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Is It Right to Hope for a Politician’s Death?

photograph of newspaper stand with various magazines with Trump on the cover

For a wide swath of the U.S. population, the news that President Trump is COVID-19 positive was not exactly met with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Many believe that Trump’s dithering, downplaying, and dismissals are in fact responsible for some non-trivial proportion of the country’s 200,000+ COVID deaths — a fact whose significance will become apparent shortly. That he now has the virus strikes many as a delicious irony, and not a few fondly hope and fervently pray that Trump may speedily pass away. But there are plenty of Trump opponents who find this bloody-mindedness unsavory, perhaps even unethical. Thus, we confront the following ethical issue: is it right to hope for a politician’s death?

There is an important caveat to the discussion that follows, which is that even if hoping for a politician’s death may be justified, that does not mean that we are justified in hoping for their deaths. The distinction has to do with our reasons for hope. While a justification might be available for hoping for a politician’s death, that often isn’t the reason why we actually hope for their death. Instead, the reasons why many people actually hope for politicians’ deaths have to do with revenge or hatred, which is not a sufficient justification for so hoping. In short, you aren’t actually justified in hoping for a politician’s death unless your motives for so hoping match the reasons that actually justify so hoping.

Here is an argument I have seen bandied about on social media. Commonsense morality recognizes circumstances under which killing is morally justified: namely, when it is necessary to save the life of a third-party, and more controversially, when it is deserved. If it is true that Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic has led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, then it might be argued that his death is both deserved and necessary for the prevention of many future deaths. But if an act that results in some outcome is morally justified, then the outcome is one that we may permissibly hope for, whether it is produced by an act or by some other cause. Therefore, we may hope for Trump’s death.

One problem with the argument is that Trump’s death is not strictly necessary to prevent future death; there are other ways to remove him from power. Nor is it obvious that Trump’s death is even the best, or the most efficient, means of preventing future death. Trump’s death would have many consequences that we can only dimly foresee, many of them probably not good for disease control and prevention. If the use of lethal force is not necessary, nor even the best or most efficient means of protecting third parties from imminent lethal harm, then its use is arguably unjustified. Furthermore, there may be an intent requirement: it may be impermissible to use lethal force to save innocent lives unless the person who threatens those lives intends, or at least can be reasonably interpreted as intending, to kill. Trump’s sin seems more like negligence than intentional wrongdoing.

We might also question whether Trump’s gross negligence really merits death. Generally speaking, the death penalty is reserved for those who commit intentional crimes, not negligent ones. On the other hand, it could be argued that negligence can be so gross that it does deserve death. Questions of proportionality are difficult to pin down with any precision.

It might also be objected that to hope for something is to view it as a good thing, and that we ought to hope for what is actually good. Furthermore, a person’s death is never a good thing, even if to kill that person would be morally justified. Thus, we should never hope for someone’s death. Here we are taking aim at the premise of the argument that says that if an act results in some morally justified outcome, then the outcome is one that we may permissibly hope for. Not so, says the objector: there are outcomes that are always bad, and so ones we should never hope for, even if it is permissible for us to bring them about.

It seems right to say that we should always hope for what is actually good. And it’s true that death is almost always bad for the person who dies. So, we can agree that Trump’s death would be bad for him. But Trump’s death would, ex hypothesi, also be good for many people. And it is also good if people get what they deserve. We can, therefore, plausibly say that what we hope for in the complex state of affairs that involves Trump’s death is that people will be saved, or that Trump will get what he deserves. Thus, there seems to be no difficulty hoping for Trump’s death even if it is bad for him, if what we are really hoping for are the good consequences of Trump’s death or that Trump gets his just deserts. Hope for these things does not involve hope for what is actually bad.

