Murder’s Morality

August 24, 2013 BY danariely

There are plenty of things that might upset Johnny “The Basin Street Butcher” Martorano. Perhaps having murdered 20 people in the course of his career as a mob hitman doesn’t sit so well decades later. Well, no, this is not it,  Martorano recently recounted his murders as part of Whitey Bulger’s trial with a perfectly flat affect, much to the displeasure of his victims’ families. It seems guilt doesn’t keep him up at night.

Then maybe it’s the 12 years he spent in prison after confessing his crimes to the FBI? Not likely, given Martorano now lives in a nice country club neighborhood, after serving barely half a year for each murder. He literally got away with murder(s).
What about revealing himself to his unsuspecting neighbors by testifying in the sensational trial? Doing so could arguably disrupt the life he’s built for himself since his release from prison. According to the man himself, that’s not at the root of his self-professed suffering.

So what wounded this evidently hard-hearted man? A betrayal of friendship and trust!  During the trial, Martorano said of Bulger and fellow gangster, Stephen Flemmi (in perhaps the only instance the expression has been used in earnest) “They were my partners in crime, they were my best friends, they were my children’s godfathers.” Of all the things that could cause The Basin Street Butcher pain, it was the snitching of his fellow murderers.

This is the kind of “irrational ethics” I’ve found through many interviews with convicted criminals. Usually the crimes for which they’re incarcerated aren’t the cause of their moral outrage, it’s that someone from their inside group inviolated a moral rule that was part of their moral code, in this case, cooperating with the “enemy.” This is the power of social norms in its most extreme form. Even though the usual societal rules are disregarded, another sort of code emerges and becomes the basis for judging one’s actions. So it’s “okay” to kill a person outside your in-group for stealing or talking to the cops, but it’s crossing the ultimate line to do so within the group. All that said, you really have to wonder what their get-togethers were like.