No Victimless Sins?

When I wrote about my dilemma on how to deal with an Orthodox Jewish girl trying to keep the Sabbath in “A Duty to Disclose?” earlier this week, I was trying to use the post to build up to a bigger question that I’ve been wrestling with.  I felt like I had seriously erred when I behaved spitefully, even though the target of my ire was not aware of my nastiness, and I didn’t believe she would come to any real harm as the result of my actions.

After I wrote a post about the Christian ideal of radical forgiveness in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, a friend asked whether I could think of any circumstances in which hate was not harmful.  In a longer discussion, another friends wanted to know why I thought there was something wrong.  He wrote:

I’m going to come at this from a weird angle: I sort of understand the sadness against violence, but I’ve never really understood your reaction about hatred. I’m not too sure why there is something less virtuous (in a non-christian sense) about deriving motivation and energy for hate? Is it simply from the corrupting influence that it can lead you to violence?

My general question is more of why should I not want to hate? I feel I’ve talked to you about this in the past, where I think it’s more than just okay to be fueled by ‘negative’ emotions

I promised a longer response here, but I’ve been spinning my wheels a little.  The trouble is, it feels so obviously wrong to me to give oneself over to hate in any circumstances that I’m having trouble explaining it to the people who disagree with me.  I’d love to draw on your perspectives and kick this around in the comments section before writing a full post.

If you don’t think there’s something wrong with ‘negative emotions,’ tell me a little about why.  If you’re closer to my side of this argument, help me muster compelling arguments.  If you want a bit more to go on, here’s the thought experiment/edge case I’ve been turning over:

Is it a problem if I hate dead people or fictional people?  In either case, my ability to harm the target is suppressed (hate producing negative consequences) and it’s beyond my ability to help heal them (hate preventing positive consequences). Is there a reason I ought to actively suppress my feelings of anger and hate in this circumstance?

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  • KL

    I don't know if this quite gets at your feelings here, but maybe it would be helpful to conceptualize hatred as a lack of respect for the dignity of the other person. When you hate, resent, or feel spite toward someone, you wish them harm and/or ill fortune, whether consciously or unconsciously. And really, we ought to wish the best for all persons, since suffering is (broadly speaking) a bad thing.Even if your hatred never results in violence or any negative action toward the object of the hatred, you are still failing to give them the respect of desiring their well-being. (Note that I am not here saying that, for instance, we ought to hope that a violent criminal not be arrested so as to avoid the suffering of incarceration. In this example, incarceration serves the well-being of the criminal by enacting justice, as well as the well-being of other persons by protecting them from future crimes.)Fictional people have no personal dignity so I'm not terribly concerned about them! Furthermore, I don't know too many people who genuinely hate fictional persons qua persons, as opposed to hypothetical characters. Dead people, on the other hand, I'm somewhat torn about. On the one hand, they have no future so hatred is not about wishing harm or good to befall them (unless we are hoping that Hitler is still burning/suffering in hell, for example, but that's a different issue I think). On the other, they still were (are, if you're Christian) people, and we have a duty to respect the dignity of all people. I honestly don't know if that duty extends after the death of the person in question.

  • The rub of this argument for me is 'giving in' to one's hate rather than simply hating. If you think I'm splitting hairs here, let me put it slightly differently: loving someone versus giving in to your love for that someone. The difference, it seems to me, is mindfulness, to use the Buddhist term. Mindfulness is a practice wherein we recognize everything we think, feel, say, and do without judgment, and we are able to watch these things good and bad as they pass away, proving the transience of everything. If, however, I 'give in' to any of these transient things, I lose my mindfulness, and what is more, I lose my ability, for a time, to control how I react to the transience of everything, the end result of which is always suffering, even if it is only me. So, if I am mindful, I can watch myself hating so-and-so, or such-and-such, and watch that hate to make sure I don't turn it into violence, and I can tweak that hatred into an opportunity for learning and growth. That's alchemy, right there, turning 'negative' things into 'positive' things, but the trick is not to 'give in,' and also not to try and throw it all away in a knee-jerk sort of way.