This point also applies to the slightly different objection that hope involves the anticipation of happiness, but we should never be happy about someone’s death. For example, many people thought the spectacle of crowds rambunctiously celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death was unsavory. One reason this might indeed be unsavory is because it involves taking pleasure in others’ misfortune, which seems like a bad thing, although this would have to be argued for in greater depth. It seems possible, however, to hope for a politician’s death in a way that does not involve taking pleasure in anticipating their misfortune, if the object of hope is either the good consequences that will flow from the politician’s death or that the politician gets what she deserves. Here we come back to the point that in order to be justified in hoping for a politician’s death, our motives must match the reasons that actually justify so hoping. If our hope is based on taking pleasure in anticipated misfortune, it may not be justified; but if it is based on the anticipated goods that either flow from or are realized by the politician’s death, it may be justified.

To conclude, it seems that we can be justified in hoping for a politician’s death under some circumstances, although it is less clear that these circumstances obtain with respect to President Trump. There is no special ethical barrier to hoping for a politician’s death in principle, although in so hoping most of us face the ethical pitfalls of vengeful feeling and sadistic pleasure.

Misericordia and Trump’s Illness

photograph of screen displaying Trump's Twitter profile

Is it okay to feel joy or mirth at another person’s misfortune? In most cases, the answer is clearly ‘no.’  But what if that person is Donald Trump? If my Facebook feed is any indicator, many people are having such feelings and expressing them unapologetically. On one approach to normative ethics known as virtue ethics, the main question to ask about this is: what does this response tell us about our character? Is it compatible with good character for someone to express joy over Trump’s illness and possible demise?

For Aristotle, who is one of the originators of this approach to ethics, a virtue is a good quality of a person’s desires, emotions, and thoughts. A person has a virtue, an excellence of character, when their desires, emotions, and thinking reflect the value that the objects of these desires, emotions, and thoughts have in the context of a well-lived human life. If we are intemperate, we overvalue pleasures of eating, drinking, and sex relative to other goods such as knowledge and family; if we are cowardly, we over-value physical safety, placing it above friendship and community. Applying this framework to feeling joy over Trump’s illness, there is a question of whether we are appropriately reacting to that human being’s suffering and misfortune.

The question isn’t settled by the fact that in most cases we would condemn expressions of joy at a rival or opponent’s misfortune. Virtue ethicists favor taking context into account; it really is a matter of whether we are feeling appropriately toward this person in this context. In many cases in which we might feel Schadenfreude, we can recognize that the stakes of our disagreement or competition are simply not comparable to the value of life and freedom from suffering. If I am competing with another person for a job, say, his falling seriously ill before an important interview leading him to miss the interview should not be an occasion for joy. After all, there are other jobs, presumably, but not another life for my rival. For that reason, to display joy at the misfortune reveals a flawed character.

Aristotle, it seems to me, did not quite have what it takes to capture this thought. Although he conceived of the virtues in a powerful way that many to this day take seriously, he did not have a clear label for a virtue that came to be prominent in the Christian tradition that followed him. Thomas Aquinas gives a privileged place to the virtue of charity. For him, this is a virtue that, at least in part, comes from God, a so-called ‘infused’ virtue. Our capacity to love God and our fellow human beings appropriately goes beyond our natural resources and requires an infusion of grace. But one aspect of charity seems not require this infusion, and that is the virtue of mercy or misericordia: a virtue to respond to the suffering of others with sadness that motivates us to works of mercy, among which are enumerated visiting the sick and giving comfort to the afflicted. This is a virtue that stems from our human nature, which is susceptible to disease and injury, and we all have reason to want our disease and injury to be greeted with concern and care rather than indifference or mockery. It seems clear that in most cases, expressing joy at another’s sickness would be a clear indicator of lacking the virtue of mercy, a defect in our capacity to love our fellow human beings as they should be loved.

The case of Trump strikes me as more complex than the case of a rival for a job. After all, he has caused real suffering for many people, including thousands of children locked in detention centers. It seems to me that people inclined to feel joy at Trump’s suffering have felt enormous, and to my mind, appropriate anguish over the impact of Trump’s policies. Further, he has himself created the conditions that have led to the prevalence of the very illness that he has caught.  Hence, his illness may seem a just comeuppance to someone who has at every turn showed himself to be self-serving, oblivious to the impact of his decisions on others, and therefore who himself clearly lacks the virtue of mercy.

