by my experience when I stood in the death camps, stunned and uncomprehending. My mind could not absorb the enormity of it. It just defied comprehension. I never thought I could cry but I stood there weeping for so much tragedy. I wept for their unendurable suffering and I wept for the complicity of my culture.

    What we see here is something divorced from that reality. What we see here, in varying degrees, in the different responses, is a process of minimisation, normalisation, explaining away, revisionism, denial and justification. The victims deserve better than that. When we fudge the issue we betray the victims, we diminish ourselves and we enable further crimes.

    Preventing further crimes is ultimately the most valuable potential outcome of such a debate. For this reason, I suggest that the 10 point process outlined by Genocide Watch is a more useful definition, as outlined in my earlier comment, . See also for other useful definitions of genocide.

    But the really interesting question, for the moment, is why there should be a trend towards minimisation, normalisation, explaining away, revisionism and denial of the Holocaust. Why is this happening? What is happening to our society?


  15. jarnauga et al.,

    in my mind there is a clear distinction between uncivil discourse and one that is misguided and we find reprehensible. Consider the example of a creationist who doesn’t tell me I’m an idiot and who doesn’t shout at me, but nonetheless denies plain facts in front of his nose. I may find that offensive to reason, but not insulting to me personally.

    Of course denying the Holocaust is much more personal, particularly when a reader may have had relatives who died during it. But I would think that we can treat the case similarly: pity the denier, respond to his “arguments” and avoid an emotional confrontation.

    Or put it yet another way: if I filter a comment by someone that denies the Holocaust, I am essentially restricting the range of views that are allowed on this site, even when they are express in earnest and without personal attacks. Where would I then draw the line? Is creationism okay? Vaccine denialism? Racism? Sexism? What counts as the latter, exactly?


  16. I guess we could then, as long as nobody is attacked by name (having no personal knowledge as to whether or not we have African-Americans here, or South African blacks), have a US neo-Confederate or South African white nationalist pop up and say similar?

    Per BMM’s case, we can, since Massimo has decided to give us one “inoculation,” now, to use an Ebola analogy, “quarantine” the source of the infection as I first suggested.

    And, unlike my first paragraph, about African-Americans or black South Africans, and lack of knowledge on at least my part, BMM has good cause to know that Aravis at least (and maybe others, Jarnauga?) are Jewish, even without mentioning him by name.

    Creationism and antivaxxerism, per the subject of this essay, are entirely different matters. That’s close to a red herring, in my book, putting those two in that sentence. Sorry, Massimo, but that’s how I see that. Racism is in the same boat as anti-Semitism, as I noted. Sexism is in the same boat, as I noted on this and your essay about genocide, as a similar class (social justice warriors’ overkill on the issue aside).

    So — hoping and assuming Massimo will institute a quarantine — and hoping and assuming we can extract something from this, per EJ without, indeed, going into a sorites-type argument for or against genocide (let alone the idea of culture as “pathogen,” which is repulsive in its own way), let’s unpack a few other things, namely about how to approach denials of the Holocaust, or other genocides, and related issues.

    1. Genocide-class group attacks, to riff off Massimo, indeed can be, and are, expressed in “earnest.” I have no doubt that Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in “earnest.”
    2. Contra the idea that rational discourse will “refute” such ideas, except in the idea of the rational-minded, I present allegedly scientific “racialism” at the hands of the likes of J. Phillippe Rushton with its measurement of brain case and skull sizes, penis sizes and everything in between. We know this is “out there” today. Just as with the non-genocide related antivaxxers or creationists, rational discourse never trumps pseudorational discourse. To pull this back to Nazi Germany, it had the infamous Mengele, and just as many infamous but lesser known people. (As did imperial Japan, lest we forget.) And, though not done to genocidal ends, let us (at risk of “presentism” brickbats) not forget that Aristotle and many others did bring sexist-based preconceptions to study of human anatomy too.
    3. The same is true for emotions that are crafted on a rationalist basis. Assuming BMM is what we think he is, our “pity” means nothing to him. It means nothing to racists, anti-Semites and others in general. We can “pity” him indeed — from our point of view. And others like him.
    4. I am still with Massimo in supporting the First Amendment in the US and generally opposing hate speech laws. But, as we all know, the Internet has opened massive new worm-cans.


  17. As I said in previous comments, the massive exterminations are caused by political and economic reasons. Ethnic and religious arguments to defend such exterminations are the mask to justify these crimes. This topic is very old and caused quarrels and wars in India, China, Persia, Babylon, Greece, Egypt, Rome, etc. Regarding the extermination against the Armenians, many of them Jewishs and Christians, the main reason for it was political and economic, in my opinion.

    Were Hitler and close mates religious people? According to some historians the Nazis tried to established a secular religion where Judaism and Christianity weren’t welcome. This would be a secular religion, being the Nazi Party the Church and Hitler the Pontiff . Historians like Joachim Fest, Ian Kershaw and Allan Bullock claimed that besides his hatred of Jewishs, Hitler had a remarkable anti-Christian feeling. Hitler referred to Christianity as a disease and a drug.

    Why did he link Christianity with disease and Marxism as a Jewishs science that must be destroyed? I guess that Hitler hated/feared any sort of socialism or communitarian scheme that wouldn’t resemble his own thesis about the Nazi ideology. He smelled that there was a close connection between the communitarian views of the firsts Christians and Marxism, despite that the former believed in God whether the latter believed that religion was the opium of the masses.

    In short, I don’t see a way to stop exterminations, wars and terrorism if there is not a global agreement to set a political and economic substrate based in communitarian and democratic actions. Lastly, I suggest to be careful regarding religions, pejorative and vociferous comments about religions are harmful and encourage undesirable reactions.

    Hi Massimo,

    Firstly, I acknowledge your work on this topic and your effort in keeping a civil debate. Secondly, I’m pessimistic in avoiding emotional confrontations, that’s why I suggest prudence and self-removing vociferous, hyper-emotional comments. I’m afraid that this doesn’t rely on you, so the cooperation of everybody to keep a civil, non-noisy debate would be much appreciated.


  18. As I said in previous comments, the massive exterminations are caused by political and economic reasons. Ethnic and religious arguments to defend such exterminations are the mask to justify these crimes. This topic is very old and caused quarrels and wars in India, China, Persia, Babylon, Greece, Egypt, Rome, etc. Regarding the extermination against the Armenians, many of them Jewishs and Christians, the main reason for it was political and economic, in my opinion.


    This ignores the substantial scholarship that shows that the Holocaust developed out of centuries of Christian-derived anti-Semitism in Europe. The blood libel, the charge of deicide, the supercessionism implicit in the New Testament, the hatred of Jews on the part of Church Fathers like Tertullian, the vicious anti-Semitism of the Father of the Reformation, Martin Luther…all of these contributed to a culture across Europe that engendered systematic persecution and violence, from the attacks on Jews that commonly attended Easter celebrations, to the Inquisition, to the pogroms in Eastern Europe, all leading up to the Final Solution and Holocaust.

