Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Essays

A Word on Behalf of Good Haters

Where did the idea originate that hatred is, without qualification, a terrible vice?

Jeffrie G. Murphy

Portrait of Samuel Johnson, c. 1778–1780, by James Barry (1741–1806); National Portrait Gallery, London; Bridgeman Images.

What would a reasonable secular view on hatred look like?

Dear Bathurst was a man to my very heart’s content; he hated a fool, and he hated a rogue, and he hated a whig—he was a very good hater!
—Samuel Johnson

A good hater? Given the current influence of assorted bad haters, even in American politics, alas, many people have come to think that all hatred is a bad thing—a character vice of the worst sort that renders all haters loathsome and dangerous, and indeed lies behind much of the evil in the world today. So it is common to think that the worst sort of assaults are those motivated by hatred (hence the concept of “hate crime”), and that the worst sort of speech—now replacing obscene speech—is speech expressive of hatred (hence the concept of “hate speech”).

Such is the negative rhetorical power of the label “hate” that those who want to condemn some behavior will often do so by calling it hatred even if there is little or no reason to think that hatred in any ordinary sense of the word is involved. So anyone who opposes increased immigration will almost certainly be charged with hating immigrants even if the opposition is based solely on a desire to keep one’s society stable in its traditional form. Although some people who are concerned about massive immigration of Muslims into their country probably do hate Muslims, many of them may be motivated by a fear of increased influence in their country of people with little understanding of liberal democracy, whose accustomed form of government is totalitarian theocracy rather than strong separation of church and state, and who have not been taught the kind of respect for women that liberal democracies advocate. This fear may be largely unjustified, and may reveal insufficient sympathy for the plight of many refugees and other immigrants, but it is productive of neither intellectual nor moral clarity to call it hatred, since this will focus the discussion on an emotionally charged label in such a way that rational discourse will not be possible.

Since some hatred seems universal among human beings—if not, why is there so much preaching against it?—the emotion probably was once evolutionarily advantageous. Those entrusted with defense of their group against outside attack might have found in hatred of the enemy a bit of extra motivation. This might be useful for soldiers as well, since it might be easier to kill the enemy if one regarded him as a “rapist murderous monster” rather than “my fellow human being.” (Such hatred might be hard to turn off, of course, and lead to mistreatment of prisoners or civilians, since, as Nietzsche counseled, one who fights with monsters must take care not to become a monster; furthermore, being evolutionarily advantageous is not the same as being morally right.)

Where did the idea originate that hatred is, without qualification, a terrible vice? I suspect that, at least in Western societies, it came largely from Christianity. The Christian faith teaches that we are to love everyone—even those who persecute us—and must never hate other human beings no matter what they have done. Why? Because they have all been created in the image of God and are beloved of God—a God who commands love and forbids hate.11xChristians, following the teachings of St. Augustine, generally profess that one may hate the sin but never the sinner. But how can this distinction be drawn in cases in which the sinner (I prefer to say “wrongdoer”) gleefully engaged in the wrongdoing (fully and enthusiastically threw his whole self into it) and subsequently remained unrepentant, and even delighted to have been its author? Think of some of those who have done the work of “ethnic cleansing” in concentration camps and remain glad of it.

But is such a view reasonable on secular grounds? Kierkegaard (a theologian to reckon with) thought not, and in his Works of Love—with his characteristic blending of wit, nastiness, and piety—said that even casual observation of human beings (“my very unpoetic neighbors”) reveals that many of them are anything but intrinsically lovable, and thus, absent a divine command, there is no good reason to love all of them, and perhaps good reasons even to hate some of them.

What would a reasonable secular view on hatred look like? As a start, some clarification of the concept itself is in order since the word hatred is used, in ordinary English, to cover a wide range of dismissive contempt—all the way from “I hate getting up early” or “I hate broccoli” to “I hate terrorists” or “I hate the man who murdered my child” or “I hate Jews.” Pretty clearly, it is only emotions of the latter sort—extremely powerful contemptuous emotions directed at human beings—that people have in mind if they want to condemn the emotion of hatred as an unambiguously vicious emotion, vicious in all cases and not in just some. So how should we characterize hatred of that sort?

* * *

In attempting to distinguish vicious hatred from justified anger, Aristotle famously characterized hatred as a desire that the hated person cease to exist—be eliminated from the community of all human beings. He was quite mistaken about this, however, since in his view the goal of hatred should be to kill the person hated. Yet very often, someone who truly hates another will want that person to continue living—even for a long time. The desire is that the person, during that long life, will experience extreme deprivation and misery—both to the point of despair. In the French television series Caïn, the detective central character has been rendered paralyzed below the waist because of the evil actions of a man whom he now hates—although somewhat ambiguously, perhaps, since the man was once a close friend. During a moment of hatred in a recent episode, Caïn manages to get the man alone at the edge of a cliff, and threatens to shoot him unless he allows himself to fall over the cliff. Just as the man is about to comply, however, the detective tells him not to—not because he has ceased hating, but because he fears that the fall will kill his enemy when what he really wants is that the fall will leave his enemy paralyzed too. Often, I think, a hater acts in the spirit of the Randy Newman song “I Want You to Hurt like I Do.” What is desired is intense, protracted suffering—a thought, perhaps, behind the remark often made by loved ones of murder victims in opposing capital punishment for the perpetrator: “Death is too good for him.”22xThis way of thinking can also be found in some Stoic philosophers whose conception of hatred, as characterized by David Konstan, is “a desire for something bad to happen to another progressively and continually.” The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks (Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 189.

So let us consider the person whose hate is a desire—based on the evil actions of the hated one—that the evildoer experience what he would regard as the worst thing that could happen to him—death for some people, perhaps, but for others something (in their view) even worse. Is the person who hates the evildoer in this way himself evil, even if he has no intention of acting on this desire in ways that are immoral or illegal? He may, of course, rejoice if he learns that, through no agency of his own, the hated person has suffered—a kind of focused schadenfreude—and even though he had no intention of precipitating the suffering.

In some instances, I would say that the desire itself is evil. Consider, for example, a case in which it is believed that the worst thing that could happen to a hated person is the death of someone he loves—his three-year-old daughter, let us say. If I allowed myself to hope for the death of a totally innocent child, I would regard myself as vile. Thus, I can conclude that I do believe that there are side constraints (cherishing the innocent, for example) that, if violated, would so corrupt the hatred as to render it a vice of character.

There are other such cases as well. For instance, I think it would be evil of me to wish for the worst thing the hated person could imagine if that involved violating the kind of moral side constraints that are present in, for example, the US Constitution’s ban on punishments that are “cruel and unusual”—punishments such as torture or mutilation. These are ways of treating a person that fail to respect the rights all human beings possess simply by virtue of being human. Torture functions to turn a human being into a screaming, defecating animal, and even to allow myself to think of this in a favorable light would, I think, be a defect of character.

Finally, one must regard as a vice hatred based upon characteristics other than culpable evil. Racial hatred is an obvious example of this. It is important to realize here that the belief that the hated person is culpably evil must be a reasonable (and preferably true) belief. No doubt, much German hatred of the Jews at the time of Hitler’s rise to power was based on a variety of crackpot beliefs about Jewish people—for example, that they murdered Christian children and were somehow responsible for economic hardship in Germany. (Most of those in Europe and America who actually hate Muslims are probably adopting the primitive and clearly unjust doctrine of vicarious liability—abandoning the just doctrine of individual liability and blaming instead all members of a group because of the evil actions of some members of that group.) So if hatred is ever justified, it must satisfy the test Aristotle applied to anger: directed at the right person, for the right reason, in the proper proportion, and without conflict with other moral demands.

There are those, of course, particularly those who have read too many trendy books effusively praising what can be learned from neuroscience, who have come to believe that determinism has now been proven, that free will must be regarded as a superstition, and that we must therefore give up our belief in moral evil and moral culpability. There is not space here to show all the ways in which this view is misguided, but I wonder how long even the strongest proponents of such a view would retain it if the person they most loved in the world were tortured and murdered. There is one relevant caution here, however: We can be mistaken in our belief that particular individuals are culpably evil, and so “When in reasonable doubt, do not assume such evil and hate” is wise counsel. Later in this essay I will provide examples of instances in which I believe that such doubt is not reasonable.

