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An essay by Robert Lynd

The Rights Of Murder

Title:     The Rights Of Murder
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

Mr Justice Darling, before passing a sentence of seven years' penal servitude on Julia Decies for wounding her lover with intent to kill him, made a remark which must interest all students of the morals of murder. No one, probably, he declared, would very much lament the wounded man, but "that was not the question." So far as one can gather from the scrappy reports in the newspapers, the crime was in the main a crime of jealousy. The man and woman had lived together for some years, had then separated, had come back to each other, and had finally quarrelled as the result of a suggestion "that he had taken up with some other woman, with whom he was going to Paris." Incidentally it was stated that the man had given Julia Decies L500 and some furniture in the previous October on the understanding that she was to trouble him no further. It was also stated that "the prosecutor had infected the woman with a terrible disease and that she was pregnant." There you have a story of contemporary life as mean in its horror as any that Gorky has written. It is a story in which the only conceivably beautiful element is the insurgent anger of the woman. It is a tragedy, not of heroic suffering, but of the dull slums of human nature. Probably, in any country where they managed things according to "rough justice" instead of with judges and juries, no one would have blamed Julia Decies even to the extent of a day's imprisonment for seeking to avenge herself in the most extreme form on an environment so intolerable--on a man whom, in the judge's phrase, "no one, probably, would very much lament." There is a mining camp logic which holds that if a man is not worth lamenting, one need not be greatly concerned whether he is alive or dead. Civilisation however, speaking from under the wig of Mr Justice Darling, says of even the most worthless of its human products: "He was a person whose life was entitled to the protection of the law as though he were a person with the best of characters." To the moralist of the mining camp this would seem like saying that the weeds have as good a right to exist as the flowers.

It is obviously one of the earliest instincts of man to get rid of his rivals by killing them. Cain was representative of the human race at this barbarous stage. It is the stage of unhampered egoism, of laissez-faire applied to morals. Poets, who sometimes inherit this egoism, have written sympathetically of Cain: now that art is becoming deliberately primitive again, we may expect to see new statues to Cain insolently set up in the poets' back bedrooms. Civilisation is, in one aspect, a war against Cain and the minor poets. It depends in its early stages on the suppression of the private right to murder--on the socialisation, one may say, of the right to kill. No doubt, even in the most highly-developed civilisations, the right to kill is still left to some extent in the hands of private individuals. One has the right to kill certain people in self-defence. But the more advanced civilisation is, the more limited will that right be. So limited has it become in modern England that it has been maintained one is not even entitled to shoot a burglar unless, by running away and in various other ways, one has first exhausted all the gentler devices for escaping injury at his hands. This may seem a sad falling-away from the dramatic virtues of the heroic age, when one slung dead burglars round one's neck like a bag of game. But the heroic age, as has been pointed out, was an age of egoists, not of citizens. When heroes evolved into citizens, as we see in the history of Athens, the culminating triumph came with the abandonment of the right to kill as symbolised in the carrying of arms. Athens was the first city in Greece in which the men went about unarmed. That was a recognition of the fact that civilised man is not a killing animal to the greatest degree possible, but only in the least degree possible.