    Simply put, the idea that the motivation for viciousness and violence against others is always — or ever — reducible to economic and political motives strikes me as completely unfounded — something that one can only claim, if one is in the grip of a theory. This view also, seems to me to play into another disturbing, because inaccurate, trope — namely, that genocides like the Holocaust are essentially the responsibility of a small number of people who trick and dupe the general public to go along with it. The fact is that Europe was pervasively and substantially anti-Semitic — and in my view, still is, to a great degree — and the average person was as happy to see the Jewish shopkeeper dragged out onto the street and beaten up as the most committed member of the SA. Indeed, my father’s recollections of life in Mannheim in the late twenties and early thirties is one in which most of the violence directed towards Jews was entirely unofficial and carried out by everyone from adults down to young children. (In one particularly chilling story, my father describes how an elementary school aged boy threw a Jewish boy out of a third story window, in his school. Just a few weeks before, the two boys had been friends. And all that my father could remember of what had changed in those few weeks, was that the picture of Hindenburg that had always been hanging in one of his friend’s houses, had been replaced by a picture of Hitler.)


  19. Hi Mario,

    the massive exterminations are caused by political and economic reasons. Ethnic and religious arguments to defend such exterminations are the mask to justify these crimes.

    In the case of the Holocaust I disagree. There were no sensible political or economic reasons for the Holocaust. it was pure ideologically driven hatred, from an ideology that was a mixture of nationalism, racism, and creationist religion.

    Were Hitler and close mates religious people?

    In the sense of believing in God, yes they were. All of the leading Nazis professed a belief in God.

    According to some historians the Nazis tried to established a secular religion where Judaism and Christianity weren’t welcome.

    If by “secular” you mean lacking belief in God then this simply is not so and is contradicted by all the evidence. The Third Reich rhetoric and ideology was thoroughly theistic.

    The relationship with Christianity is more complex. The Nazis saw themselves as reformers of religion. They regarded Christianity as having been corrupted early on by Jews such as Paul, from the message of the original Jesus who they regarded as Aryan. For example, Hitler said (speech April 12 1922): “My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them”.

    Hitler criticised the Catholic and Protestant churches for squabbling with each other rather than unifying against the Jews. E.g., from Mein Kampf: “Catholics and Protestants are fighting with one another to their hearts’ content, while the enemy of Aryan humanity and all Christendom is laughing up his sleeve”. Thus the Nazis founded their own church, the Deutsche Christen, which married Protestant Christianity with Nazi racial ideology, and even founded their own theological institutes to this end.

    Hitler had a remarkable anti-Christian feeling. Hitler referred to Christianity as a disease and a drug.

    No he didn’t, this is a mistranslation (likely a deliberate one). Since WW2 and the Holocaust there have been sustained attempts to try to distance Christianity as much as possible from the Third Reich, and instead to blame it on “secularists” or “secular religion” or on “Darwinism” or anything else the Christians don’t like. My (lengthy) reply to that is on my blog at Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinism.

    The Nazi religion is best regarded as an offshoot of Christianity, mixing it with non-Christian nationalistic ideas. It can be fairly regarded as sufficiently far from mainstream Christianity that it is no longer “Christian”, but it was certainly not secular or atheistic. For example, Himmler declared: “I have never tolerated an atheist in the ranks of the SS. Every member has a deep faith in God”. Many more quotes at my blog article just linked to.


  20. Why is it good, for this and other intensely powerful topics, to avoid emotional reactions? I fear the slippery slope of “understanding where you’re coming from” and trying rational debate in response to comments like BMM’s leads us toward the vague tolerance of bad and wrong views that we see on TV news. I have, as do others, a strong and grounded emotional response to views like these, views which aren’t only factually wrong but can reinforce false stereotypes for those who seek them. This is not like the debate about evolution. These views are real, pervasive, wrong and bad, and only an emotional response is justified.



  21. Labnut quoted me out of context, as an add-on to the condemnable, erroneous statements of BMM (no the Germans were not starving, and Stalin imposed starvation). I agree that the juxtaposition is effective, and terrifying. Yet, sometimes, context is everything.

    When the Allies killed around one million Germans through carpet bombing, it was entirely justifiable. It was not just intended to show to the Germans the error of their ways, but to win the war by paralyzing Germany’s economy. It worked. Germany ran out of fuel and high explosives by 1944. Elite SS Panzer

    Divisions had to be dragged by animals across Germany, because there was no more fuel.
    More than 10% of the German population died in World War Two. Arguably a genocide, but an excusable one, as the Nazis got it started.

    “Excuse us, said the Nazis (and Pat Buchanan), it’s the French who declared war… The French and the Jews (in this order in Mein Kampf) attacked us.”

    Yes on the facts, wrong on the context.

    It is indeed true that France never wavered in her hostility to Nazism. It took her six years, no less, to persuade the Brits to join them in a military alliance with Poland, against Hitler.
    Clearly, as far as the French were concerned, Nazi ideology was conducive to war and genocide: it was just a matter of time.

    The point here is that it can be detected whether a system of thought (ideology), or a system of mood is genocidal. It can even be detected whether elements of them are conducive to UNJUSTIFIED mayhem.
    “JUSTIFICATION” is not just matter of opinion, same as the decision of a court of law, is not just opinion. The French Republic was entirely justified in her unrelenting hostility to Nazism. And if it meant a world war to destroy Nazism, so be it. The real problem: god, insanity, luck, the despair of Nazi generals, and stupidity of the top French general, were with the Nazis on the battlefield, around May 15, 1940.

    Elements of mayhem propaganda have to be neutralized. I recently sent five verses of the Qur’an to The Economist (commenting on an article on Islamist fundamentalism”). I was censored, and told I would be banned from The Economist if I did it again.

    I agree that these verses are as, or even, are more problematic than what Hitler wrote (he knew the Qur’an all too well).

    Yet, they impress the youth.

    Denying all-together that there was an holocaust in World War Two caused and effected by Nazi ideology is an element of mayhem that cannot be tolerated. No German Neo-Nazi movement can seriously rise again, because it, by law, cannot deny that the Nazi ideology and its mood caused a holocaust before. That’s excellent.

    Similarly the highly mayhem-conducive parts of the Qur’an ought to come with various warnings (to make Islam compatible with secularism, as Christianity more or less is, in Western Europe).


  22. @Labnut,
    I’m unsure about what you mean by the claim that in attempting to explain what the crime of genocide is we “fudge” the issue, if you could expand on this I would be appreciative.

    I agree with you that prevention of future crimes is important for honoring past victims, but it also seems that honoring past victims involves appropriately punishing those responsible for genocidal acts that we were, or will be, unable to prevent. In order to do the latter, we must figure out what genocide is. This is what we are doing here. Additionally, all of the operational definitions of genocide that you listed will fall victim to some species of the problems that Boghossian raises in his paper, so we need to look to another definition.