For the present, let us then confine ourselves to cases in which, as a hater, I wish for the hated person to live a life of unhappiness to the highest possible degree consistent with moral side constraints of the kind noted above. I want him, let us say, to lose his fortune and fall into poverty, to be publicly disgraced, to be abandoned by all his friends, perhaps even to experience some unpleasant (but not torturous) illnesses and disabilities (but always with an alert mind), and—if his evil actions have been criminal—to suffer an appropriate prison term. I desire in short that he will truly say “I hate my life.” Am I a bad person for having this desire? Is hatred even of this constrained sort a serious vice of character? Absent something like the Christian perspective noted above, I see no good reason to think so.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the person who feels such hatred is a better person than one who does not. I am not claiming that feeling such hatred is a virtue. Primo Levi claimed not to hate the Nazis or the Auschwitz guards who tormented him, and I would certainly not want to regard him as lacking in virtue. (But neither would I be inclined to praise him as virtuous because he did not hate.) I am not recommending hatred or praising it, and I indeed have a forthcoming essay in which I argue that the virtue of humility should constrain in various ways our tendencies toward hatred.33x“Humility as a Moral Virtue,” in Handbook of Humility: Theory, Research, and Application, eds. Everett Worthington, Don E. Davis, and Joshua Hook (London: Routledge, forthcoming). I simply want to challenge the smug liberal gospel that those who do hate necessarily exhibit a vice and are subject to legitimate moral criticism. This is often merely assumed without argument—that this clearly will be seen as obvious by all decent people. Well, I cannot see it, and I want an argument if I am to change my mind. I recall here Bertrand Russell’s famous quip that “assuming has all the advantages over argument that theft has over honest toil,” and I would like to see a bit of honest toil.

When one looks at what passes for arguments in the literature, one generally gets either sentimental clichés attempting to pass as arguments or simple begging of the question—tacitly assuming the very thing that needs to be proven. Here are just three examples I have recently come across in things I have read:

  • Hatred excludes persons from the enjoyment of general society, friendly intercourse, and mutual benevolence that man experiences with respect to man.
  • Hatred potentially implies an assertion of the object of hatred as beyond or outside the sphere of common moral obligation.
  • Hatred does not invite dialogic encounters with the one toward whom the attitude is directed.

Let us consider examples such as the ISIS-inspired terrorist thugs who plant bombs in a crowded area and then watch with glee as the bombs explode, killing or maiming large numbers of innocent people, or the young men whose favorite form of amusement is to find homeless persons sleeping in alleys and beating them to death with baseball bats, or the person who has kidnapped, raped, and murdered one’s own child, or even the greedy person who develops a Ponzi scheme that destroys the economic security of many people and valuable institutions. They will not be left totally outside common obligation (Bernard Madoff received a fair trial, as would have those others noted in these examples), but I am strongly disinclined to seek “friendly intercourse” with such people or “dialogic encounters” with them—unless such encounters are limited to what might be said in their criminal trials. So if this is the best that can be done in the way of argument against hatred—even hatred constrained as I have suggested—I remain unpersuaded that hatred is a vice.

“But wait,” someone might say, “the emotion of hatred cannot be constrained in the ways you have suggested. It is so powerful that it will, no matter how many resolutions are made to hate without immoral or illegal action, overwhelm many people, and they will then perform terrible actions. Better to try to extinguish hatred itself and nip this danger in the bud.”

I find this argument unpersuasive. The same kind of argument could be used to condemn sexual desire itself as a vice since this desire will incline some people to rape and otherwise sexually abuse people. What passion (even love) cannot lead under certain circumstances to immoral actions?