  • I'm pretty sure there are valid things to hate (maybe not people per se). Is it a victimless sin to hate racism? Sexism? Other abusive religions/politics? Hatred for a belief system (such as racism) I think is completely justified. It can motivate people to eradicate these ideas that are detrimental to society.

  • @J. Quinton: I agree with you, with the caveat that it all depends on your point of view. I've seen hatred of racism that gets nowhere because it is uninformed, or alienates potential allies in its fervor; and I have seen hatred of racism that makes progress by understanding racism from many angles, and calmly acting on this analysis one day at a time.

  • dbp

    It seems to me that hatred as an emotion isn't sinful because it isn't an act of will (which is clearer if you use older forms of the words 'affection' or 'passion' as generic terms in the sense of 'emotion').But, clearly, we often mean something different, in which it becomes an act. It seems to me that there are several ways this could happen, some of which are probably wrong in themselves and some either not wrong or only conditionally wrong.Case A: If hatred guides our actions overwhelmingly– meaning the hatred overwhelms our reason to the point that we are acting irrationally– then it's an inversion of the proper order of the soul (where reason oversees the will and the emotions) and is wrong in itself. In this case, we are victims even if no one else is, and the external object isn't a factor at all. (This kind of hatred might be wrong even if it is of something really hateful, like fascism.)On the other hand, if our reason merely assents to the inclinations of emotional hatred, this seems to me possibly wrong, but would depend on the circumstances:Case B: If the will, as a reasoned act, reacts to hatred of something that is genuinely hateful (again, fascism, say) in a proportionate and reasonable way, this is probably not wrong. So active hatred of sexism can probably be justified, as long as it is reasoned and proportionate and does not fall into Case A above.Case C: If the hatred reaches a level or duration, or is directed against a target, which renders us more susceptible to Case A anger in the future– in other words, if we hate with such vigor that it predisposes us to a habit of hate or to irrational hate– this would seem to me to be wrong. In this sense, hating a fictional character or dead person (however loathsome), even, could be wrong, if in dwelling on our hatred, we grow more likely to hate others as a side-effect.Case D: If our hate is reasoned and proportionate but we apply it to the wrong target, that would be still another way to commit a wrong. So, a Christian might need to be reminded to "love the sinner, hate the sin" (with the assumption that they aren't doing so hot on the first part, of course). Nurturing the emotion of hatred is wrong if, along with the hateful thing, we hate things that are not hateful.So, it seems to me that the real question is not so much, "Is hatred always wrong?" Rather, ask two other questions: "Is hatred ever right?" In some certain cases, I think you can argue that it is.But the million-dollar question really becomes, "Is hatred necessary?" However much you feel hatred motivates you toward a good goal, are you saying that without the incentive of an irrational emotion (hate understood as passion), you couldn't get up the spirit to do the right thing? THAT seems wrong to me, and I think THAT attitude is very likely detrimental to the person who holds it.(Do I need to love someone to uphold their rights? I hope we all agree the answer is no: the idea that we can't be expected to fight for the rights of those we dislike is repugnant.)My conclusion: hatred is often wrong and never strictly necessary. Even in the (rather rare) cases when active hatred is justified, we have a case where we have the opportunity to practice reasonable mercy (even if the only "reasonable" level of mercy is forgiveness that doesn't prevent us from acting to negate an evil, say through punishment or even killing), which surely is never wrong. So, if I had to advocate a policy, I'd say "don't hate."

  • My view is a very practical one. Being hateful toward, say, a dead person is not harmful to anyone, and is therefore not innately bad. The problem, though, is that the mood one slips into when feeling hate can very easily affect those who have nothing to do with the original cause of the emotion.For instance, I've found that if I get into an online debate with religious believers, I'll often leave my computer in a negative mood, and this can seriously skew my view of the world for the next hour or so, making me more pessimistic, irritable, etc., and this can affect the people around me. So, as a matter of caring for others, I think it is important to avoid fostering feelings of hatred – even if such hatred isn't always immediately harmful – because making it a habit will lead to harm eventually.