And so, does the lack of mercy in someone, including someone whose decisions are so consequential for the well-being of others, justify joy at their suffering, or does that joy indicate a lack of mercy? It seems to me clearly the latter.  It might seem as though I am responding appropriately to the goods at stake in feeling joy at Trump’s illness: I might say that ending the suffering of children in detention centers is reflected in the joy I feel at the illness and possible disablement or death of the person who caused the children’s suffering. Clearly, it would be a joyous occasion if those detention centers were closed, but that isn’t what I am rejoicing over in joy over Trump’s illness. After all, there is no certainty that his demise will bring an end to those detention centers. And so, it is really a desire for revenge: anger and a sense of powerlessness over what he has done occasions the desire to harm the cause of my anger. And so, it might seem that anger is never appropriate, inasmuch as mercy is a virtue, or else there is some inner conflict between the virtues. Yet, this need not be so. For Aquinas, there is appropriate hatred and anger, only it is not directed to the person. Instead, it is directed to acts: we can appropriate hate and feel anger at Trump’s acts and wish them to be counteracted or thwarted, but not in ways that are in conflict with the value of his life. It is, of course, understandable that these feelings get out of our control, all the more so, the more immediately our lives have been touched by what Trump’s opponents take to be his unjust and self-serving acts. Anyone who has lost someone to COVID-19 in the United States can legitimately point to the President’s deeds as a contributing cause of their loved one’s suffering and death. It is difficult to contain our hatred and anger to the acts and not extend them to the person behind the acts. Still, we might wish we did not have such feelings, and recognize that they don’t reflect our deeply considered values. Such, I think, is the right stance to take on expressions of joy over Trump’s illness.

Do Terminally Ill Patients Have a “Right to Try” Experimental Drugs?

In his recent State of the Union speech, President Trump urged Congress to pass legislation to give Americans a “right to try” potentially life-saving experimental drugs. He said, “People who are terminally ill should not have to go from country to country to seek a cure — I want to give them a chance right here at home.  It is time for the Congress to give these wonderful Americans the ‘right to try.’” Though only a brief line in a long speech, the ethical implications of the push to expand access to experimental drugs are worth much more attention.

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Respecting the Dead: The Case of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant

Charles Byrne died quite young, at the age of 22, and quite tall, at approximately seven feet, eight inches. This is still tall for today, but must have been more impressive during Mr. Byrne’s short life in the late 18th century. According to an Ohio State University researcher, the average height for men in Northern Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries was only about five feet, five inches. Today, the average height for men in Northern Ireland has been calculated to be about five feet, 10 inches.

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Genome Editing: A Slippery Slope?

On September 18th, a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a report detailing advancements in the genome-editing CRISPR system. The CRISPR system releases an enzyme that cuts and removes certain sections of DNA that are damaged or mutated and replaces them with a healthy DNA sequence. However, these scientists discovered a new enzyme, Cof1, which may now serve as an alternate to the previously used enzyme Cas9. Using this new enzyme, research teams have the ability to narrow their focus to very specific sections of the DNA double helix. Additionally, the CRISPR system cuts DNA in a different way, improving the efficiency and quality of the repair site.

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How Much Sleep Is Enough Sleep for College Students?

DePauw prides itself in being one of the top liberal arts colleges in the Midwest and throughout the country.  With this ranking, students on DePauw’s campus experience rigorous courses and many also choose to be involved in numerous clubs, organizations and activities on campus.  Because of our busy schedules, students on DePauw’s campus are forced to manage each aspect of their lives carefully in order to be the best student, teammate and peer as possible.  Even with a carefully managed schedule, there seems to be one major problem on this campus and the majority of campuses around the country: lack of sleep.

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