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ACE2203 Why We Kill: Understanding Human Violence is a Course

ACE2203 Why We Kill: Understanding Human Violence

Sep 30 - Dec 9, 2021

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Full course description

Course Overview

Why do we kill? Why do some men, women and even children assault, batter, rape, mutilate and murder? Religions and every discipline of the natural and social sciences have offered answers. Why We Kill explores a selection of different forms of human violence and the theories put forward to explain them.  

Why We Kill challenges you to read and listen to the stories and words of those who have perpetrated violence or have thought about doing so. This course is not simply informative. It aims to be transformative. A central aim of the course is to equip and empower students with concrete skills and capacities to understand why and how different forms of violence are committed.

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Course Schedule 


Classes will be delivered online on Thursday 7-9pm for ten weeks from 30 September to 9 December.


Class 1: The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals

In his book The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals, criminologist Lonnie Athens asks, ‘How does a human being in our supposedly highly civilized society become the type of person who would commit violent crimes without any apparent moral qualms or reservations?’ By examining the words and stories of individuals who have committed the most heinous of violent crimes, we explore the step-by-step process of how anybody has the potential to become what Lonnie Athens calls a ‘dangerous violent criminal’. We will see that violent individuals are not born but made.

Class 2: Shame: The Root of Violence

In this class, the foundational understanding of violence the underpins each class is established. We learn about Dr. James Gilligan’s shame theory of violence. His argument that all violence is about overcoming feelings of shame, humiliation and inferiority is a powerful framework that will help you build a solid and empowering toolkit towards understanding the central question of ‘why we kill’.

Class 3: Violent Escalation

There is an enormous variety of circumstances under which violence may take place but there are some common patterns between these circumstances. In this class we learn about how violence can be the result of an escalation that started with a single, seemingly innocuous insult. We learn how the same patterns underpinning some violent acts between individuals and which lead to escalation of violence are the same ones that we experience when we have even the simplest of arguments with another person.

Class 4: ‘But Words Will Never Hurt Me’?

The old adage goes ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’, but is this true? Using the words and stories of victims of bullying themselves, we learn about the factors that contribute to being both a perpetrator of bullying and a victim of it. We learn how bullying elicits feelings of shame in the victim and how these feelings can produce feelings of hostility, resentment and a wish to bully others and commit violence.


Class 5: School Shootings

On April 20th, 1999, Eric Harris (aged 18) and Dylan Klebold (aged 17) shot and killed 13 people and injured more than 20 others at Columbine High School in Colorado, United States. They then turned the gun on themselves. The police department report into the shooting argued that:

‘While this report establishes the record of events of April 20th, it cannot answer the fundamental question—WHY? That is, why would two young men, in the spring of their lives, choose to murder faculty and classmates? The evidence provides no definitive explanation, and the question continues to haunt us all.’

The class explores that very question: why?

Class 6: Violence Against Women: Honour Killings and Intimate Partner Murder

In 2017, 50,000 women were intentionally killed by either intimate partners or other family members, meaning 137 women across the world were murdered by a member of their own family in that year every day. In the first part of the class we first explore why men may kill their ex or current girlfriend, partner or wife.

In the second part of the class, we explore why women are killed for so called ‘honour’ crimes. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that the annual worldwide number of honour killings is as high as 5,000 women and girls with some non-governmental organizations estimating that as many as 20,000 honour killings occur annually worldwide. In both these forms of violence against women, we learn how gender roles and gender expectations moderate and influence how and why some men kill women.

Class 7: Sexual Violence

On October 24th, 2009, around ten men repeatedly gang raped a 16-year-old girl over the course of two-and-a-half hours on the Richmond High School campus, California. Six men aged from 15-21 were later charged. According to authorities, twenty others a stood by and watched, with some photographing the rape on their mobile phones.

Rape and sexual assault have too often been thought of as something perpetrated by psychologically disturbed stranger men who lurk out of the shadows and violate their victim alone and out of sight of others. In this class, we learn about how sexual coercion, assault and rape is linked to the pressure on boys and young men to prove their manhood by showing that they are attracted to women and/or to maintain dominance over others.

Class 8: Terrorism and Violent Extremism

The first line of the Executive Summary of the Counter Extremism Project is stark: ‘More than 70 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, ethno-nationalist and white supremacist movements in Europe continue to thrive.’ We need to understand why, despite the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its allies and collaborators, the beliefs associated with Adolf Hitler remain.

In this class we learn about forms of violence that are on the surface, driven by hate-fuelled and extreme beliefs and values. Below this surface however, these beliefs are driven by familiar feelings which we have all felt at some point in time: isolation, loneliness and feeling like a ‘nobody’.

Class 9: Genocide: The Worst Crime

By 1945, around six million Jews were systematically murdered by one of the most infamous regimes in history - Hitler’s Germany. It has been argued that genocide is ‘greatest crime a person can commit’. In this case, we focus on a battalion of 500 men in during the German Nazi regime. This battalion shot and killed 38,000 Jewish people and sent 45,2000 Jewish people to their deaths in the Treblinka death camp. In this class we focus on why this group of ‘ordinary men’ choose to commit acts of genocide despite being explicit told they could ‘step out’ and not participate. 

Class 10: Preventing Violence

All violence is a tragedy, because for psychiatrist James Gilligan ‘it is really quite clear that we can prevent violence, and it is also clear how we can do so, if we want to’. Despite the violence that occurs all around us, a nonviolent and peaceful society is achievable. In this class, we finish the course by highlighting what anthropologists have identified as the key themes that contributes to a violent society. Furthermore, we will examine some highly successful therapeutic interventions which have successfully reduced the rates of violence amongst even amongst the most violent individuals in society.

Course Lecturer

Dr. Robert Bolton, Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century, University College Cork.

Entry Requirements

Applicants must be at least 18 years old at course commencement.


Short courses are not assessed. Students will receive a UCC Certificate of Attendance upon completion.

Closing Date for Application

Friday  17 September

Contact Details for Further Information

Regina Sexton, Phone: 021-4904700, Email: