← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

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.

Under Discussion: Free Speech, Cancel Culture, and Compassion

photograph of yellow push pin in the center of blue push pins with their spike turned to the yellow one

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: The Harper’s Letter.

In July, 2020, Harper’s Magazine published a letter signed by 153 prominent authors and thinkers. Signatories included figures such as Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, and J.K. Rowling. Their main contention was that an “illiberal left” has emerged in recent political discourse — a left that allows no room for divergent points of view and that deals with “wrongdoers” swiftly and mercilessly.

Though the letter is about responses to speech, it does not express fear that first amendment violations are occurring; it does not suggest that the government is censoring speech on the basis of content. Instead, the signatories are concerned about the current cultural climate. They are concerned about cancel culture and the chilling effect it can have on the free exchange of ideas. Constitutions provide protections against tyrannical governments, and historically governments have been the primary coercive force looming over the lives of private citizens. In the new age in which we live, the internet — and the anonymous people on it — pose a comparable threat to personal well-being.

The main argument in support of cancel culture, at least when it comes to speech, is that some ideas are so wrong and so harmful that they should not be expressed. If they are expressed, the consequences should be so severe that the community as a whole learns that those views will not be tolerated. Racist, sexist, and homophobic (to name just a few) messages ought never to be advanced on any platform. It isn’t simply that these messages are inherently bad, they also cause real harm. The argument is that our response to speech should match in severity the potential harm caused by that speech.

The idea that the value of free speech can be outweighed by other important values is not new. The approach has been codified into law on multiple occasions. In one such case, the circumstances were morbidly similar in some respects to those in which we now find ourselves — Nero fiddled while Rome burned. In 1918, the Spanish Flu raged. Its existence and severity were undermined and covered up by governments, and the global travel initiated by World War I ensured rapid spread of the virus. Amidst this turmoil, Congress passed The Sedition Act which outlawed “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” against the United States government. Those that violated the act could spend up to twenty years in prison. The rationale for passing the legislation concerned the potential harms and unrest that anti-government sentiment could cause during wartime.

The highest courts in the country repeatedly upheld the act, making use of what is now referred to as the “Bad Tendency Test.” One noteworthy use of the Bad Tendency Test involved a man who wrote a book that contained arguments against war. In the book, the man argued, “that patriotism is identical with murder and the spirit of the devil, that war is a crime, and…that it was yet to be proved whether Germany had any intention or desire of attacking the United States.” At the time, this kind of argument was very unpopular — patriotism and loyalty to one’s country were viewed as important social virtues, and those who did not exhibit said virtues were viewed as pariahs. The courts agreed, and held that the issue at stake was “whether the natural and probable tendency and effect of the words quoted therefrom are such as are calculated to produce the result condemned by the statute.” In other words, the mere potential harms caused by certain kinds of speech were viewed as being so significant that it justified punishment for speech that might have a tendency to bring about those harms. The result was that the man was “cancelled” for being a pacifist. Of course, this example involves state action, whereas cancel culture involves the behavior of private actors. Nevertheless, our history can and should inform our strategies for private punishment of speech. We should never lose sight of the fact that beliefs that we now view as admirable were once viewed with disdain and even hatred by earlier generations. Hubris is dangerous; we are unlikely to have, at this precise moment, arrived at all the right answers regarding both facts and values. Freedom of expression allows us to explore what we have right and what we have wrong.

There are reasons for protecting freedom of expression that go beyond protecting ourselves from tyrannical governments. The ability to express oneself freely is important for living a meaningful, flourishing human life. We are nourished by the words of others and responding to others is part of how we create ourselves. When we nurture our children into the people they’ll become, we provide them with many outlets for expression but also with plenty of room to get things wrong. Building a worldview is a messy process and none of us get through it without making significant mistakes. Respect for the dignity and humanity of another person requires compassion in the face of mistakes that they will inevitably make. One of the most compassionate ways to rectify mistakes is through the patient exchange of ideas, which involves encouraging freedom of expression rather than stifling it. What’s more, antagonistic climates are likely to deter people from developing as thinkers. We want citizens to do more than simply take life as it comes, we want them to take an active interest in developing coherent, consistent worldviews, ideally strongly informed by evidence. The threat of being torn apart if something goes wrong may be enough to make plenty of people give up on the enterprise altogether.

