DiaBlogue: Of Anger, Hatred, and Love

Dear Alan,

In addition to the “obvious” confusions identified in my last post, your last post touched on another topic that has long puzzled me:

I have, for instance,

described universal utilitarianism

(or at least my understanding of it) as being incomplete since it “does not reflect our intuitions about how to treat those who mistreat others.”

Specifically, you were referring to your assertion of UU as metric, where you said:

His suggestion to prevent suffering before increasing happiness, while helpful for situations involving people choosing to act ethically, does not reflect our intuitions about how to treat those who mistreat others. That is, causing some amount of suffering to those that act unethically (whether as punishment, deterrent or simply protection from future harm) is not allowed under the simplest reading of the definition of UU, and I do not recall this being addressed in anything that Ebon Muse has written (that I have read). In this respect, UU as formulated may be incomplete.

I agree. In fact, this is the same incompleteness that I see in the various humanistic systems you’ve alluded to. However — lest you think I’m only picking on you ๐Ÿ™‚ — I also feel that most deistic and theistic formulations suffer from the same limitation.

On the flip side, this means that if we can appropriately characterize and remedy this lack, we may be able to resolve several long-running conundrums that have troubled not just us, but philosophers and moralists through the ages!

To do that, though, I believe we first need to deal with anger

For purposes of this discussion, I suggest defining anger as “the desire to punish those we believe did (or will) mistreat those we love” — including, but not limited to, ourselves.

This may not be quite the same as your “

intuition about how to treat those who mistreat others

” — but it is mine. ๐Ÿ™‚ At any rate, you’re welcome to substitute a different term/definition, but I hope the general concept is the same. In particular, you noted in that same post that “

Emotion has its place

” and it seems only fair to include antipathy along with empathy.

Given that, we can ask the question: what is our moral obligation towards those who mistreat others, and how is that reconciled with our intuition/anger? Historically, I see several possible strategies.

0. Denial

In modern times, this seems by far the most popular, at least in practice — and often in theory. In the eighties, there were many Christian books that explicitly denied that human anger was at all valid. No anger, no moral tension between our “intuition” and the Christian imperative to love. Nice and simple, but ultimately disastrous.

Today, I would say most leading Christian authors (e.g., Cloud & Townsend, Crabb, Anderson) recognize the value and legitimacy of anger, though obviously there’s still a lot of (what I consider) backward thinking in our churches.

But what Christians do explicitly, it seems that atheists tend do implicitly. I have yet to see an atheistic system of ethics that even attempts to address the question of anger and antipathy (except as in II, below). If you could find such a system — especially one you agree with — that would be most enlightening.

I. Hatred

The second approach I’ve seen to dealing with anger is what I might call “just hatred.” This view accepts the fact that in order to protect what is good and loved, we need to hate what is evil and threatening. Thus, anger is not bad but good, though it obviously needs to be refined to focus on what is truly evil. While at one level this hatred is semi-condoned as a “necessary evil” in order to survive in an imperfect world, at another it is celebrated as heroic: to give oneself to the destruction of virtue’s enemies, no matter the cost, is — in this view — the ultimately moral choice.

While very few people explicitly espouse this doctrine in these terms, I believe its tenets are widely (if implicitly) shared across many communities. Many traditional societies embrace it under a so-called “eye-for-an-eye” morality, others merely practice it in scholarly form: what Peter Wagner called The First Rule of Christian Debate.

While perhaps distasteful to modern ears, proponents would argue that to deny “just hatred” — the need to focus on those who would do us harm — is tantamount to ignoring our very real enemies. There’s an old saying I just learned a few months ago:

Your friend is someone who — no matter what bad they do — you seek the good.
Your enemy is someone who — no matter what good they do — you seek the bad.

If it is true that only the paranoid survive, isn’t such hatred essential in order for any good to exist in the world? Certainly, if one is working from the basis of evolutionary morality, it seems hard to argue otherwise.

II. Dispassion

Of course, some do. ๐Ÿ™‚ Philosophers and mystics throughout history have bemoaned the practice of such hatred as i) endemic to humanity, ii) responsible for the lion’s share of human misery. The usual response is to finger emotions/desire as the ultimate culprit, and preach the importance of intellectual or spiritual transcendence. This is not merely for the sake of social good, but a belief that only a sufficiently “pure” mind can rightly apprehend truth. This is more or less the route taken by objectivist ethics — especially as practiced by Libertarians who consider compassion as dangerous as anger!

To be sure, transcending emotion has some appeal, in terms of simplicity and high-mindedness. However, it appears incompatible with our shared understanding that empathy — and thus, emotional perception in general — is an important part of ethics. Plus, claims that only an enlightened few can possibly understand truth feels a bit self-justifying; at least without a way for outside observers to reliably determine who is enlightened. ๐Ÿ™‚

On the other hand, this approach does (at least in principle) avoid the head-in-the-sand approach of (0), in that from a position of dispassionate analysis one is (in theory) free to judge both our friends and our enemies with perfect truth and justice, and act accordingly.

III. Forgiveness and Love

This brings us to the final option (that I know of), which is that our fundamental moral obligation to love (and promote happiness) extends even to our enemies. Thus — while anger is a natural, legitimate, and healthy reaction to externally-caused pain — hatred and bitterness are emphatically not. In other words, we must forgive our enemies, including those who have truly (and deeply!) wronged us.

Proponents of this view would agree with (II) that hatred clouds our minds and leads to great evil. However, they go beyond that in claiming that the only way to know truth — including the truth about our enemies! — is to love. In addition, rather than claiming transcendent virtue as the basis for judging our enemies, it is a recognition of our own folly and weakness that motivates forgiveness. And that it is only when we love our neighbor (including enemies) as ourselves that we can justly judge them — by the same standard we judge ourselves, and invite them to judge us.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, I subscribe to (III). However, I freely admit that this is a minority view. As far as I know, Christianity is the only moral system that commands us to love and forgive our enemies — and even many Christians would disagree with what I’ve written here. And hell, even I have a hard time living up to what I say I believe.

That said, I firmly believe that (III) is the option best able to satisfy our UU metric of “maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering.” And that while difficult, it is not impossible to grow in our ability to forgive those who’ve hurt us — at least under the right conditions (which we can discuss at some later time).

At any rate, it is the only way I know to truly deal with anger.

How about you, Alan? How would you deal with anger, hatred, and enemies? Or do you?