    Your objection is that when a people, and consequently a culture, is distributed across varying geographic regions (say regions x and y), it is unclear if genocide has occurred when only region x undergoes cultural paralysis and region y is completely unharmed. I think this is a good way of pointing out a case in which the cultural vagueness problem will be problematic. I am very interested in what others have to say about this.

    You point out a very interesting descriptive fact about how international courts are a bit more flexible than myself or Boghossian seem to think. Your case of the Rwandan genocide is a great example. I don’t think this would hurt my central thesis, but it is interesting to hear about how it is possible that some of the practical problems Boghossian raises might not actually be so problematic in international court practice.

    I would also like to hear some feedback on the following concern raised by a friend of mine. She pointed out the following: there are some cultures we don’t value. For example, the culture of the Klu Klux Klan. If you think that it would be morally wrong to commit genocide against them, then we run into a problem. Given that we don’t value the culture that they have, paralyzing the culture can’t be the thing that contributes to the wrongness of the action (effectively countering what I claim in this paper to be part of what makes genocide bad)

    If, however, you think that committing genocide against the klu klux klan is not wrong, then you disagree with Boghossian and many others who think that it is incoherent to say/ask, “sure it was genocide, but was it justified?” In other words, you are taking a counter intuitive position up that there can be permissible or good cases of genocide.

    I have my own solutions in mind for this problem, but would be very interested to hear what others think first.


  23. I confess that when I first read the attempt to minimize the Holocaust, I was enraged. I didn’t comment, because commenting out of rage is a wretched thing to do, and I always regret it, although the regret does no good, the damage is done. So I waited to find some way to deal with the matter rationally and yet critically, and SocraticGadfly’s comment gave me a way to do so.

    Nonetheless, the anger would not go away. I woke this morning regretting that, and asking why that happened. The immediate cause was evident enough. My first girlfriend – whom I still remember with considerable fondness – was Jewish, who had relatives perish in Germany; so I take Holocaust denial, of any kind, somewhat personally.

    But the Holocaust enraged me before I met my first girlfriend. I remember seeing the Resnais film Night and Fog when I was fifteen and weeping uncontrollably. At the time I was reading Voltaire – and no one could more outrageously express outrage at social injustice than Voltaire. Recovering from the effects of the film meant focusing my emotions on the evident injustice of the brutality that film records. Whatever raw response elicited by such brutality, it wasn’t my personal ego threatened by it – it was my humanity per se, my sense that there was something worthwhile in being human. Genocidal killers think they have destroyed the humanness of their victims; but their ultimate impact on us is to demonstrate how inhuman humans can act, thus threatening our sense of humanity all together.

    Neil Savelyavich is right to point out that any accepted definition of genocide has legal ramifications, and so is not simply a matter of theory in, say, sociology books. However, I think, when discussing the ramifications of the matter, that we allow ourselves lee-way to address behaviors as ‘genocidal,’ without restricting ourselves to a strict definition. The reason is because certain acts and behaviors (including certain political projects or proposals) are so egregious that whether they can be strictly determined as ‘genocide’ seems irrelevant. They insult our human nature; indeed they suggest we have no human nature, that our species is some weird evolutionary mistake, a killing machine that does nothing but close off the possibility of intelligent life on earth.

    For those of us who recognize all humans as human; who recognize that every cultural group is just trying, in the first instance, just to get by, as we ourselves do; and who recognize that reason is not a tool to use to batter others or simply a matter of logistics – we must begin considering our responses to genocide and the genocidal with review of the outrage we feel. It’s no simple emotion, but a signifier of the level of threat we feel – not to ourselves, but to the sense of the human, of what it might possibly mean to be human, of any human possibility at all.


  24. @SocraticGadfly: No, I’m not Jewish. I’m German. You’re right in pointing out that, given the irrational/pseudo-rational nature of such beliefs, it is unlikely that rational engagement will be fruitful.

    @Mario: Aravis and Coel are right. Notwithstanding language’s power to affect behavior via labeling (see the Stanford Prison experiment or Jane Elliot’s earlier Brown Eye/Blue Eye experiments on this), the Holocaust must be understood in the context of centuries of Christian anti-Semitism having prepared the ground and provided much of the motivation. Aravis is also right about the fact that anti-Semitism in Europe hasn’t gone away (although part of it now comes from a hatred of Israel). In fact, just yesterday the UN Ambassador from the United States, Samantha Power, articulated grave concerns on precisely this issue:

    @John Garrett: I think this is a good question, which lies behind part of why the nitpicking analysis of what counts as genocide irks me. It seems to me that the whole notion of there being some sort of algorithm that tells us what does and doesn’t count as genocide misses the point already by taking that approach.


  25. I really appreciate the work Dan put into this article. His opening remarks really remind me of why it’s critically important to engage in these discussions:

    “Most of us think we understand what genocide means. Perhaps this is the case for the lay concept of genocide, but it might not be for the legal definition of it adopted by the United Nations. And I think this latter possibility is disconcerting.”

    I’m less impressed by the simplistically provocative and rather self-serving nature of some of the comments. It is mystifying to me that few of the comments actually engage in any really substantive exchange with the author’s points. This is very disappointing to me. Granted, I personally have little to contribute myself to the subject. Still, I’m rather embarrassed for us. Surely we can do better for Dan than to use his article as a pretext to espouse pet theories on Nazism and the Holocaust.


  26. @ Thomas Jones
    Well said.

    I’d like to also point out that when trying to create a workable definition one must also consider the power of international courts.
    A State’s right to its own sovereignty is of the highest rights in International law. Accordingly, international law courts have very little enforcement power. For example, an international court had ruled on the genocide in the Bosnian genocide that although there was in fact a genocide awarding monetary damages would make the reparations petty and would be unworkable. So, the court asked the state who prevented the genocide from happening to simply apologize. Notably, however, recent international court cases have been moving toward monetary awards. But, no monetary award can be enforced, the perp State can simply choose not to pay.
    Such considerations should be made when creating a workable definition.


  27. With digressions now out of the way, I wanted to say, I think the OP’s argument is cogent and persuasive. Callous mass murder is horrible and not to be tolerated in any event; but efforts to wipe out the culture of the victims has historical implications that are equally disturbing. For me, the base definition of culture is ‘way of life.’ Within a given culture, people live largely by enacting routines and rituals within socially understood perimeters, largely, often wholly, without thinking about it. Whatever they do, it is simply ‘done this way’ – ‘this is how we do it.’ Genocide not only strips the victims of life, but denies that life can be lived in the way the victims lived it.

    But we do have a problem. ‘Way of life’ seems too broad to be useful; but efforts to define culture in terms of greater precision, have been going on for some time in a number of social sciences. And most of these also, critically stripped of certain technicalities, tend to reduce to some basic idea as broad as ‘way of life.’ They are useful within the disciplines of their studies, but they do not necessarily translate into the specificity required for, say, legal discourse. The definitions indicated in the UN article or in the Genocide Watch definition may be as good as it gets.

