A Definition of Genocide

27 March 2011


Established definitions of genocide

In Genocide: Proof of Concept I quoted Raphael Lemkin’s initial 1944 definition of genocide (from his report Axis Rule in Occupied Europe) as, “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.” This is an appropriate place to begin an investigation of the concept of genocide.

A more detailed account of genocide is to be found in Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Adopted by Resolution 260 (III) A of the U.N. General Assembly on 9 December 1948. Entry into force: 12 January 1951), which defines genocide as follows:

Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

In a couple of posts, A Political Theory of Genocide and Genocide and the Nation-State, I cited Daniel Goldhagen’s book Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, where he develops the concept that he calls human eliminationism. Eliminationism is a more comprehensive concept than that of genocide simpliciter, and includes the following degrees of escalation in the elimination of undesirable populations:

transformation: “the destruction of a group’s essential and defining political, social, or cultural identities, in order to neuter its members’ alleged noxious qualities.” (this is very similar to what I have called The Stalin Doctrine)
oppression: “keeping the hated, deprecated, or feared people within territorial reach and reducing, with violent domination, their ability to inflict real or imagined harm upon others.”
expulsion: “Expulsion, often called deportation… removes unwanted people more thoroughly, by driving them beyond a country’s borders, or from one region of a country to another, or compelling them en masse into camps.” (I wrote about this in The Threshold of Atrocity)
prevention of reproduction: “those wishing to eliminate a group in whole or in part can seek to diminish its numbers by interrupting normal biological reproduction.”
extermination: for Goldhagen, extermination seems to be equivalent to genocide simpliciter, in the narrow and strict sense: “killing often logically follows beliefs deeming others to be a great, even mortal threat. It promises not an interim, not a piecemeal, not only a probable, but a ‘final solution’.”

It is easy to see that the UN convention defining genocide overlaps substantially with Goldhagen’s concept of human eliminationism, and so defines a more comprehensive concept that genocide in the strict sense. While the the more comprehensive conceptions of the UN convention’s definition of genocide or Goldhagen’s concept of human eliminationism are very interesting, and place genocide in a larger context (which is how we should see it), I want to suggest a definition of genocide in a narrower sense, genocide sensu stricto, if you will.

A novel definition of genocide

In contradistinction to the above attempts to define genocide, I will define genocide as follows: Genocide is extinction by human agency.

The Biology Online website defines extinction as follows:


1. (Science: ecology) The death of an entire species.

2. (Science: psychology) The procedure of presenting the conditioned stimulus without reinforcement to an organism previously conditioned. It refers also to the diminution of a conditioned response resulting from this procedure.

I am using “extinction” in the first sense of the definition above, though to get a more flexible definition of genocide, “species” would have to be interpreted in a logical sense (the sense in which Aristotle refers to genus and species in his logic) rather than a biological sense. If we confine a definition of genocide to extinction strictly in the biological sense, this is a valid and radical conception, though not as useful as a less radical conception of genocide.

Thus if we define genocide as the death of an entire species brought about by human agency, and we allow a species to be anything definable in terms of genera and differentia, we have something approaching a formal conception of genocide.

In regard to the role of human agency in genocide, in many posts to this forum I have been developing an exposition of conceptions of history based upon four schematically distinct conceptions of human agency, as follows:

the political: human agency (cf. Three Conceptions of History)
the cataclysmic: human non-agency (cf. Revolution and Human Agency)
the eschatological: non-human agency (cf. Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception)
the naturalistic: non-human non-agency (cf. The Naturalistic Conception of History)

On the basis of these conceptions of human agency, there are four corresponding conceptions of genocide:

political genocide: genocide directly brought about by human agency
cataclysmic genocide: genocide that occurs without the direct intervention of human agency
eschatological genocide: genocide directly brought about by non-human agency
naturalistic genocide: genocide without the intervention of non-human agency

For the moment, I only mention these possibilities, and I save their exposition for a later time. At the moment I will say only that this analysis extends the conception of genocide in interesting ways that have not been addressed by received definitions of genocide.

The intentionality of genocide

One feature of genocide that is immediately familiar on an intuitive level but which has escaped most attempted definitions of genocide is that genocide is an act that essentially involves both a perpetrator and a victim. All definitions of genocide that I have seen focus on defining the victims, and yet we understand on an intuitive level the moral horror of one people, as a people, singling out another people for extermination (or, as I would put it, extinction). Thus an adequate conception of genocide should with equal thoroughness seek to define the perpetrators of genocide as well as the victims. I will call an account of genocide that defines both victims and perpetrators as the intentionality of genocide.

I can offer a schematic approach to the intentionality of genocide by characterizing both victims and perpetrators as agents of genocide, and given the possibilities of human agency laid out above, it is obvious that all of these possibilities of agency hold equally for victims and perpetrators, and in fact we can formulate sixteen (16) possible permutations of victim-perpetrator agency:

It is controversial to consider victims either as passive sufferants or as active agents. To be merely a sufferant is dehumanizing; to be an active agent in one’s suffering or annihilation implies a measure of complicity.

It is not my intention to characterize the victims of genocide either as dehumanized sufferants or as complicit agents. The conception of human agency that I am attempting to formulate is not a matter of moral praise or blame; to derive moral praise or blame from on ontological analysis is to commit the moralistic fallacy. One can think of schematically delineated forms of human agency as a population’s form of being-in-the-world. That is to say, a particular conception of human agency is a non-personal and non-individual ontological disposition.

The role of genocide in utopian visions

Megalomaniacal utopian schemes for the transformation of society are more often than not based upon a visionary conception of man. (Here I am using “man” in the traditional, now almost archaic, sense intended to include the whole of humanity, and I am using it simply because it sounds more poetic and is therefore preferable.)

We have become accustomed to think of “visionary” almost exclusively in the honorific sense, but evil geniuses are as visionary as beneficent geniuses, and, perhaps as importantly, evil geniuses believe their visionary schemes to be beneficent and even eschatologically conceived programs for the secular equivalent of the “salvation” of humanity. It takes a true utopian to create a true dystopia.

In so far as a future vision of society is based upon a future vision of humanity, such schemes are at very least implicitly genocidal, and often explicitly genocidal. In the case of the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge, their programs for a New Society and a New Man were explicitly genocidal: in order to create a new order that would in turn create a new man, it was necessary to annihilate the old order and to exterminate that man created by the old order of society.

Just as we can define genocide as extinction by human agency, we can in parallel define the goal of utopian social programs as speciation by human agency. It is the ambition and the goal of utopian social engineering to create a New Society that will create a New Man. This New Man will be a new species of man brought about by the actions of the utopian visionaries. Thus utopianism in its most radical form aims at human speciation, and moreover human speciation brought about by human agency.

To coin an awkward term, the ambitions of utopian visionaries are genogenic as much as they are genocidal — but the two cannot be separated. To seek the extermination of some part of humanity is to seek to establish a new human norm, a New Man, while to seek to raise a New Man is to seek to displace man as he has heretofore been known to us.

The reciprocal relationship of the genocidal and the genogenic explains the historical reality of the reciprocal relationship between utopia and dystopia. It is not that a dystopian social order is a utopian vision gone wrong; the dystopian and the utopian are equivalent, and are only distinguished by the perspective one brings to them.

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A related post: The Genocide of Homo Sovieticus

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