At least some objections to cancel culture have to do with its underlying assumptions. “Canceling” someone for their speech is an act of retribution, which is motivated by the idea that individuals who express problematic views should “get what they deserve.” There are both broad and narrow reasons to be concerned about this. The broad concern is that there are compelling reasons to be skeptical of retributivism as a theory of punishment in the first place. The idea that retribution is the path to justice is a popular one — if you pluck out my eye, I get to pluck out yours. This view portrays justice as something to be exacted rather than as something to be achieved; it maintains that when a person exacts retribution, they somehow get back what the bad actor took. In her book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity Justice, Martha Nussbaum refers to this sentiment as the “payback wish.” People frequently believe that when they are harmed, severe punishment for the wrongdoer will somehow right the wrong. This simply isn’t so. When someone expresses a view with which we disagree, causing that person significant harm in response will not make their speech disappear. If a person feels harmed by another person’s speech, “canceling” the person who spoke will not undo the harm.

The narrow concern has to do with the severity of some of the retributive actions that take place in the climate of cancel culture. Even if one is inclined to believe that proportional retribution is justice, often the consequences for unpopular speech are not proportional. For example, recently, UNC Wilmington professor Mark Adams made national news for making a series of reprehensible comments on social media. He was encouraged to retire from his position, and he was compensated handsomely for doing so. On July 24th, 2020, he was found in his home, dead from a bullet wound. The official cause of his death has not yet been released, but many suspect suicide — it is plausible to speculate that the backlash that resulted from his callous behavior created for him a world in which he no longer could stand to live. It’s one thing to say that there should be consequences for harmful speech — there should. If an author engages in problematic speech, it is reasonable to refrain from buying that author’s books. Making that decision isn’t an instance of “canceling” anyone. The person who did something wrong isn’t off the hook, they should reflect on their actions and take responsibility for them. That said, the set of reasonable consequences for harmful speech doesn’t include bullying someone until they commit suicide.

All of this is not to say that the careful and conscientious exchange of ideas is some kind of magic elixir that can solve all of the world’s problems. Realistically, in most cases, if a person is a racist, misogynist, or conspiracy theorist, trying to talk them out of any of those positions will be a significant waste of time. Belief in the value of free speech shouldn’t itself turn into a form of dogma. We need to look at our social problems straight in the face in order to find solutions. We need to be realistic, also, about when people are engaging in discourse in good faith and when they aren’t. We only make progress when all participants enter the discussion with some epistemic humility. That said, exhibiting epistemic humility need not, and in many cases should not, involve commitment to the idea that all ideas are equally reasonable, evidence-based, or likely to be correct.

What, then, do we do when civil discourse isn’t successful at changing minds and hearts? The cases that we care the most about are cases in which there is a lot on the line; they are cases in which people stand to suffer a great deal as a result of the speech of powerful others. Is cancelling people the only viable alternative? In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, Martin Luther King Jr. explained why the demonstrations for which he was arrested were necessary. He directed his remarks at members of Alabama’s religious community who had advised him to wait or to express his demands in different ways. He pointed out that the political leaders “consistently refused to engage in good faith negotiation.” He concluded that those fighting injustice “had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community.” King’s critical insight was to turn to other peaceful and meaningful forms of persuasion when patient dialogue led nowhere. One of the most powerful moves in his playbook was to appeal to the common humanity and dignity of others — even racists.

Creative and productive responses to ugly speech are possible. Cancel culture, at least when it comes to speech, is often fueled by rage and mob mentality — hardly the most noble human motivators. What’s more, if the goal is to change the mind of the bad actor, insisting that they should nevermore be listened to or taken seriously as a rational expressive human being is unlikely to get the job done. If one authentically commits oneself to the task of elevating discussion regarding important social issues and of getting rid of antiquated and harmful attitudes, one will employ strategies that actually work. Anything else looks like an attempt to satisfy the payback wish.

Should We Celebrate the Death of an Enemy?

photograph of unmarked headstone in cemetery

David Koch, one of the infamously influential and wealthy Koch Brothers, died on August 23, 2019. He and his brother, Charles, used the wealth and influence built through Koch Industries to fund Americans for Prosperity. This organization championed fiscally conservative causes like cutting taxes, defunding certain welfare programs, and deregulating industries. It also advocated for socially conservative causes like restricting abortion, impeding the expansion of LGBTQ rights, and funding programs that deny the scientific consensus on climate change. They achieved significant success in their aims through the influence of so-called “dark money” – funding spent by non-profits groups in support of political causes, the sources of which do not have to be disclosed in official reporting.

His death was met with celebration by some, notably talk show host Bill Maher. He said, “I’m glad [Koch]’s dead, and I hope the end was painful.” Maher’s remarks drew criticism from right-wing commentator Sean Hannity, who responded, “The guy you’re talking about and his wife donated $1.3 billion to charity. Until you do that, just keep your big mouth shut.” A tweet by philosopher Rachael McKinnon, on the other hand, argued for the moral permissibility of sentiments in a similar vein to Maher’s. Specifically she argued that it is morally permissible to be happy when a person who has caused extensive harm dies of natural causes. (McKinnon did not address the permissibility of hoping that an evil person should suffer, however.) Are sentiments like Maher’s morally permissible, or is it wrong to celebrate the death of those who are responsible for extensive harm, destruction, or death?