  • …another quick thought: Hate can make us less able to see the world in a more impartial, and therefore more emphathetic way. In other words, hate makes it too easy to demonize others, to see things in black and white.For instance, hating Osama bin Laden blinds us to the reality that he was, in a sense, the brainwashed product of a tremendously dangerous, wrongheaded system of thought. Our energy should be focused on bringing down that system, not on hating bin Laden.

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic discussion. I especially would like to thank dbp for such a well thought out response to the post. I feel like much of what I wanted to express has been taken care of by your reaction and I will just add a couple of my thoughts, and beg forgiveness if I become one of those folks simply restating that which has come before.It seems to me that there is plenty of evidence to be found that pathways in the brain are reinforced, given repetitive thoughts. If we indulge our baser natures and allow our emotions or passions to burn inside of us, it seems we are in fact setting ourselves up to burn more often in the future. In this context, it seems that we can't get out of dbp's Case C – hating in the present moment makes me more likely to hate in the future. So if hating leads to more hating we certainly have a problem, but only if we can show that hate in general is a bad thing. There are probably many fantastic reasons for believing hate to be a bad thing, but I will focus on one of them and that is, the fact that morality centers on promoting a being's happiness, and decreasing a being's suffering and that hatred is not conducive to either. Hate makes us unable to identify with people. Hate prevents us from enjoying the presence of people. Hate makes us likely to spurn and reject people. People whom we hate will likely feel some level of suffering as a result of being an object of hatred. In this way hatred is not useful to living morally.Aside from the fact that hatred will likely cause people some amount of suffering, hatred also decreases the happiness that a person can experience themselves. In focusing on the negative traits in a situation (which is a necessity of hatred – we don't hate things which are good in our opinion) we are filling our emotional spectrum with negativity. Hatred and dislike are by definition contrary to happiness. Objectively, some things make me happier than others. Objectively, some things make me sadder than others. Hatred prevents my brain from being as happy as it could otherwise be. As a barrier to personal happiness, hatred is a bad thing. These are some of my initial thoughts to this discussion, but I am eager to see what other people think as well. D

  • Ferny

    1. I don't believe happiness is the metric by which we should judge actions. It seems really problematic and really banal. 2. So, I'm the person that Leah is trying to answer and I don't think any of you have made an argument (besides the person above) over why hate and other negative emotions as motivators are problematic from a non-Christian framework. I dont' really give a damn about the spirit and the such. 3. Before I sort of defend this further, I think there's something rather privileged about being able to claim that one should always love, respect, promote the happiness of other people who may have done them harm. This seems to come from a situation where other people weren't meaning or existantial threats and couldn't cause lasting harm to other people.This is not the life of moral leisure I got to live. Anger probably kept me from offing of myself more than hope. My perspective is largely one where the things that are considered 'negative emotions' were the fuel to accomplish many things and the ability to get myself in a situation where I could practice "higher virtues". I don't think hate necessarily corrupts – it essentialises, and I think, if it becomes obsessive, can become rather problematic. However, I think it can serve a proper and potentially healthy (at least compared to other options available) situation.4. That said, am I suppose to believe that all people are worthy of respect and my attempt to make them into better people? I don't think so. Sure, I can understand the context by which they dedicated themselves to pro-actively doing harm to myself and others, but I don't feel like I'm obligated to help redeem them – redeem them to what? That implies a weird teleology for human beings that I feel uncomfortable with.5. Finally, Leah, this all sort of reminds me of a conversation with Aseel, where she discussed how I'd always be fundamentally a less moral person than a lot of the people she hung out with (DS Club and such), mostly because of my large amount of experience with suffering (at least within the American context). I think, connected to my privilege point, there's something problematic about positing virtues that are much easier to exist when a person is relative comfort.