    The more concrete we get the attempt to define ‘culture,’ the more we are talking of particular activities and less of any concept we can call ‘culture.’ I know my diet, I know how to use a knife and fork. I know these eating habits are part and parcel of my culture. But it is diffiult without extensive analysis to get from there to some definition of American culture, let alone culture per se.

    This has become even more problematic in modern societies, especially one as culturally diffuse as America. For instance, the practice of eating with chop-sticks is a cultural signifier in China, which the Chinese hardly notice. In America, the significance is considerably different; we can choose to use chopsticks in a Chinese restaurant. We could bring chopsticks with us into an Italian restaurant as well, but I suspect most of us would feel somewhat embarrassed in doing so – why is that?

    So we can talk about cultural practice and cultural significance; but does this get any closer to a robust definition of culture per se?

    When the Khmer Rouge began their genocidal ‘purification’ of Cambodia, one of the things used to identify those tainted with ‘foreign influence,’ was the victims’ use of ‘Western’ technology; I suspect this included even cooking utensils. So one identifier of genocidal behavior seems to be its rigid determination that ‘everything must go’ – all signs of the unwanted peoples are to be eliminated.

    If so, perhaps we don’t need a strict definition of culture to get the kind of discussion the OP is asking for. Perhaps it’s enough to discuss particular cultures in their historic contexts.


  28. Hi Coel,

    “In the case of the Holocaust I disagree. There were no sensible political or economic reasons for the Holocaust”

    The Holocaust was a side-effect of a political and economic situation that, after the WW-1, led Germany to poverty and severe unemployment. Hitler blamed the Treaty of Versailles and the Jewish banking for it and also feared the rising of Marxism. As you point out, there were also racist and nationalist reasons. All of it set up a political and economic scenario. I’m not justifying the Holocaust but pointing out the political side of it.

    “The relationship with Christianity is more complex”.

    Well, no so complex. The Nazis drove a persecution against Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other clergy, theologians and religious organizations opposed to National Socialism. It means that the Nazi fought against the left wing of Christianity. In 1933 dissolved the Catholic Youth League and Erich Klausener, the leader of Catholic Action, was murdered. In the following years arrested clergy, priests and nuns. In his encyclical letter of March 14, 1937, Pope Pius XII accused the Nazis of “sowing the tares of suspicion, discord, hatred, calumny through secret and hostiles maneuvers against Christ and Christ’s Church.

    Once the Nazis took the power, many German bishops distanced themselves from National Socialism and prohibited the parishioners to become members of NSDAP claiming that it was incompatible with the Christian faith. In this regard, in what kind of God believed the Nazis? Not, obviously, in the Christian God. Therefore, to argue that “The Nazi religion is best regarded as an offshoot of Christianity” is misguided and contradictory.

    Hi Aravis,

    As I said above, I deplore the Holocaust and don’t justify it.

    You say “This ignores the substantial scholarship that shows that the Holocaust developed out of centuries of Christian-derived anti-Semitism in Europe”.

    Yes, this is pretty clear. Here there are at least two points that need to be analyzed. The anti-Semitism feeling is rooted in Jesus’ crucifixion by agents of the Roman Empire and the radical/orthodox faction of Jerusalem’s Sanhedrim. It is a common mistake to focus that murder solely in religious reasons, Jesus and the first Christians belonged to the the lefty political currents that fought against the Roman Empire and local allies. Years after, St. Paul and St. Peter were crucified in Rome for identical reasons.

    On the other hand, after the third century the wright/conservative wing of Christianity held a dominant position and encouraged the anti-Semitic feeling along with conservative political agents that took economic and political advantage of such feeling. This formed a cruel and sad scenario that wasn’t shared by many Christians and, I suppose, led Marx and Engels to state that religion is the opium of the masses. To me is pretty clear that many Jewishs joined the Christians in fighting the conservative political status during the first centuries of the common era, that’s why I remark that religious issues are ground in political and economic facts.


  29. Patrice Ayme: “When the Allies killed around one million Germans through carpet bombing, it was entirely justifiable. It was not just intended to show to the Germans the error of their ways, but to win the war by paralyzing Germany’s economy. It worked.”

    Freeman Dyson (no softy he) in, asI recall, Disturbing the Universe, gives his view that the bombing of Germany cost more than it was militarily worth, and many think that Zuckerman was right, and Lindemann (Cherwell) wrong; that the war could have been brought to a quicker and less expensive finish if bombing had concentrated on the German transport system; railway lines, and ball-bearing factories.

    But Churchill preferred Lindemann’s advice, which gives us two points of contact with the main topic: why didn’t the Allies bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz; and, if Churchill thought (as I did at the time) that killing Germans was a good thing, was the bombing of Dresden an act of genocide?


  30. Several things, first, related to WWII.

    Paul The possibility of bombing lines to Auschwitz has been discussed by professional historians. Even late in the war, it was at the extent of range of Western Allies’ bombers; for safe flights, they need to land in Soviet-controlled eastern areas, permission for which was not readily forthcoming. There’s also debate on just how effective it would have been.

    I think it should have gotten more consideration, while noting it wasn’t near a high-success proposition.

    Related to this, but still not genocide, is issues of war guilt. On the Allied side, beyond Dresden, is Hiroshima. I’m some sort of left liberal in the US, but some revisionist history I consider wrongheaded; condemning Hiroshima unilaterally is among this. As that meme is out again, I’ve blogged about it:

    John Garrett Exactly. What distinguishes humans from cows is the overall depth of our intellect, including depth and variety of emotions, not just “rationality.” A cow not only can’t understand counterpoint to write a fugue, but can’t emotionally appreciate the result, either.

    EJ is right; we may never have an exact definition of “culture,” but I can tell that he doesn’t condition crafting a working definition of genocide on that. (And, thanks for the kind word.)

    Jarnauga I too am a Gentile who has had to overcome family prejudice … albeit being assumed to be Jewish as an adult, even having one Jewish friend telling me I could be Sephardi. (Picture a thinner Topol in a fisherman’s hat similar to in “Fiddler.”

    All The cultural basis of bigotry, whether it leads all the way to genocide or not, is — speaking of emotions — some mix of fear, jealousy, and loathing of both self-group and the “other,” I think. Being able to at least metaphorically “kick” some outgroup is part of this. When anger, loathing, fear, etc., grow beyond the “kick” level, then gasoline on the fire can lead to a genocide.

    Colonialism is related to much of this. The Hutu/Tutsi division, and others in Africa and Asia, were perpetuated by European colonialists. Slavery in the New World can be seen as a version of colonialism.

    And — with trepidation —noting there’s probably plenty of blame to apportion between Britain, Palestinians, other Arabs, and the farther fringes within Zionism, that drives the Middle East.

    Colonialism is not the only cause of in-groups and out-groups, but it’s one sure way to promote them. Sometimes, rational appeals work. When not, force of law is all there is left. Unfortunately, on the supra-national stage, it’s of limited effect.

