I’m a little perturbed and repelled by this idea (expressed in comments on Difficult Daughters) that the murder of a girl is ‘worse’ than the murder of a woman. Actually, I think I’m more than a little perturbed and repelled by it. And no one but me has even taken issue with it yet, so perhaps that indicates it’s conventional wisdom, even a truism. But I think it’s all wrong, and not only wrong but sinister. I’m perturbed not only by the specifics of the ranking but by the idea that ranking of murder is a valid and sensible way of thinking about it. But why would it be? Why should it be? Why don’t we all have an egalitarian reaction which says that qualities and attributes are fundamentally and radically beside the point when it comes to murder, that there is no better or worse, that nobody wants to be murdered (masochists excepted) and that’s that. What is this impulse to say that murder of children is worse? It seems to me to border on saying that the murder of cute people is worse than the murder of uncute people, which borders on saying the murder of pretty people is worse than the murder of ugly people.

Now, mass media do in fact say exactly that, albeit implicitly. The weird obsessive coverage of Jon-Benet Ramsay is one glaring example, and there are plenty of others. But why do rational people want to follow their lead? Why does anyone want to try to argue that some murders are worse than others? I can see why in certain very extreme circumstances, so extreme as to be very rare in the rich world, people might be forced to try to decide how to rank the worth of various people for the sake of triage. If death is inevitable for some members of a group because the water and food are limited, then calculations are one way to decide who is saved – but it’s well known (isn’t it?) that they’re a damn horrible way, which is why people often decide to draw straws instead. Sophie’s choice was not a choice she wanted to make.

There seems to be an idea that it’s a natural and instinctive thought that the murder or death of a child is ‘worse’ (in what sense? I don’t quite know, but the meaning seems to be taken for granted) than the murder of an adult. But I don’t think it is. I think that’s basically a sentimental idea, which is probably a product of the 19th century, of Dickens and Stowe and their fans and epigones. Dickens at some point realized that the death of a child could be milked for emotional reactions, and milk he did. You don’t find that kind of sentimentalism about children before Dickens. Even the cult of sensibility was mostly a sensibility about other things – about adult griefs and sorrows, on the whole. But Dickens had a winning formula, and Hollywood carried on his work; Little Nell and Little Eva have been haunting us for a long time now. But tear-jerking tricks of popular novelists aren’t necessarily the best possible guides to moral reasoning.

And I don’t buy it. As I said in the comments, I can see that the death or murder of a child is more poignant than that of an adult, for obvious reasons (innocence, defencelessness, helplessness, trust etc) but poignant is not the same thing as worse. It is true that one variable can be easily quantified: age translates directly into amount of potential life taken away. Okay; so if you’re in the village in a famine with stocks dwindling fast and no relief on the way, or in the lifeboat with one bottle of water, then one way to decide who starves is to say it’s the people with the least time left to lose. But that doesn’t translate directly into saying that the murder of a child is worse than that of an adult. And there are other criteria that (if one wants to take such criteria into account, which I don’t) cut the other way. You could easily argue that the murder of an adult is much worse than the murder of a child because an adult has a far clearer idea of what’s at stake, and because an adult probably has goals and plans and dreams that she wants to try to fulfill, and because adults are much more likely to have adult friends who value them, and because adults have probably invested a lot of time and effort in training or education that is just wasted if they are murdered, and because adults may have dependents who need them, which children don’t.

But I don’t want to make that calculation, because I don’t want to claim that the murder of one kind of person is worse than the murder of another kind. Because I don’t think it is. I think claiming that amounts to saying that some lives are intrinsically (not circumstantially, in the sense of having dependents or making a contribution) worth more than others. And frankly I think there’s something deeply icky and regressive in the idea that children are, intrinsically, as children, worth more than adults. I think that’s sentimental and sinister – as if people deteriorate by growing up; as if innocence were necessarily better than experience; as if ignorance were better than learning and potential better than actuality. It depresses me to think that anyone believes Hina Saleem’s murder would actually be worse if she’d been twelve instead of twenty one – as if she’d done something corrupting and tainting and compromised by growing up.

I hadn’t thought of this until I started typing, but Hannah Arendt talks about this whole issue in Eichmann in Jerusalem. She is scathing about the way the Jewish councils helped the Nazis by (among other things) coming up with various privileged categories of people who should be saved, and she’s adamant that they shouldn’t have done it.

What was morally so disastrous in the acceptance of these privileged catagories was that everyone who demanded to have an ‘exception’ made in his case implicitly recognized the rule…Even after the end of the war, Kastner was proud of his success in saving ‘prominent Jews,’ a category officially introduced by the Nazis in 1942, as though in his view, too, it went without saying that a famous Jew had more right to stay alive than an ordinary one; to take upon himself such ‘responsibilities’ – to help the Nazis in their efforts to pick out ‘famous’ people from the anonymous mass, for this is what it amounted to – ‘required more courage than to face death.’

We just don’t need to do that. We don’t need to collaborate with murderers by saying that the murder of one kind of person is worse than the murder of some other kind. We’re under no obligation to sort people into the more and less murder-worthy; so let’s not.

24 Responses to “Sorting”