This is not a new question, and is one which has been in the news within recent memory. In 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed by United States military forces in Pakistan, there was cheering and celebration on the streets in parts of the United States. This reaction set off a series of articles asking the question: were those celebrations morally appropriate? National Public Radio (NPR) news had quotes and interviews from both philosophers (Christine Korsgaard) and members of religious communities (Arsalan Iftikhar and Shmuel Herzfeld) weighing in generally on the side of a negative answer. They argued that celebration is not a morally acceptable response to anyone’s death—not even when the person who died was in large part responsible for actions and institutions which have caused a great deal of harm, destruction, and death.

However, they did indicate that some positive attitude short of celebration may be appropriate. Iftikhar and Herzfeld agreed that relief and gratitude were appropriate attitudes in response to the death of Osama bin Laden. This is in-line with McKinnon’s assertion in her tweet. It can be morally permissible to have some sort of positive attitude about the (impending) death of an enemy. But Korsgaard warned that there is a danger of conflating satisfaction at the defeat of an enemy with slaking a thirst for retribution: “If we have any feeling of victory or triumph in the case, it should be because we have succeeded in disabling him — not because he is dead.”

Retribution is a prominent concept in the discussion of justice. The idea that justice can be achieved through the application of appropriate punishment is called retributivism. It is embodied by statements like, “The punishment should fit the crime.” Those who do wrong deserve to have punishment inflicted on them, and it is good for wrongdoers to get what they deserve. This view can provide a basis for the idea that it is morally appropriate to have and express positive sentiments about a person suffering, provided that their suffering was proportional to their wrongdoing and was the specific result of punishment for that wrongdoing. It is only the context of punishment which makes suffering, an otherwise universally bad thing with negative moral value, a good thing with positive moral value.

Here is where at least Maher’s sentiments fall short of moral propriety. Koch died of natural causes, which cannot be considered punishment without endorsing very specific notions of something like divine justice or karma. Further, returning to Korsgaard’s quote above, there is no sense in which Koch’s death will impede the harm caused by the organizations Koch Industries funds—that is, David Koch was not in anyway “defeated”. All that is left to say about the view is that it approves of something which shouldn’t be approved of—the suffering of another person. McKinnon doesn’t go as far approving of another person’s suffering. Her view about Koch’s death is more along the lines of what Iftikhar and Herzfeld said about bin Laden’s death. When a person who has caused a great deal of harm, destruction, or death dies, feeling some measure of relief is acceptable.

Death by State? The Country Discusses Abolition of Capital Punishment

image of two adjoining prison cells

Many Netflix viewers in recent weeks have familiarized themselves with the details of a set of notorious crimes committed by a criminal executed by the state of Florida in the 1980’s. The Ted Bundy Tapes tells the story of the life and crimes of Theodore Robert Bundy, a depraved serial killer who raped, tortured, and killed women and engaged in necrophilic acts with their bodies. A case like Bundy’s is just the kind of case that motivates supporters of the death penalty in their arguments for the claim that capital punishment is a moral necessity.

The series includes footage of the day Bundy was executed. Thousands of people celebrated outside of Florida State Prison. Street vendors sold electric chair lapel pins and t-shirts that read “Burn Bundy burn!”—a phrase that the crowds chanted at fever pitch while setting off fireworks nearby. Spectators held signs scrawled upon with phrases like “Toast Ted!” and “Crank up Old Sparky!” When asked about the spectacle, Bundy replied, “They’re crazy!  They think I’m crazy, listen to all of them!” The scene was not unlike the one that Charles Dickens described witnessing at the execution of François Courvoisier in 1840: “No sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, drunkenness, and flaunting vice in fifty other shapes … It was so loathsome, pitiful and vile a sight, that the law appeared to be as bad as he, or worse.”

These cases motivate reflection on the role that emotion plays in this most severe of punishments. Emotions spike in response to acts of senseless violence and depravity. If this happens at the level of community spectators, might there also be intense emotion in place at other stages of the criminal proceedings? What level of emotion is appropriate? What kind of emotion is appropriate, and directed toward whom? It may be that moral judgments always involve a certain amount of sentiment. Indeed, some moral philosophers have argued that moral judgments are nothing more than expressions of sentiment. On the other hand, it is uncontroversial that emotions sometimes cloud our better judgment. What’s more, not all emotions are created equal, and empathy may well count for much more than anger.

