The concept of ‘murder’ is not ‘universal’

In the dawn of civilization, we lived in smaller groups – sometimes little more than extended families of 20-30 people.  The actual number depended on many factors, such as the environment, population density, how developed our societies were and what they depended on for sustenance, and so on.

For thousands of years, these earliest societies hardly ever grew to more 150 people – the Dunbar’s number – and formed our monkeysphere.  In these small communities, we could care about each person as an individual:  we knew them, their family, and we could relate to them on  an individual, personal level.  This group was what we related to as ‘we’ or ‘us’.  Everyone else was ‘them’, an outsider.

This is very important, because these concepts of ‘us’ and ‘them’ were key in the evolution of our concept of morality.

For example, the Yanomamo of the Amazon basin live in relatively isolated ‘traditional villages’.  They have a very specific understanding of the concept of  ‘murder’ ‘Murder’, in their view, is killing someone or something ‘of the village’.  Killing a person who is ‘not of the village’ is ‘killing, not ‘murder’.  For the Yanomamo, killing a dog or a chicken that lives in the village is just as much ‘murder’ as killing a person who is ‘of the village’.

After all, everyone living ‘in the village’ forms a community which shares social bonds and therefore has an expectation of trust from the other members of the community.  It is killing a being with whom one shares social bonds that defines ‘murder’ for the Yanomamo.  The act of transgressing against the social bonds, the breaking of  trust which was built up through living together in one community, that constitutes ‘murder’.

This little example shows how a concept we consider universal can be thought just as universal, yet interpreted completely differently in other societies.

As we ‘scaled up’ our communities and instituded rules/laws – rather than direct resolution of specific actions – to govern our behaviour, we have moved from the early, Yanomamo-style concept of ‘murder’=’breaking social bonds of trust’ to the more general concept of ‘murder’=’killing a human’.

It is we, ‘The Westerners’, who have a shifted our moral concepts somewhere along our society’s development.  Instead ‘drawing the line’ based on ‘trust’ and ‘social bonds’, we have made them more abstract (emotionally) choice:  we base in to genetic similarity, belonging to the same species.

Yes, it is much more complex than just ‘genetic similarity’…  The strong and undeniable influence of Christian doctrines of ‘soul’ and their separation between ‘human’=’soul’ and ‘non-human’=’no soul’ probably has a lot to do with why our ancestors shifted their definition of ‘murder’ from ‘breaking the expectation of trust’ to ‘killing a member of our species’.  The root cause is not the point here – the fact that it happened is.

We can still see the ‘old morality’ hold true in some of our attitudes:  many of us struggle with the cultural understanding that killing an enemy soldier during war does not constitute ‘murder’, while killing a stranger on the street during peacetime does.  These ‘conflicting attitudes’ have been much remarked upon.  Still, most people who comment on it miss the true significance of this apparent contradiction:  this is a vestige of our original, ‘human’ concept of ‘murder’ – from before we drew an abstract line around ‘human’ and began to consider it to be ‘absolute’.

This is a clear and undeniable demonstration that it is our own cultural morals which have deviated from their original meanings.

There is nothing wrong with that – societies evolve and so do their ideas of morality.  Evolving our morals to keep pace with social evolution is usually a good thing – in my never-humble-opinion.  I am not criticizing that in the least. Yet, I am calling attention to the fact that most of us still have trouble even conceiving of the very idea that OUR understanding of what constitutes morality is not universal!

Hinduism, for example, has a much broader concept of what constitutes ‘murder’ than we, in ‘the West’ do.  While the very idea of ‘soul’ originated in the area of today’s India (and influenced certain mystic Jewish sects, like the Essenes – via whom Christianity acquired the concept of the divine soul), the Hindus do not limit the concept of ‘soul’ to just humans.  Therefore, their idea of ‘murder’ is also different from our ‘Western understanding’.  To pious Hindus, killing any living being constitutes ‘murder’.

And Islam teaches that all Muslims are members of the same greater family (Umma), or tribe: to be a Muslim is to be one of ‘us’ – non-Muslims are ‘they’.  Therefore,  killing a member of the Umma is ‘murder’….but killing someone who is not a Muslims (and therefore not a member of the Umma, not one of ‘us’) is not ‘murder’, it is just ‘killing’.  The ‘Umma’ may have grown beyond a single village, but the concept of ‘being of the Umma’ has not!

Understanding this is essential in order for people form different cultures to communicate effectively.  This is especially important as we are reaching the next stage of ‘scaling up of our communities‘ – this time on the global scale.

When negotiating how we integrate our cultures (because that is what is happening, like it or not), none of us (all sides) must fall into the error of considering our interpretation of deep concepts, of what constitutes ‘morality’, to be somehow ‘universal’.

Doing so would only lead to deep misunderstandings which lead to conflict and suffering.

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6 Responses to “The concept of ‘murder’ is not ‘universal’”

  1. Diaspora and our ‘bronze-age-brains’ « Xanthippa on Aspergers Says:

    […] The same is true of ‘murder’ – the concept of ‘killing another human being’ as ‘bad’ or ‘immoral’ is actually not all that common… as I have ranted on before. […]

  2. Diaspora and our ‘bronze-age-brains’ « Xanthippa’s Chamberpot Says:

    […] The same is true of ‘murder’ – the concept of ‘killing another human being’ as ‘bad’ or ‘immoral’ is actually not all that common… as I have ranted on before. […]

  3. Cat casserole: why are we outraged that people eat cats? « Xanthippa's Chamberpot Says:

    […] been ranting about, on and off – like, say, that various cultures interpret the concept of ‘murder’ quite differently.   Something very similar is at the heart of this, […]

  4. Calculus Says:

    I missed this gem of a post the first time around.

    This leads to some interesting scenarios. What happens when two groups that have different definitions of murder interact? Do one or both of the groups change their definitions? If so, how and to what? Does one group eliminate the other? Definitely food for my thoughts.

    Xanthippa says:


    And – we are experiencing this right now.

    To the extreme school of Islamist thought, it is not ‘murder’ to kill a non-Muslim.

  5. Ibe Innocent Says:

    True talk, web master. I even consider islam a religion of deceit and consequently of the devil.

  6. THE SANCTITY OF IDEAS | A collection of published and unpublished essays written by David Heslin Says:

    […] historically been placed upon the killing ofsoldiers, dissidents, criminals and those of other tribes or classes shows that murder laws are not in any way evidence of fundamentally ‘moral’ […]

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