Unconscionable Crimes

Unconscionable Crimes

How Norms Explain and Constrain Mass Atrocities

By Paul Morrow

The first general theory of the influence of norms—moral, legal and social—on genocide and mass atrocity.





The first general theory of the influence of norms—moral, legal and social—on genocide and mass atrocity.

How can we explain—and prevent—such large-scale atrocities as the Holocaust? In Unconscionable Crimes, Paul Morrow presents the first general theory of the influence of norms on genocide and mass atrocity. After offering a clear overview of norms and norm transformation rooted in recent work in moral and political philosophy, Morrow examines numerous twentieth-century cases of mass atrocity, drawing on documentary and testimonial sources to illustrate the influence of norms before, during, and after such crimes. 

Morrow considers such key explanatory pathways as the erosion of moral norms through brutalization and demoralization, the exploitation of legal norms to legitimize persecution and deny violence, and the enduring influence of gender-based social norms on targets and perpetrators of atrocities. Key constraints on atrocities would include the revision of moral norms that have traditionally guided the conduct of soldiers and humanitarian aid workers, the strengthening of legal prohibitions on large-scale crimes through statutory and institutional reform, and the elimination of social norms prescribing silence about personal experience of atrocities. Throughout, Morrow emphasizes the differences among moral, legal, and social norms, which stand in different relations to real or perceived social practices, and exhibit different patterns of creation, modification, and elimination. Ultimately, he argues, norms of each kind are integral to the explanation and the prevention of mass atrocities.


$40.00 X ISBN: 9780262044622 296 pp. | 6 in x 9 in


  • “An extraordinary work, original and compelling in the analysis of mass killing: its causal origins and means together with the prospects of intervention and prevention. Morrow brings together philosophy, social theory, and legal history in a conceptual and, more unusually, practical confrontation with a terrible but recurrent feature of human conduct.”

  • “This book is a beautiful example of a problem-centered philosophical approach that seeks to make a difference in how we understand our history, our present, and our future. At a historical moment when the norms undergirding democratic, rule of law, and equality values are under tremendous threat, Unconscionable Crimes is urgently required reading.”