    Promoting positives of other cultures, noting that seeming negatives are often from them being held back and denied resources (as LBJ with African-Americans on signing the 1965 Civil Rights Act) can chip away at edges of these beliefs. Beyond that, per the complexity of emotions, scorn, not pity, is the answer to entrenched belief.

    And that’s philosophy on the streets. Giving more discussion to emotion is part of why I prefer Camus to Sartre.


  31. @ Paul Braterman
    Bombing ball bearing factories was tried in a long campaign which got many Allied heroes killed, especially Americans. It did not work. Extremely high precision was needed; thus day-light raids, hence death, as long as the Luftwaffe was effective (and long-range fighter escort not available).

    Hitler’s wealthy and opportunistic collaborators, the vicious “neutrals”, Sweden and Switzerland, were selling Hitler ball bearings. Besides, Naziland’s deep woods were endowed with factories.

    Bombing of railways was tried, and worked. France had a grand total of four railway engines at some point. Thousands had been destroyed by Allied air forces and the Resistance. The excuse for Dresden was that it was a railway node.

    The bombing against fuel was incredibly effective. Refineries could not be hidden as well as ball bearing factories. By 1944, Germany was running out of fuel, and that meant explosives had to be diluted. In a funny aside, instead of busting heads, mines were made to just bust… balls.
    The Third Reich was a fortress without a roof. Anti-aircraft defense mobilized more than a million soldiers manning thousands of anti-aircraft guns. Had they been available in the USSR, they would have won the war.

    Dresden, however unfortunate (an uncle was prisoner there), was not a war crime. Yet, it was clearly an act of vengeance. The Nazis, all together got more than 50 million people killed in Europe alone. With untold greater suffering affecting everybody. Whether they were conscious of it, or not, the Germans enabled the Nazis. So more than ten million Germans died. So what? That was their idea, their mood.

    The Germans are those who got hundreds of millions grieving, scared, and, finally, enraged. They instituted the mood of mayhem. They wanted Dresden, they got it.

    The non-bombing of the Auschwitz rail lines belongs to a whole class of mysterious acts. I have written dozens of essays on Nazism. The apparent explanation is that the Allies did not know. Like they did not know that the million Jews Eichmann proposed against 10,000 trucks could have been really saved (Ben Gurion detested that subject).

    The truth is that the Allies knew very well since January 1941 (the French government had presented evidence at the Jewish Congress in New York of 700,000 assassinations, it was in the New York Times, etc.; it was confirmed by Poles and Jews). Of course it was easy for the French: they hated the Nazis, and the Nazis were watching Sartre in Paris.

    For the British and Americans, admitting one knew about the genocidal side of Nazism was inconvenient: they had both collaborated with the mass homicidal, man-hating Nazi regime. In 1941, American-Nazi collaboration was at its apex. IBM would manage the death camps until their closure in 1945.

    Something a bit similar is on-going with the genocidal Putin. The political servants of the plutocratic leadership of the West are not too keen to admit they could have known about Putin, if they had looked at what he did in Chechenia.


  32. Reply, part 1
    Dan, congratulations to you and Massimo for continuing this conversation on such a very important subject.

    Why should we care? Genocides are not in the past, as we saw in Ruanda. We face the grim possibility of two major genocides in the future, one in Israel and one in South Africa. These are possibilities and not just alarmism. But this important discussion should be dealt with separately.

    A typographical note. Throughout you use the lowercase form of ‘genocide’. The problem starts there. It is a form of minimisation(unintended, I am sure). I will use the capitalised form of ‘Genocide’ to signify the extremely grave nature of the crime we are talking about.

    As you state, there are three problems of boundary vagueness that complicate the definitions of Genocide:
    Boundary 1 – size of the affected group (how big must it be to qualify?)
    Boundary 2 – identity of the affected group (how do we identify them? What identity qualifies?)
    Boundary 3 – nature of the wrong (how bad must it be?)

    Your solution:

    Genocide has occurred when a group’s culture has been paralyzed or destroyed via the murder of members of that group with the very intention to cause such paralysis or destruction by violent means.

    I think that introducing culture is a very interesting idea but all three problems remain even if we use the concept of culture.

    1. How big must the affected culture be? You argue that we are speaking about the entirety of a culture and therefore numbers of people don’t matter. That only shifts the problem from numbers of people to size of the culture. This is the same problem for all definitions.
    2. How do we identify the affected culture? You admit that this is a problem that needs resolving. My objection is that culture is such a bland and vague word. It effectively hides the nature of the great wrong.
    3. What is the nature of the wrong? You say that the culture is paralysed or destroyed via murder. Unfortunately I think this fails to capture the especially heinous nature of Genocide, the magnification of fear and suffering. More in my next comment.

    In general, it should be noted that boundary vagueness is hardly a new problem. It has haunted the legal system from its inception. This is why we have complicated legal processes and in general they work pretty well. We must accept some vagueness and trust to our legal processes to resolve them. Naturally we should tighten our definitions but finally we must leave it to the legal processes.

    Why should we trust the legal processes? In my opinion, the finest reasoning to be found anywhere is to be found in the arguments written by judges when handing down their findings. I find them to be a marvellous combination of clarity, insight, attention to detail and practicality. Every philosopher should read them and learn from them.

    More to come…


  33. Reply, part 2

    Boundary 2, identity of the affected group.

    You maintain that culture should be used to identify the affected group. I am a member of the anglo-saxon group and part of a liberal, western, democratic culture. Is that sufficient? I am also a white, English speaking South African but I share the same cultural characteristics as Californians, Australians and New Zealanders.

    This gives us a clue. I identify myself as a white, English speaking South African. This is central to my sense of identity. Whatever culture we belong to, there is an element key to our sense of identity. That element might be the culture itself or a sub-element or something else altogether. I am also a devout Catholic. Thus I see myself as a white, English speaking South African and as a devout Catholic. These are two central elements of my sense of identity.

    Why is this relevant to Genocide? Because my identity is something so central and vital to me that an attack on it can be a cause of great pain. Moreover, an attack on a member of my group identity is felt as an attack on me. This is the power of identity, it promotes shared empathy and concern. Therefore I suggest that rather than culture, a key sense of identity should be used when talking about Genocide. This can be an indelible identity, a self-assigned identity or an identity assigned by the oppressor.

    This has the advantage that we get away from the vagueness of culture. Sense of identity is something distinct, sharply defined and well understood. It was easy for me to self-identify as a white, English speaking South African who is a devout Catholic and you readily recognise my self-identification.

    Boundary 2, the nature of the wrong.

    Now we come to the heinous nature of Genocide, the eradication of a group with a clear sense of identity(indelible, self-assigned or imposed). I call this the magnification of fear and suffering. A good friend of mine was attacked by a mob in a black township and burnt to death(necklaced). It was a terrible tragedy that I felt keenly. And yet I felt no fear because it was not aimed at me(I will never travel into those townships).