It may be retorted, on the other hand, that murder was not condoned in the case either of Cain or of Orestes, and there are many other examples of guilty murderers in the heroic age. This, however, only means that there was some limitation put upon the right to kill from the beginning. The right to kill did not exist as against the members of one's own family. It would have been impossible to explain the humour of The Playboy of the Western World to men of the heroic age. The women who flocked with their farmhouse gifts to show their appreciation of the boy who had killed his father would have seemed long-nailed monsters of depravity to the Greeks of the time of Oedipus. Professor Freud, in his book on dreams, maintains that men in all ages desire to kill their fathers out of jealousy; he contends even that Hamlet's reluctance to kill his father's murderer was due to the fact that he had often wished to murder his father himself. This, however, is an abnormal interpretation of the jealousies and hatreds of human beings. The philosopher, perhaps, may see the principle of murder in every feeling of anger in the same way as the Christian Apostle saw that, if you hate a man, you are already a murderer in your own heart. The hatred of parents and children, however, is not universal any more than the hatred of husbands and wives. Still, family quarrels are sufficiently natural to enable us to see that the first step towards good citizenship must have been the prohibition of the right to kill the members of one's own family. Gradually, the family widened into the clan, the clan into the city, the city into the nation, the nation into the larger unit embracing men of the same colour, and it will ultimately widen, one hopes, into the human race. But we are far from having reached that stage yet. It is said to be almost impossible to get a death sentence passed on an Englishman who has murdered an Indian native. This merely means that it is regarded as a lesser crime for a European to murder an Asiatic than for a European to murder a European. In other words the family sanctities have been extended in some respects so as to cover Europe, but they have not yet overflowed so far as Asia and Africa. The objection of the war-at-any-price party to-day to civil war is purely on the ground that it is fratricidal--that it is an outrage on recognised family sanctities. The militarists do not see that every war is fratricidal--that every war is a civil war. As a rule, indeed, they deny the existence of family rights outside the borders of their own nation in the narrowest sense. They do not realise that it is as horrible a thing to shoot fellow-Europeans--not to say, fellow-men--as it is to shoot fellow-countrymen. As private citizens they not only admit but insist upon the foreigner's right to live. As public-minded men and patriots, they will admit nothing beyond his right to be carried off on a stretcher if they fail to kill him on the field of battle.

This, however, is to discuss Cain as a statesman rather than Cain as a human being--to consider the social right to kill rather than the individual right to kill. Public morals being so far in the rear of private morals, it raises an entirely different question from that suggested by Mr Justice Darling's remark. Mr Justice Darling laid it down that the private citizen has not--except, it may be presumed, in the last necessities of self-defence--the right to kill even the most worthless and treacherous of human beings. The spy, the sweater, the rack-renter, the ravisher--each has the right to trial by his peers. This, I believe, is good morals as well as good law. Even where it is a case of a blackguard's commission of some unspeakable crime for which there is no legal redress, though we may sympathise with his murderer, we cannot praise the murder. There are, it may be admitted, cases of murder with a high moral purpose. These are especially abundant in the annals of political assassination, which may be described as private murder for public reasons. Very few of us would claim to be the moral equals of Charlotte Corday, and we have abased ourselves for centuries before the at-last-suspected figures of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. There are crimes which are the crimes of saints. Our reverence for the saintliness leads us almost into a reverence for the crime. The hero of Finland a few years ago was a young man who slew a Russian tyrant at the expense of his own life. Deeds like this have the moral glow of self-sacrifice beyond one's own most daring attempts at virtue. How, then, is one to condemn them? But we condemn them by implication if we do not believe in imitating them; and few of us would believe in imitating them to the point of bringing up our children to be even the most honourable of assassins. One unconsciously analyses these crimes into their elements, some of them noble, some of them the reverse. One has heard, again, of what may be called private murders for family reasons--crimes of revenge for some wrong done to a mother, a sister, or a child. Even here, however, one knows that it is against the interests of the State and of the race that we should admit the right to kill. Once allow crimes of indignation, and every indignant man will claim to be a law to himself. It may be that the prohibition of murder--even murder with the best intentions--is in the interests of society rather than of any absolute code of morality. But even so society must set up its own code of morality in self-defence. In practice, of course, it has also the right to distinguish between crimes that are the outcome of a criminal nature, and crimes that are isolated accidents in the lives of otherwise good men and women. Lombroso was opposed to the severe punishment of crimes of passion--crimes which are not likely to be repeated by those who perpetrate them. This, however, is a plea for the consideration of mitigating circumstances, not an assertion that the crime of murder is in any circumstances justifiable.

[The end]
Robert Lynd's essay: Rights Of Murder