There is also, of course, the argument that a person who feels hatred will be so consumed by it that his own mental health will be undermined, and any chance for his personal happiness will be lost. But this argument begs the question, since it assumes that all hatreds are irrational to the point of being pathological. A person whose whole life is driven by nothing but hatred is indeed pathological, but this will surely not be true of all or even most of those who hate. Spinoza is often misquoted as claiming that the fear of death is irrational. But he did not say or surely even think this. No doubt he looked both ways before crossing a street. What he did say is that being led (dominated) by fear of death is irrational and will destroy one’s well-being. So too for hatred. Being led by it is indeed irrational and self-destructive, but surely not all those who hate are pathological in this way. What passion (even love) cannot under certain circumstances be irrational and pathological?

If I may be permitted a bit of autobiography, let me note that I am on occasion given to hatred—at the time of this writing hating those who exploit, either out of conviction or political opportunism, the vicious racial hatred always present in segments of American society, sometimes hiding like a troll under the bridge but eager to be set loose.44xI am less inclined to hate all of those who actually feel the racial hatred that can be exploited because it is possible that the lives of many of these people are so hollow and unhappy—consumed by rage over grievances real or imagined—that they are now already in the state that my kind of good hatred would call for. Sometimes, as Plato suggested, people may be adequately punished just by being the people that they are. Recall here C.S. Lewis’s characterization of Hell in The Screwtape Letters: “A state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives with the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.” I do not, however, think that I am being self-deceptive in my belief that I have been successful in compartmentalizing those and the rest of my hatreds—not letting them take over my whole self and never acting in immoral or illegal ways because of them. The fact that I wish for these people to suffer and will be pleased if they do does not mean that I will ever act in immoral ways to achieve that pleasure. There are those, of course, who would argue that what I feel is not really hatred because hatred is always pathological. One can surely see how comprehensively this response would beg the question.

Even with respect to immoral or illegal actions, it strikes me that certain kinds of hatred—although never fully exculpatory—might to some degree mitigate the punishment deserved for those actions. This at least calls into question any belief that even if hatred is evil, it is always evil to the same degree.

Consider the American law on homicide. Murder is generally conceptualized as intentionally killing another human being without excuse or justification. American jurisprudence, however, has articulated a defense in common law called “provocation,” and in the American Law Institute’s Model Penal Code “extreme emotional disturbance.” In order to be legally mitigating, the provocation or extreme emotional disturbance must be shown to the jury to involve an emotion that was in some sense rational or reasonable under the circumstances, and thus is one with which the jury can at least sympathize. This defense, if successfully employed, results in a conviction of voluntary manslaughter rather than murder and a sentence much less severe than that for murder.

With the above illustration in mind, I would like to suggest a thought experiment. Imagine two intentional killings. In the first case, a racist man, “R,” has killed a child because he hates all members of that child’s race. In the second case, a father, “F,” has killed R because F hates R for killing F’s child. Both are motivated by hatred. Do you believe, as I do, that we should look far more sympathetically—both morally and legally—on F rather than on R and favor a less severe punishment for F rather than for R? If you believe this, then you believe that hatred felt by some people under some circumstances must be viewed with sympathetic understanding and that these people should not be viewed as having characters that are vicious to the core. You might then want to look with sympathy on the woman, tortured in Auschwitz by Josef Mengele, who was asked by her son (a friend of mine) what he should do if he ever encountered Mengele. She thought for a few moments, then said, “Kill him.”

A final thought: I think that at this point some will think that everything I have said can be refuted by some clichés that are often drawn, particularly by liberals, like a gun. Some will say that in presuming to distinguish those who may legitimately be hated from those who may not, I am trying to “play God.” Not so. If I were trying to play God, I would advocate acting on the distinction in harmful ways, and I do not. I am interested in what might be called the moral psychology of the inner life, and my concern here has been with the role that hatred might play in such a psychology. I here join many other contemporary moral philosophers who work in the Aristotelian tradition of “virtue ethics”—“virtue,” that is, as in “excellence of character.” I have tried to explore here the question of whether or not one sacrifices one’s virtue of character by hating in the limited and constrained way that I have outlined. I would have to answer “no” to that question. I could also be charged with being “judgmental,” of course—a sin against many peoples’ mistaken idea of tolerance—and to that charge I happily plead guilty.