    Let’s, rather fancifully, imagine for a moment that a new, radical, atheist government comes into power in my unhappy country and it determines that all white Catholics should be eradicated. To prepare the ground, they demonise my group. There is an escalating programme of persecution and increasing violence. All members of my group become increasingly fearful. Every attack on another member of our group is felt as an attack on oneself. Anxiety and fear communicate through the group, becoming a self-reinforcing cycle. The killings start, unleashing an avalanche of group fear. This is what I call the magnification of fear and suffering. This is what makes Genocide so heinous. It is heinous because it is an attack on the core aspects of a group’s identity in the worst manner possible.


  34. @ labnut
    Thank you very much for the lengthy reply of objections and concerns. I want to reply in a bit of detail since your objections are likely to be on many people’s minds.

    1- “Size of culture”:
    I first want to point out that according to my definition of culture (an emergent property), it is a category mistake to think that a culture has a “size” (quantity of people). It is more appropriate to say a group of a certain size has a culture, and that a culture has,say, a certain robustness. Your objection that i shift the numbers related vagueness problem back is interesting. You are saying that it is vague when it is the case that a high enough quantity of people in a group realize the emergent property of a culture. However, I say in my essay that “when the number-related evidence underdetermines when Genocide has occurred (i.e when a culture has been paralyzed, i.e when there was a culture to be paralyzed) we must look to other things about culture to determine if Genocide has occurred.” So, we would look to things like, perhaps, ancestral lineage preservation, products (artwork, buildings, etc.) of the group being destroyed, etc. I think this minimizes the relevance of the number related vagueness problem in my account.

    2- I agreed culture is a vague word, but would love more suggestions on how to precisify it enough to have an operational definition. Unfortunately your suggestion of “self identification” as the criterion for groups that can be victims of Genocide has been addressed by Boghossian. He points out that the self identification criterion will be too inclusive. Faculty members at NYU may self-identify as such a group, but we don’t think they can be victims of genocide, same with the book club group. Similar problems of inclusion and exclusion will arise for all forms of self-identification you mention (I think, though I would appreciate hearing a defense against this claim if you have one).

    3- I have a couple of concerns for the targeted induction of fear explanation for the badness of genocide, but I’ll just leave things at this: it seems to me that induction of group-fear is a constitutive part of cultural paralysis, though not identical to it. In this way your account could be worked into mine, and there could be even more things besides just fear induction that lead to the badness of genocide.

    @SocraticGadlfly and EJ

    I think EJ is right as well, that culture is a notoriously difficult concept to precisify, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get to a better operational definition that doesn’t admit of terrible vagueness as Socratic Gadfly suggested.


  35. @Boghossian & Dan

    Consider the following from the ICTY in Prosecutor v. Kristic:
    “It is well established that where a conviction for genocide relies on the intent to destroy a protected group in part the part must be a substantial part of that group. The aim of the Genocide Convention is to prevent the intentional destruction of entire human groups, and the part targeted must be significant enough to have an impact on the group as a whole”.


  36. Patrice Ayme,

    “Whether they were conscious of it, or not, the Germans enabled the Nazis. So more than ten million Germans died. So what? That was their idea, their mood. The Germans are those who got hundreds of millions grieving, scared, and, finally, enraged. They instituted the mood of mayhem. They wanted Dresden, they got it”.

    I disagree, there were many agents triggering the WW-2. To resume the topic it is worth mentioning the role played by J. M. Keynes in the Treaty of Versailles. Keynes attended the Versailles Conference as a delegate of the British Treasury and argued for a much more generous peace. He wrote a book titled The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). It was a best-seller throughout the world and was critical in establishing a general opinion that the Versailles Treaty was a “Carthaginian peace”. It helped to consolidate American public opinion against the treaty and involvement in the League of Nations. The perception by much of the British public that Germany had been treated unfairly in turn was a crucial factor in public support for appeasement.

    Keynes’ general concern was that the Versailles conference should set the conditions for economic recovery. However, the conference focused on borders and national security. Reparations were set at a level that Keynes perceived would ruin Europe, Woodrow Wilson refused to countenance forgiveness of war debts and would not even let the US Treasury officials discuss the credit program.

    The heart of the book is Keynes’ two profound criticisms of the Treaty. First, he argues as an economist that Europe could not prosper without an equitable, effective and integrated economic system, and the economic terms of the Treaty precluded this outcome. Secondly, the Allies had committed themselves in the Armistice Agreement to critical principles regarding reparations, territorial adjustments, and evenhandedness in economic matters, and these terms were materially breached by the Treaty.

    Keynes, horrified by the terms of the emerging treaty, presented a plan to the Allied leaders in which the German government be given a substantial loan, thus allowing it to buy food and materials while beginning reparations payments immediately. Lloyd George approved the Keynes Plan, but President Wilson turned it down because he feared it would not receive congressional approval. In a private letter to a friend, Keynes called the idealistic American president “the greatest fraud on earth.” On June 5, 1919, Keynes wrote a note to Lloyd George informing the prime minister that he was resigning his post in protest of the impending “devastation of Europe.”

    Regarding Woodrow Wilson, he labeled him as a blind and deaf Don Quixote and described the French Georges Clemenceau as a xenophobe enamored of France but disappointed with human kind.


  37. I’m afraid that despite some genuine attempts to introduce some rigor into some of the terms used, the more elusive the prospect seems. Neil has been very helpful in his comments regarding the legalistic vantage. Unfortunately, his most recent citation suggests that hindsight and a sort of retrofitting seems almost unavoidable. It does, however, call to my mind certain terms that might have a bearing on the group identity and culture aspects. Specifically it suggests concerns about threats to the ongoing “viability” and “sustainability” of a targeted group/culture. Regrettably, the question is how accurate and robust these assessments are in some instances except in hindsight. Nevertheless, the importance of this discussion cannot be minimized because ultimately the question regarding when international intervention can be reasonably justified, along with the nature of such intervention, remain in the balance.


  38. The more I think about this, the more I read and re-read the UN definition, and the more that I read the discussion on Boghossian’s piece, the more I am convinced that this is an example of a bogus philosophical issue, engendered by a mistaken understanding of the nature and function of natural language. Far from requiring a “definition,” in what should by now be a long-retired analytic sense of the word, it requires that we should stop engaging in Sorites-style word games—Are a thousand dead Jews a Genocide? No? What about fifty thousand—and, as Wittgenstein said, “Look!” and “See!”

    “Definitions” like those provided by the UN — and like those provided in most legal language — are *not* definitions in the classic, analytic philosophical sense, but rather, family-resemblance accounts. The definition-like appearance is due to the fact that in this case, the relevant analysis of the term is part of a law. But as we all should know, there are no rigorous definitions in law, insofar as the key descriptors employed rely upon the judgment of people–in this case, judges and juries–to determine whether they apply. Whether or not an action counts as “First degree murder” or “Second degree murder” depends, in part, on whether there was “premeditation,” but whether there was “premeditation” is not something that can be determined solely by the mechanical application of criteria, but rather, requires substantial judgment.