  • dbp

    Ferny,First off, I won't presume to know the depths of suffering you have endured. I have enormous respect for people who come through such situations, and certainly am not interested in casting stones at people who have already undergone so much.So, I hope you understood that when use the word "wrong" (or, since I'm a Catholic, "sin" in some cases), I don't necessarily mean 'guilty.' All I really mean is a state not ultimately oriented toward the good of the person or others– sort of "sub-optimal," if you will.What we find is that people whose lives go drastically off course can often get to a better place by means that might not be ideal in themselves, in which case something that is wrong could have a good effect. Suppose a man whose life is seriously screwed up (maybe a gambling and drug addiction, toss in occasional burglary and other crime as a means of supporting these things) falls in love with a married woman and has an affair with her. Over the course of their relationship he gains the motivation to turn his life around and to live for something other than the despair and depravity, the greed and baseness which have defined him for so long.It seems to me that there must be room in such a case to realize both (in justice) that the affair is wrong in itself and (in mercy) that we cannot fathom the spiritual (psychological, if you like) darkness he had been living in, to escape from which he clutched at the only line he saw available to him. If his love is sincere, his redemption true, and his actions toward the woman and her family not totally self-centered, I could very well see it being made into the sort of romance movie many people applaud, especially if the woman's marriage wasn't that happy to begin with.I think we must acknowledge both sides, the happiness of redemption and the wrongness (in itself) of adultery. People accuse Christians of not having enough moral nuance– seeing only black and white, and not the gray in the middle. I think it is often our opponents who are lacking in nuance, insisting that we should only have one evaluation of the good or evil of an action, and be unable to separate A) the immediate end produced, B) the effect of the action on the character of the actors and others, C) the motivations involved, and other things.In the case of anger and hatred, it is essential to take a wide view of things, especially concerning those who have suffered greatly. I am convinced that hatred is a corrosive spiritual acid: like physical acid, it is perhaps a legitimate tool when applied just right and in just the proper cases, but certainly not something you want to keep in easy reach in your household. Still, I definitely think that there is such thing as someone being "blamelessly wrong."Would it be better for a person to be able to go on living out of hope and love rather than out of hate? Perhaps. But if the person uses that (without undue action– if it involves slaughtering a one-time assailant's entire family in revenge, it becomes another story) as a way to get by until advancing to a new and better life, where he can give over his hatred and live in happiness and virtue (however conceived), then I don't think it would be appropriate to lecture him. It is entirely possible, indeed likely, that he is not at fault.Finally, no: it doesn't condemn that person to be less "moral" than others. He should be on guard against any lingering inclination to (unjust or misdirected) anger, but otherwise I think there's no reason they couldn't live just as morally as anyone else.

  • Ferny

    So dbp, I see the logic in a Christian perspective of how is applied and I do appreciate it. I disagree with this, mostly because I don't see 'positive emotions' as goods necessarily of themselves either.I posted mostly as a way to organize my thoughts, because I want Leah to defend this from a secular perspective. I understand Christian inclinations, but fundamentally, I don't believe people have innate goodness or evil. Also, because I'm not certain I have an arbiter of what "proper" means in a secular context. Doing great things for people may involve a lot of anger and hatred as motivation, and is a logical outgrowth of this.I think, fundamentally, I think my disagreement is that I don't think there's an 'optimal' set of feelings or a 'path' for people to be on.

