Can it ever be right to hate?

John asked:

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.

2 thoughts on “Can it ever be right to hate?

  1. I disagree with “I believe it can be right to hate another human being, when they deserve it.”

    Hatred is an emotional reaction, of fear and aggression directed at a perception, which in-itself does no harm to the hated but can mentally and physically harm the hater and lead to irrational, frequently unjustified, acts of aggression. This is true whether you are the criminal or the victim. Since a healthy, peaceful mind would not cause undue, hateful harm to another, how can one ethically justify desert. Also, hate crimes are frequently racially motivated and perceived deserved.

    Love is a very ambiguous word, used in many ways, but it can be defined as the desire for the good of another person, regardless of merit. A criminal deserves punishment, as restriction from society, for the good of the criminal and others, and this can be an act of love: as the respect for the humanity of an ignorant person and in the protection of other victims.

  2. What is love? What is hatred? Love is to unconditionally want what is good for someone or something and the stronger this feeling, the stronger the love. Therefore, it may make sense for someone to say that he loves mankind, that he loves everybody, even though that love can’t be compared to the love of his sweetheart.

    Hatred would be the opposite: A feeling of wishing what is bad for someone. Therefore, yes, hatred is always bad.

    That is also why hatred is so inextricably connected to the desire for revenge. It is an irrational feeling since no benefit can be derived from it. People may even be willing to injure themselves to achieve revenge, and they succumb to their own hatred. (If there is also a benefit, like ridding the world of a dangerous person, that constitutes a reduction or a modification of the unmixed feeling of hatred and revenge. The police and justice system are not supposed to hate anyone.)

    Still, it is a human feeling that we all recognize along with all our other self-defeating inclinations. We can understand very well when a murderer is hated, and it often appears to be contrary to nature to forgive him. But forgiving and resisting hatred is actually in accordance with nature since it is rational. Nature is always rational and only humans are capable of acting contrary to reason, but since we are rational creatures, it is our moral obligation to fight our irrational desire for revenge and hatred.

    Why would we want to injure anyone if there’s no advantage in it to ourselves or anyone else? If the murderer prospers, so what? As long as he doesn’t pose any further danger to anyone, we might as well leave him alone with his own conscience.

    Hatred is poison in our own mind. We have all had that gnawing feeling that does us no good at all. Even if someone seems to “deserve” our hatred, how can it ever be right to hate them and injure ourselves in the process?

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