    With regard to Genocide, the paradigmatic, established historical cases are the Jewish Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide and the key — in the sense of central — characteristics revolve around the intent to destroy an entire people. The UN definition provides some further “characteristic-markers” — nationality, ethnicity, religion, and the like — but it is a mistake to treat these as elements in a formal definition, as understood by analytic philosophers. Rather, what they do is serve as further refinements, for the purpose of guiding the process of determining family resemblance — the chief mechanism of which is the judgment that “x suitably resembles y, with respect to p.”

    One of the defects, precisely, with analytic-style definitions is that they *commonly* lead us directly into the Sorites paradox, which is why so much of analytic philosophy often strikes one as tinkering with minutia at the edges. You are never going to adequately define “intent to destroy an entire people” or any of its subsidiary parts. The way in which we determine whether some new set of events constitutes a genocide is by determining whether it *suitably resembles* the Holocaust, Armenian massacre, and other events already deemed genocides, with respect to these sorts of features. Approaching the question in this way is not only the sole manner in which it is possible to “define” words like this — and indeed, *most* words, if we’ve read and digested the message of the Philosophical Investigations — it is the way in which we can easily see the absurdity of applying the word Genocide to acts like the “Jewish revenge killings.” Approaching the question from the pedantic, bean-counting perspective of traditional analytic philosophy lands you in nothing but interminable — and foolish-sounding — disputes over “how many people counts as ‘substantial?'” and the like. But ask any reasonable person — another crucial concept in the Law — whether the Jewish revenge killings of some minute handful of the German population, in a fit of post-Holocaust grief and rage, suitably resembles the Holocaust itself, in the relevant senses, the answer is clearly, obviously, uncontroversially, “No,” and I see no reason whatsoever, for further elaboration (which, regardless, is not forthcoming.)

    What I am saying, in part, is that we should leave our concept of Genocide alone. There’s nothing wrong with it, so long as we stop playing silly analytic philosophical games with words.

    The only puzzle to me, at this point, is that analytic philosophers are still playing these games at all. How many crippling take-downs of the traditional concept of definition do we need, before philosophers stop looking for them?


  39. Roots Of Nazism
    To understand Nazism, one has to go back 3,000 years in history, and 30 million years in ethology. A tall order.

    The Celto-Germans, after invading Western Europe, got in contact with the Greeks, and then the Roman Imperial Republic. Out of these interactions came a solution: the Confederation of the Franks, who enjoyed to be civilized by Roman lawyers and generals. (The original Lex Salica was written in Latin by Roman(s).)

    The Franks tried to muster aspects of Romanitas they thought superior, such as religious tolerance, universal citizenship, universal law, military fascism, separation of Church and State. As the Franks were fundamentally farmers, they embraced the same Republican anti-plutocratic principles as the original Roman Republic: limits on wealth and elections. That made them friendly to the Church inasmuch as it supported the “Imperium”… And secularism.

    The Franks, armed with superior Republicanism, were able to overwhelm all other Nazi-like German tribes, and even the Goths and Burgunds… who had Roman like states… but for the tolerance. By 600 CE, Jews living in France were called, and viewed in all ways as “Franks”, whereas Jews were viewed as aliens, hostile to the state in Visigoth Spain (with catastrophic results during the Islamist State invasion of 711 CE).

    The “Roman”-Frankish State was able to keep the Church in check until the Twelfth Century. However, the First Crusade soon allowed the old demons of the militarized Church to resurface, and anti-Judaism turned to genocide.

    Saint Louis was a monster straight out of the Old Bible or the Qur’an. He wrote that he could not imagine a greater pleasure than torturing an unbeliever to death. Martin Luther was not much better:

    One has to realize that Saint Louis and Luther were respected religious figures for centuries afterwards. So, when the struggling state of Prussia turned to racial discrimination and exploitation in the Eighteen Century, that was viewed as honorable enough, for Britain to finance and instrumentalize said Prussia as a weapon against France and Austria during the 1756-1763 world war.

    The next step was 1815. Britain, still allied with Prussia, found normal that the anti-Judaic and anti-Slav “laws” of Prussia be extended all over Middle Europe. Also Poland, freed for a while by the French, was annihilated again.

    Things changed finally in 1914. The German dictatorship had decided on December 11, 1912, to make a world war within 18 months. Sarajevo, and an offer of an alliance by the Americans, June 1, 1914, persuaded Von Molkte (a very distant relative), to attack France (through Belgium). This time Britain, although it had no army (said Lord Kitchener, war minister), decided to join France and oppose racist, tribal, military focused Prussia.

    Prussia was defeated. However the war finished with an armistice, not a capitulation without condition. Moreover the thousands of German war criminals were not judged and hanged as deserved. Some, such as Ludendorff (de facto head of the German army in 1918), engaged in war crimes as early as August 1914.


  40. I must say I entirely agree with Aravis’ later analysis. An exactly analogous situation obtains when (analytic) philosophers like Larry Laudan declare the science-pseudoscience demarcation problem an impossible issue because science (or pseudoscience) don’t admit of analytic definitions in terms of a small set of necessarily and jointly sufficient conditions. Which, as Aravis points out, lead directly to Sorite type games. From now on, whenever faced with this kind of situation I shall reply with a single word: Wittgenstein.


  41. Thanks, Aravis and SciSal. I also think jarnauga111 made reference to the Sorites paradox/problem early on in the thread. I also think that Aravis’s statement, “The definition-like appearance is due to the fact that in this case, the relevant analysis of the term is part of a law” makes a point that Neil was perhaps making as well.

    But Aravis’s detailed discussion in his most recent remark helped to clarify why I personally couldn’t make any progress when I contemplated these issues. I had pretty much reached an impasse.


  42. “I can’t say exactly what Xxxxxxxx is (fill in as required) but I’ll know it when I see it!” said Humpty Dumpty peremptorily.
    When DO grains of sand become a heap?

    “Legal” definitions cannot have the precision we would like and will always require to be “interpreted” for each individual case by some form of Court/Jurisdiction.

    Most of human language is “fuzzy” but our brains somehow cope (fuzzily and often rather arbitrarily) in ways that even the best computers cannot emulate to date. “Concepts” are expressed in words and these can only be defined by other words, which in turn can only be defined by yet more words, which can only be….. In the end it comes down to Humpty Dumpty (as above) and we each have our own “meanings” beneath “words”. Fortunately, and necessarily, these are fairly similar to most users. But SciSal thrives on the innumerable residual differences and nuances!

    For a start, do not the UN (et al) definitions, OP and discussions arising all tacitly assume that humans are agents who possess free will…? Now, there is a whole new can of worms nobody opened up!


  43. I think creating a workable definition is a fruitless endeavor.

    One can argue that it should be left to judges to interpret the definition with the changing times, using an analogy Dworkin made — to continue writing the novel that is the application of the UN definition of Genocide, giving credit to past authors but making changes given the now-different legal/political climate.

