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Is Killing Wrong?

Is Killing Wrong?: A Study in Pure Sociology

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Is Killing Wrong?
    Book Description:

    "Thou shalt not kill" is arguably the most basic moral and legal principle in any society. Yet while some killers are pilloried and punished, others are absolved and acquitted, and still others are lauded and lionized. Why? The traditional answer is that how killers are treated depends on the nature of their killing, whether it was aggressive or defensive, intentional or accidental. But those factors cannot explain the enormous variation in legal officials' and citizens' responses to real-life homicides. Cooney argues that a radically new style of thought-pure sociology-can. Conceived by the sociologist Donald Black, pure sociology makes no reference to psychology, to any single person's intent, or even to individuals as such. Instead, pure sociology explains behavior in terms of its social geometry-its location and direction in a multidimensional social space.

    Is Killing Wrong?provides the most comprehensive assessment of pure sociology yet attempted. Drawing on data from well over one hundred societies, including the modern-day United States, it represents the most thorough account yet of case-level social control, or the response to conduct defined as wrong. In doing so, it demonstrates that the law and morality of homicide are neither universal nor relative but geometrical, as predicted by Black's theory.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2835-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    (pp. 1-17)

    “Thou shalt not kill.” no moral principle is more basic, widely understood, or universally accepted. Everybody knows from a young age that human life is sacred, and to take it willfully is the most wicked thing a human being can do. The principle is articulated in homes, schools, churches, and courtrooms, repeated by spiritual and temporal leaders, and reinforced by the dramas of good and evil, factual as well as fictional, that entertain and enthrall us. not every culture phrases the prohibition as we do, and not every culture may make it their number one taboo, but the proscription of...

    (pp. 18-35)

    It is possible to overstate the role of law in the modern world, but it is equally possible to understate it. Law is found in every realm of contemporary life. It penetrates, to one degree or another, virtually every corner of our social universe—our places of work and leisure, our homes and schools, our shopping malls, highways, airports, and even our wildernesses. It reaches across the entire society, claiming jurisdiction over every person, group, and corporation. No town or city remains unpoliced. Jails and prisons pepper the landscape, and courthouses command prominent city sites. On the civil side too,...

    (pp. 36-62)

    The wealthy pass through life differently. They enjoy more desirable food, clothing, and shelter. They can devote themselves to the pursuit of leisure and luxury. They are healthier and live longer (see, e.g., Gilbert and kahl 1993; Williams and Collins 1995). They receive more education, and are enriched by a wider variety of ideas and art forms. They experience more of the world’s wonders, and escape more of its horrors. They demand and are granted more deference and attention. Even their jokes are funnier.

    But law promises to treat everybody equally. Do the advantages of wealth stop at law’s door...

    (pp. 63-90)

    As he enters the room, he knows what awaits him. resistance is useless. He cannot escape; there are simply too many of them, and there is nowhere to hide anyway. Hands take hold of him and strap him tightly. Now he cannot move. They have total control over him. They set to work quickly, efficiently, and without malice. They follow a strict protocol, their actions being exquisitely coordinated toward a single end. They begin to kill him, deliberately and methodically. This is not their first time to take life. They make no attempt to conceal their intentions or their actions....

    (pp. 91-108)

    Gilbert, or “Beto” as he was widely known, began living on the streets of Rio de Janeiro at the age of four. By the time he was sixteen he was a leader among the homeless kids. The police harassed him constantly. Following his arrest one day, representatives from a church organization went to the police station and demanded that he be released, claiming that he was being illegally detained in the same place as adults. After his supporters obtained a warrant, the police chief reluctantly let the boy go, saying, “you got him out of prison but you haven’t saved...

    (pp. 109-131)

    Bob worked at the weekend in the garden of a wealthy 80-year-old lady named Mrs. Smith. Lately, a man named Danny had started to live with Bob and his wife. One Friday afternoon, as Danny was painting Bob’s front porch, Bob approached him with a proposition. He knew that Mrs. Smith had money and jewelry in her house. If he kept the old lady busy, Danny could search for and take her valuables; they would split the proceeds fifty-fifty. Danny agreed to the plan.

    The two men drove to Mrs. Smith’s house, with Danny concealing himself by lying down on...

    (pp. 132-155)

    Around the year 1317—the exact date is unknown—the king of the Irish province of Ulster, Donal O’Neill, composed a remonstrance, or formal letter of complaint, to Pope John XXII. Writing on behalf of the chiefs and people of Ireland, O’Neill complained of the cruel and unjust manner in which the English were ruling his land (Duffy 1998: 480). Among his grievances was that no Englishman “is punished for the murder of an Irishman, even the most eminent.” “The English of Ireland,” the complaint continued, “differ so widely in their principles of morality from those of England and all...

    (pp. 156-184)

    The speaker of these lines is Claudius, brother and murderer of the king of Denmark in Shakespeare’s classic play,Hamlet.In a moment of clarity, Claudius is struck by the affinities of his act with the biblical slaying of abel by Cain. Suddenly, he understands the sheer evil of what he has done. He has not just taken a life; he has murdered a kinsman, a family member, a brother. His is not just an offense, but the very worst kind of iniquity, so putrid it stinks to Heaven itself.

    Claudius’s insight uncovers a common, perhaps even universal, view of...

    (pp. 185-202)

    Stand back from the details of particular cases, and the most striking feature of conflict management is its sheer variability. Human societies subject offenders, rule-breakers, deviants to a remarkably wide array of sanctions, even for the same act of wrongdoing, such as homicide. The critical scientific question is “Why?” Why do law and popular justice produce such divergent results across cases?

    Traditional legal and moral theory holds that case outcomes vary because the parties’ state of mind and conduct varies. In homicide cases we therefore need look no further than the degree of intentionality and aggressiveness with which killers acted...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 203-216)
    (pp. 217-240)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 241-254)