Public support for the death penalty has diminished significantly over the years, with rates of approval dropping from 80 percent in the 90’s to 56 percent as reported by Gallup in 2018. In the past year, several states have considered repeal of the death penalty. In 2018, abolition was considered by Washington, Utah, New Hampshire, and Louisiana. In 2014, the governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in the state, claiming that its inconsistent and unequal application made retaining the form of punishment morally and legally indefensible. In October of 2018, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty, as applied in the state of Washington is arbitrary and capricious and racially biased, and that as such it is inconsistent with Article I, section 14 of the Washington State Constitution. The court made use of a study produced by researchers at The University of Washington titled “The Role of Race in Washington State Capital Sentencing 1981-2014”.  The study concluded that “black defendants were four and a half times more likely to be sentenced to death than similarly situated white defendants.” Earlier this month, the Washington State Senate reinforced the reasoning of the court when they passed a measure to repeal the death penalty. The bill now advances to the House. On February 14 of this year, the proposed repeal of the death penalty in Wyoming failed in the Senate.

The United States has been engaged in a conversation about issues related to state-sanctioned killing as punishment for as long as the nation has existed. Recently, arguments for repeal have focused on racial bias, cost, the proper relationship between the government and its citizens, and the possibility of executing innocent people. Since the reinstatement of the death penalty after a national moratorium in 1973, 165 death row inmates have been exonerated.

One of the central arguments in support of the death penalty has to do with retributive justice—a moral commitment to make sure that a criminal “gets what they deserve.” According to this argument, some crimes—like those that Bundy committed—are so heinous that the perpetrators deserve to lose their lives as punishment. On this view, the death penalty is a basic requirement of justice. One of the primary moral obligations of a state’s criminal justice system is to achieve justice for victims and their loved ones. If this is the case, the state is not merely permitted to execute perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, they are morally obligated to do so. Those that hold this view would likely argue, for example, that if the state of Florida failed to execute Ted Bundy, that failure would count as a serious miscarriage of justice and dereliction of duty.

This argument raises a series of questions, many of which focus on the idea that imposition of the death penalty is not merely permitted, but is actually required. This claim seems to rest on the idea that the obligation that the state owes to victims of crimes is unique and morally privileged. There are considerations that speak in favor of this idea. Many philosophers argue that the feature that makes persons distinct from non-persons is their capacity to make autonomous decisions. When people commit crimes, those crimes almost always involve violations of autonomy. In the most heinous cases—like cases of murder—the crimes involve the annihilation of the person and the autonomy that makes them one. If autonomy is highly valued by our society, as it should be, then perhaps it makes sense to place justice for victims and their families high on the list of moral priorities. Add to this the pain and suffering experienced by the loved ones that the victims left behind, and we are left with a powerful argument for giving special moral consideration to victims. These considerations are paired with a perceived (and possibly real) obligation arising from intuitions both common and strong—it is unfair when bad things happen to good people, and when those bad things are freely caused by a bad person, bad things should happen to that person. One might think that this is an issue of fairness.

Even if the state’s obligations to victims and their families is important, it is worth asking whether those obligations override the State’s other important obligations. Death penalty cases are exceptionally expensive. In earlier discussions of repealing the death penalty, Washington legislators considered the fact that capital cases cost the state at least $1 million dollars more than non-capital cases. Presumably, these funds could be used for other crucial state expenses. Even if we concede that the death penalty achieves justice for the families of victims, does the state’s obligation to achieve that justice really supersede other state obligations? Given that the offender has already been apprehended and faces life in prison, would the money be better spent on schools, roads, or health care?

Another crucial question to resolve is exactly what should count as evidence against the permissibility of the death penalty. Washington made use of research indicating racial bias within the state. Should other states with similar or identical policies and practices take that same study as evidence that their policy is susceptible to racial bias? Or is any policy potentially subject to racial bias and does the moral permissibility of the policy turn on the demographics and attitudes of the particular area in question? Are all states morally obligated to be proactive in conducting research about their own communities?
 Should evidence that a single person on death row is innocent count as evidence of the inevitably error-prone nature of the system, and should that evidence suggest that we should abolish the death penalty? How many errors are we willing to let slide?
Lack of agreement on these initial framing questions may explain why the national conversations about this issue have been prolonged and frequently unproductive.

Guam’s Chemical Castration: A Just Punishment?

Recently, Guam’s Legislature passed a bill 8-7 requiring the chemical castration of convicted sex offenders before being released on parole. The Chemical Castration for Sex Offenders is a 48-month pilot program allowing for convicted sex offenders and pedophiles scheduled to be released in the next six months to undergo the castration process one week before their release, on the prisoner’s dime. These prisoners will then be monitored for progress through the remainder of the program.

Continue reading “Guam’s Chemical Castration: A Just Punishment?”