What are the moral implications of hate?
Answer by Geoffrey Klempner
I have already given a partial answer to this — or taken the first steps towards an answer — in my response to Chris’s question, ‘What would drive a person to hurt another intentionally?‘. Hatred is a very effective motivator in this respect.
You could ask whether it could ever be ethically right to hate another human being. Or there’s the more general question what we should do about the hatred there is in the world, that splashes across TV screens most nights of the week. Both assume that hatred is somehow wrong, on principle.
A few years back I had a student, Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, who was on death row at the Polunsky Unit, Texas, for the murders of his mother and brother. He had arranged for a hitman to kill his parents and younger brother, but the father survived. Lying injured in hospital, he made the decision to forgive — as a good Christian — whoever had been responsible for this terrible deed. Later, he wrote a book about it. The story was so good it made the Oprah Winfrey show. In 2018, Whitaker’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment after his father pleaded that he would be ‘victimized a second time’ if his son was executed.
It was Whitaker’s father, now remarried, who arranged the Pathways course — on Moral Philosophy, would you believe — on behalf of his errant son. (I’ve written about this in my article, ‘Philosophy, Ethics and Dialogue‘ Journal of Dialogue Studies Vol. 2 No. 2 2014.)
Would you have forgiven the person who did this, if it was your family? Would you, could you make the existential decision not to hate?
In my previous answer, I made a distinction between acts of punishment and actions motivated by malice. One could say that whereas punishment invokes a sense of justice, acts of revenge are motivated by hatred. Yet often, these can coincide. When opponents of the death penalty assert that it reduces justice to revenge, that is not strictly true. Justice can only be rightly meted out on the guilty, whereas revenge can be carried out on the innocent, and has been many times.
It doesn’t follow from the belief that revenge — or revenge carried out on the innocent — is wrong, that hatred is wrong. I acknowledge that a Christian can be sincere, when he or she says, ‘I love every human being, even Hitler.’ But what kind of ‘love’ is this? If you tell me that you love me, and in the next breath tell me that you also love Hitler, I think I could reasonably question what value your attitude has, for me or anyone else. It is ultimately demeaning, in my view.
I believe it can be right to hate another human being, when they deserve it. However, supposing that were true, it does not follow from that that it is necessarily wrong to love someone who doesn’t deserve it. There’s an interesting asymmetry there that deserves further ethical exploration.