    However, one source of international law is scholarly work (Article 38 of the ICJ) –> Attempts at more workable definitions can be seen as steps to the works of prominent international law scholars whose writings can then be adapted/denied/used by international court judges.

    Certainly trying to find a workable definition is useless, but partaking and contributing to the conversation that about genocide is not.


  44. Ludendorff led a war of aggression, and commended massacring Belgian civilians in Liege, among other places.

    After 1918 Ludendorff, and other Prussian generals, accused the Jews and commies of having “stabbed in the back” the Prussian army. He was the most prominent founder of the Nazi Party (which Hitler was sent to spy on).

    The Nazi Party was stuffed with military men who refused their culpability in WWI, including the Prussian and Austrian subjugation of Jews, Poles and Slavs.

    From their point of view, they did as Americans with Indians. They had the support of racist American plutocrats, and RACIST Lord Keynes, a plutocrat, and his pack of infamous lies. Nobody complained of the genocide the Prussian mentality conducted in Namibia (led by Goering’s father; hey Keynes, heard about Prussian lethal racism and exploitation?).

    Thus the genocidal, war crime mentality was alive and well in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s with near total Anglosphere plutocratic support.

    Roosevelt argued with Hitler towards the end of the 1930s, about whom was the most peaceful, but most of the American establishment was cooperating 100% with the racist dictator. Some of that collaboration never stopped, through the war, all the way to the Moon, literally.

    Hence Nazism was caused by more general mentalities coming from way back, but also by some active today, namely the tolerance for plutocracy.

    This is the tolerance for the intolerable that enabled Nazism, the crown of creation of various evil mentalities, from anti-Judaism, to the “Guide Principle” (what Hitler called the “Fuererprinzip” found word for word in Qur’an Surah 4, verse 59).

    That general train of thought is already in Kant:
    “The reason a people has a duty to put up with even what is held to be an unbearable abuse of supreme authority is that its resistance to the highest legislator can never be regarded as other than contrary to law…” –Kant

    The Nazis put that general abjection (already found in Confucius, not to mention Aristotle) to good use. To this day, many a thinker pray to that infamy, kneeling to the shrine in their minds to these philosophers of, and for, fascism.

    Some of these master ideas have been barely detected. The SS wore on their belts “Gott Mit Uns” because having god with them allowed them not to think independently and obey orders from above.

    Thus the Congress of the USA adopted that motto in 1954 (“In God We Trust”).

    In January 1945, Hitler was at his most popular in Germany. Germans had not been killed enough, would cynically remark Planck. His own surviving son was assassinated by the Nazis a few months later.

    Germany is France’s sister Republic, and would no doubt ally with her against the Nazis. Actually even Hitler’s most trusted SS generals, by August 1945, reached the same conclusion. Forced to choose between Hitler’s orders and the insurrection in Paris, they choose Paris and civilization.

    They had changed mentalities. Better late than never. Mentalities rule, and have to be corralled.


  45. Dan Tippens: “…if the concept of genocide is to be salvaged at all.”

    I don’t see the slightest problem of that. I do have a ‘huge’ problem about your article.

    Massimo Pigliucci had an excellent article on this around October 14, 2014, and many commenters engaged on this issue with many great insights. My comment about it is at . Yet, in your article, seemingly we (the commenters of last article) were all in a multiverse, far removed from this universe.

    No, I don’t see anything new in your article.


  46. Came across an extension of the definition by a GMO proponent:

    “Anti-GMO activists have already committed Genocide on innocent Flavor Saver tomatoes, which could stay fresh for weeks. How many other species are you going to commit Genocide upon? Does it make you feel good committing Genocide?”


  47. I think two words should be mentioned in the future on the “sorites problem.” One is “Wittgenstein,” yes. I think the other is “Ryle.” The way Aravis phrased it in his last comment, these definitional class confusions are really category mistakes, aren’t they?

    An analogy or two.

    Two people discuss playing checkers then start. After a couple of moves, one says, “Didn’t we say Chinese checkers”? He’s phrased this as being a category mistake, as to what type of “game” was agreed on, not a difference of “game” rules. If the second agrees that they meant Chinese checkers, then the category mistake is eliminated. If not, you have an argument. This is perhaps not exactly how Ryle used the phrase, but I think it’s certainly within his spirit.

    Two people discuss playing checkers, at a date next week. One envisions moving thin cylindrical pieces around a two-person board; the other moving round glass objects across a board that will accommodate up to six. Not too long before the scheduled game time, the second person says, “By the way, do you mind if my friend also plays?”

    First person says, “How are you going to do that, alternate who gets to move on your side?”

    Second person says, “What do you mean? He’ll be playing for himself.”

    Here, we’re clearly in the territory of Wittgenstein, with confusion over the rules. In the first case, it seems to me we’re in the territory of Ryle, with misclassification of the game itself.

    Figuring out the correct classifications, demarcations, etc., is dealing with categories and attempts to avoid category mistakes.


  48. One of the defects, precisely, with analytic-style definitions is that they *commonly* lead us directly into the Sorites paradox, which is why so much of analytic philosophy often strikes one as tinkering with minutia at the edges.

    You are right but you are looking at the product and not the greater process. It is the greater process which can be so valuable and this post/conversation is a fascinating example.

    We urgently need to talk about the problem and think about the problem(Genocide). The last thing we need is to allow it to fade from view. So beware of professorial declamations from on high that might tend to foreclose the conversation.

    The conversation
    1. helps to clarify the concepts, refine them and give them greater precision, as much as possible, even in such a difficult field;
    2. informs us and stimulates inquiry into the history and causes of Genocide;
    3. provokes curiosity;
    4. sensitises us;
    5. keeps an all important memory alive and in the forefront of our consciousness,
    6. reveals changing attitudes;
    7. raises important questions.

    No, we are not tinkering with minutiae at the edges. We are confronting something horrifying about ourselves.

    I, for one, congratulate Massimo on continuing the conversation and I especially congratulate Dan for his thought provoking contribution. The conversation has revealed a trend, in some quarters, towards minimisation and normalisation, something which horrifies me. This is why I was sharply critical of the term ‘cultural paralysis’, a bland term that I think camouflages something horrendous.

    One person said “In general stamping out a nasty religion does not constitute genocide, just well-deserved ethical cleansing.” and “When the Allies killed around one million Germans through carpet bombing, it was entirely justifiable.

    The conversation is valuable when it reveals that such abhorrent attitudes are taking hold. It also revealed shallow, trivial thinking about the causes of the Holocaust. It raises the important question that I asked in my first comment:

    But the really interesting question, for the moment, is why there should be a trend towards minimisation, euphemism, normalisation, explaining away, revisionism and denial of the Holocaust. Why is this happening? What is happening to our society?

    Sadly, I don’t think anyone wants to entertain the answer because it says something horrifying ourselves, our shared guilt.


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