Statutes recognize several distinct grades of legal culpability when one human kills another. Deaths resulting from the acts of a perpetrator who didn’t intend to kill and had no ill will for the decedents — i.e., the crime lacked intent and malice — may end up with a manslaughter charge, whereas a death arising from the perpetrator’s failure to exercise due care might be charged as a negligent homicide. When a death occurs because of the willful act of the perpetrator, then the charge becomes murder and falls into one of three degrees. Many crimes of passion get charged as second-degree murder. Premeditated killings earn a first-degree murder charge. Layered into the mix are a host of defenses — insanity, self-defense, accident, impairment, victim retaliation, etc. — that attempt to minimize the mix of intent and malice that lead to specific charges and specific sentences.
The law’s judgment, however, imperfectly squares with moral judgment. To many ethicists, killing in reasonable self-defense — including during combat — and killing that follows from an unforeseeable accident, both carry minimal moral culpability. A person’s moral burden increases when a death results from an avoidable set of circumstances, like intoxication or reckless driving. It increases further when a killing that might legally be justified nevertheless could have been avoided with non-lethal approaches to conflict resolution. It increases still further when the perpetrator put himself into an environment where there was a known and avoidable risk of violence, like when an angry husband returns home to confront a cheating wife. When you cross into the threshold of first-degree murder, an ethical distinction follows from the reason for the crime; this reason may appear in sentencing memoranda but usually not in the charge. In general, the more the act of murder depersonalizes the victim, the higher the level of ethical censure.
Let’s shift gears. A few years ago I edited the Brewed Awakenings anthology. As part of my prep, I’ve visited libraries and bookstores to browse recently published novels and anthologies, to get a better feel for how certain plot devices unfold or how other authors manage the flow of dialogue and contextual information within a scene. What I took away from that exercise is that for many writers — although, to my satisfaction, none in our anthology — killing is something that just seems to happen, often without malice or intent. Murder becomes a plot device that’s divorced from any real grasp of what the crime actually entails in the real world. (It’s curious how many contemporary novels rely on killing and rape as staple plot conventions, despite near-universal condemnation of the practices. Perhaps there’s something significant in that.)
For an average person, the innate prohibition against murder is so strong that the only realistic way he’d kill another is by accident or through avoidable impairment. Even when a person thinks, in the abstract, that he’d be an effective killer, the truth usually disproves the point — as Dostoevsky so compellingly noted in Crime and Punishment. So when authors craft tales about premeditated murder, the killer rarely works when he’s an archetype of Joe Sixpack. Premeditated murder by a psychologically competent offender occurs for only a small number of reasons:
- Financial or reputational gain (contract hit men, insurance windfalls, gang violence, failed drug deals, prison murders)
- Revenge (grudges and other personal animosities against a known victim, honor killings, failed marriages)
- Jealousy (knocking off a rival for someone’s affections, envy over the good fortune of another, killing a scorning lover)
- Service to a cause (ideology, religion, sociocultural tribal codes)
- To avoid exposure (cover up other crimes, silence whistleblowers)
- To gain exposure (school shootings, serial killing, police-assisted suicide)
- Bias (hatred of known or unknown others who exhibit a disfavored characteristic, tribal initiations, out-of-control bullying)
- Thrill (killing for fun by a person not psychologically compromised, BDSM snuff activity)
Of course, reasons for premeditated murder by the psychologically incompetent run the gamut — “the voices made me do it,” etc. — but that class of perpetrator is less interesting because they’re acting out on disordered compulsions, so their actions are rarely voluntary in the sense they rationally consider their motive, means and opportunity to kill another absent any legal justification for doing so. In this sense, although some serial killers are impaired, certain diagnoses within the DSM-V don’t rise to the level of acute psychological disorder that removes moral culpability. A person with antisocial personality disorder, for example, has a diagnosis that may well be admissible at trial, but all but the most severely afflicted can still function normally and make rational choices about first-degree murder.
All of the above having been established, the question for authors is straightforward: Can you explain why a rational person willingly ended the life of another? The cultural and even instinctive taboo against unjustified homicide runs deep. A person rarely just wakes up one day and snaps into Murder One (that’s what Murder Two is for); the sequence of events leading to the pulling of the trigger or the wielding of the knife take weeks, months or years to develop. Introducing a premeditated murder at random makes for a thin plot.
But the larger question rolls beyond authors and includes everyone. What stops us from killing? For some, it’s that pre-rational inhibition rooted in culture, religion or instinct. For others, it flows from a panhumanist love for all living things. And don’t forget the fear of arrest, trial and incarceration and the deep loss of friends, family and freedom that follow. Or about the physical difficulty that comes from subduing another and the exposure to blood and internal organs that may dissuade the squeamish. Authors rarely seek recourse to the rich literature on ethical paradigms; if they did, they’d realize that certain ethical frameworks justify the don’t-murder injunction using starkly different logic models. (Consequentialists, I think, have the hardest time with this problem.)
There’s no such thing as a random killing. Each murder has a reason for its commission that outweighs the relative risk of its consequences. For authors, there’s probably some wisdom in avoiding the rape-and-murder trope unless you can paint a compelling character sketch of the perpetrator — why did he do it, and why didn’t the fear of consequences deter him?
For everyone else, it’s a useful exercise to consider the circumstances that could lead you to cold-blooded murder. And if you find that you cannot list any, then follow up with the question: Am I deceiving myself?