  • dbp

    Ferny,Duly noted. As I said above, I don't think emotions have an inherent moral component, either; it's only in our response to them that is moral or not, as the case may be. Fostering or nurturing emotion IS an act of the will, however, and there are certain emotions that, when fostered in this way, tend to produce results that are not normally conducive to good things either in the individual or in his larger context. For instance, if I am bored at work, there's no intrinsic problem there; but if I dwell on it and let it rankle, it will tend to incline me towards various bad behaviors (laziness or sloth, impatience, sloppiness, and other things, in addition to just simply not generally leading to personal contentment). There is, of course, a proper reaction to boredom at work: take on new responsibilities, explore other facets of the job, look for a new position, or just ignore it and focus on the good things you experience in other areas of life. Needless to say, none of this is wrong.So I guess what I'm saying is, my position is less religious and more pragmatic than you think, even if it is couched in a larger theological/moral framework. I'm curious as to whether you find this line of thinking objectionable when applied to other emotions than hatred, like the one I mention here. Am I missing something?

  • I think hate usually stems from a lack of understanding and/or empathy. It blocks us from seeing the truth. I think anger can be justified sometimes, but hate seems to be a different ball game. I don't think any good comes from letting ourselves be consumed with hate.

  • Ferny

    @Jackie – Does the victim of a murder simply not understand or empathize with the motivations of the murderer, or is there something else there?

  • dbp

    Jackie: You're probably right sometimes, but you are essentially saying that you shouldn't hate because there isn't anything actually hateful (i.e., if the person understood it it would cease to be hateful). I think what Ferny aptly points out is, in this broken world there's plenty that's hateful whether you understand it or not.Where you are probably correct is that persons are often less hateful in themselves than the things they do, which is how you can reasonably get sympathetic stories about murderers. That leaves the people close to a murder victim back at square one, though, because A) it can be awful hard to separate the person from the deed, and B) can any extenuating circumstances actually balance out cold-blooded murder?In itself, the picture is pretty grim. Probably, the only way the calculus changes is if you take a religious viewpoint, where the murderer has not done the victim as much harm as it appears at first, and where the penalty the murderer is in danger of receiving (eternal fire) is so much more stark than the harm inflicted. This makes it possible to turn from anger to pity toward the criminal. (I pass over other aspects of a religious viewpoint that argue against anger– there are certainly more.)Still, as I described above, I think that even in this, which is the closest you can get to my Case B (supposedly justified and proportionate hatred) when the object is a human being, all the associated dangers are still present. In fact, the strength of the emotion probably makes the dangers more dangerous; how easily it could consume a person! In that sense, I think there is an argument against hatred even here.

  • Ferny & DBP: My view is probably a little skewed since I work with a group of people, some of whom have committed murder. Knowing the backgrounds of these men makes it hard for me to hate them. I wouldn't expect a victim's family to say "Oh you had a bad childhood? Well nevermind, that's okay then." Anger is normal in the situation of a murder, and can even be productive. I wouldn't judge anyone who hated a murderer, especially if it they were close to a victim. But I still don't think that hate would be productive, especially not for the person who was doing the hating. I'm not saying that if we understood everything we wouldn't hate anything. But I do believe that increasing understanding will decrease hate, even in the case of murders.

  • dbp

    Jackie: That makes sense. I think I can agree to most of that, though the question of whether hatred can be productive is apparently disputed by Ferny, who seems to have some experience with suffering at the hands of others. I don't have either your experience or Ferny's so I plead ignorance on both side.

  • Ferny

    Feelings like anger and hatred should ideally be contextualized – my emotions towards a human being shouldn't mandate a norm to other human beings. Now, this gets tricker, but I think part of the ability to define communal secular norms is the necessity of the possibility negative emotions thrown at the person that violates these norms. From a completely secular perspective, I don't have any other 'non-physical' judgments to render as a means to police norms. To be "hated" is a rather useful concept when trying to get people to do certain kinds of behaviors.Ultimately, I think this is all contextualized. I think there are many situations where hate and anger drive beings through situation and with situations to places that are far better. You may be right that in an idealized world, where evil isn't done to human beings, this isn't necessary. However, I like to think of morals and ethic in the context of the present and judge the validity of stuff through that prism.

