The Murder of Kuritsa the Chicken and the Disrespectful Effect of the Equality-of-Respect Critique of Victim Impact Statements

The final episode of the Israeli version of Survivor aired on Saturday. One of the season’s dramas was the tale of Kuritsa the chicken. As the Survivors first landed on the island they encountered two chickens running around on the beach; they ate one chicken early on, while the other chicken gradually became a minor character on the show. It would steal food, shelter from the rain with the Survivors, run around the camp and was generally a source of laughter, annoyance and affection; it even infiltrated popular culture. Her name, given by her fellow Survivors, was “Kuritsa” (which means “chicken” in Russian). In a recent episode, one of the most infamous Survivors decided to prepare a farewell-to-the-island dinner party for himself and the remaining Survivors, and proceeded to chop off Kuritsa’s head. Upon returning to the camp, some of his fellow Survivors were appalled and refused to join in the subsequent meal.

A moral conundrum came to light – if most participants had thought that it was permissible to kill and eat the first chicken, how was Kuritsa’s case different? Isn’t it hypocritical to value the life of one chicken but not the life of another chicken, after all a chicken is a chicken – whether it is right or wrong to kill and eat the one, the same must be true of the other. It seems to me that this line of reasoning misses an important point, since when we deduct the wrongness we find in the killing of the first chicken (or for that matter in the killing of any generic chicken) from the overall wrongness we find in the Kuritsa slaying, we see that the latter slaying contains an additional quality of “wrongness” that the former slaying does not. Survivors offered several explanations of how the slaying of Kuritsa was different. Most of them emphasized the fact that Kuritsa had belonged to all of them and that, therefore, they should all have been consulted about her fate.

But there was more to Kuritsa beyond her value as the pet of the Survivors. The chicken, by developing into “Kuritsa,” had become the center of a web of value, formed around her and with her: relationships, jokes, memories, stories, feelings, attachments etc., all of which were uniquely linked to that particular individual chicken. The first chicken, slain at the beginning of the show, was in many ways a generic chicken – it merely had whatever intrinsic value all chickens have. But as she engaged with the world and became “Kuritsa,” the second chicken took on a unique value. The barbarism of butchering Kuritsa derives in part from the boorish snuffing out, obliviousness and disrespect of this delicate and unique web of value. The Survivor did not only kill a chicken – he killed this particular chicken, he killed Kuritsa, which matters in how we evaluate his actions.

You may wonder what does all this have to do with so-called “victim impact statements” (VISs). A victim impact statement is a statement allowing crime victims to speak out during their victimizer’s sentencing or at subsequent parole hearings. It is designed to enable the victims to recount the effect the crime had on their lives. To illustrate, family members of a murder victim may testify as to how they were impacted by the loss of their loved one. Some writers oppose VISs on grounds of equality of respect. They argue that because similar crimes may have a radically different impact (beyond the crime itself) on the victims, giving weight to these differences in sentencing results in devaluating the life of those victims whose death had less impact compared to those victims whose death left a bigger void. In this view, allowing VISs thus fail to equally respect all victims – since a human life is a human life and taking such a life is equally wrong, no matter whose life it is. For instance, the murder of an indigent homeless person is just as wrong as the murder of a beloved family man, despite the fact that the former murder may “impact” others or reduce the value in the world to a lesser extent. Therefore, other things being equal, both murderers deserve the same punishment.

This line of reasoning loses sight of two important aspects of VISs. First, listening to the victim and her loved one’s elaborate on their loss functions as a unique source of information on the full effects and implications of a given crime. If the effects of a crime are relevant at all to its punishment, then victim impact statements are indeed crucial for passing a just sentence. More importantly, truly respecting people requires that one acknowledges people’s individuality. A murder is obviously wrong because it is the wrongful killing of a human being. Yet, a murder is always the murder of a particular person, with a certain name, a life-story, attachments, goals, relationships etc. Treating victims only as generic humans may achieve equality in sentencing but does not achieve respect. Generic respect fails to recognize victims as the individuals they were and to account for the unique role they played in the world; it also overlooks the values they, as the unique persons they were, brought into the lives of others. In many ways, due to their flattening uniforming effect, such equality of respect arguments end up functioning as arguments for disrespect by equal treatment. Those who believe that the criminal law should respect victims should actually welcome VISs.

Posted by Ori Herstein