  • dbp

    Ferny: That's very interesting. I'd never thought of the threat of hate as a way of enforcing social norms (all that mess of necessary stuff that doesn't fit into actual laws, that is).In the end, I see your point about its potential usefulness in that respect, but I can't accept it. I think hatred is just too dangerous to be relied on for such a necessary social function. I know you don't mean this to condone revenge, but hatred can become a nasty, cyclical disease reminiscent of the Eumenides of Aeschylus. And, again, I think it can be a distorting force psychologically, as well; perhaps useful to some in some circumstances, but not worthy of FDA approval, so to speak.Also, I would submit that while it may be true that, as you say, "there are many situations where hate and anger drive beings through situation and with situations to places that are far better," it does not follow that there aren't other ways of accomplishing the same thing. You haven't established its necessity, just argued for its efficacy, which is a different assertion.Without intending the slightest aspersion on anyone who has relied on hate to survive, I would rather we try to find other ways for people to accomplish the same thing. I find no fault with the single mother working two jobs and still trying to take proper care of her children who, for lack of time and money, relies on the McDonald's dollar menu to feed herself. She's doing the best she can and succeeding better than many. That doesn't mean it's healthy or recommendable, though.I don't think it is impossible idealism to suggest that we try to promote, encourage, and teach alternative methods of coping (both in the dietary example and in the hatred example) as much as we can, while supporting and extending compassion to all, even if they themselves, for whatever reason, can't find or use those alternatives.

  • Ferny: "2. …I don't think any of you have made an argument (besides the person above) over why hate and other negative emotions as motivators are problematic from a non-Christian framework. I dont' really give a damn about the spirit and the such." Most of the responses others have given here hold human well-being as the goal of morality, and this leads to a good case against hate. If you do not consider well-being as a suitable goal for morality, then it's reasonable that you wouldn't accept the case being made."3. …I think there's something rather privileged about being able to claim that one should always love, respect, promote the happiness of other people who may have done them harm."I'm not sure if anyone here has really advocated this view. A lack of hate is not necessarily equivalent to the presence of love and respect. "I don't think hate necessarily corrupts – it essentialises, and I think, if it becomes obsessive, can become rather problematic. However, I think it can serve a proper and potentially healthy (at least compared to other options available) situation."I, for one, am happily willing to concede that this may be true. Given that I hold human well-being as the goal of morality, if hate can be shown in a particular circumstance to increase well-being, then I'd be obliged to support it. For instance, hate of discrimination, or hate of violence, are probably good things. I'm just not sure if it's ever productive to hate a person.

  • Lea

    Here's my take from my experience:Hating people allows them to become very central to you, because hatred is such a powerful emotion. It's a way of giving those people power over you. Hatred has this effect regardless of whether the object of hatred is alive, dead, fictional, or an inanimate object or concept – though real objects of hatred may take advantage of this power to their own ends. When we feel overpowered, we feel a need to take control over the situation. That involves becoming active, rather than hating passively. One way of doing that is to take revenge – destroying the person who has come to dominate one's mind and heart. I don't think I need to argue that that's a useless and harmful approach. Another way is to take action in a positive way – confront the person to discuss the relationship, pray for them, do them a kindness, or at least keep oneself from thinking about them (thus moving from hatred to indifference). Personally, I think that even the Christian injunction to "love those who hate us" stems in part from this need to resist the oppression of hatred in positive, rather than negative ways. Hence Jesus saying that praying for your enemy is like heaping hot coals on his head.

  • Anonymous

    Is there a reason I ought to actively suppress my feelings of anger and hate in this circumstance?I don't think one should try to suppress ones feelings at all. I guess this is what any physiologist will tell. Your situation kind of reminds me of this:

  • Oh, lots of comments already. The last one talks about suppression, and s/he is right, suppression is not good. Resolution and release, however, definitely SHOULD be pursued. The problem with hatred and other forms of negativity is that it creates a cycle. It's not a victimless sin because it's victimizing you. Have you met people whose every word drips anger and bitterness, who see the worst in people always? That's what it leads to.