This is a post on moral philosophy, not politics.
In a recent op-ed for the Stone at the New York Times, Sasha Mudd argues that moral philosophy doesn’t deliver a straightforward verdict about how to feel about Trump’s recent COVID diagnosis. There are “valid moral reasons to regard his illness as a potentially positive thing,” including ensuring that wrongdoers face consequences for their wrongdoing. Contrarily, there are reasons not to gloat, including the fact that life is sacred and Trump is a “person with dignity.” But there’s one thing Mudd is unequivocal about:
“To be clear, I am not debating whether it is morally wrong to wish for the president’s death. It is wrong. Full stop.”
Is it, though? It’s certainly a widespread assumption amongst most of the academics I know, or at least it’s their expressed verdict on various social media platforms: “Wishing someone dead is always wrong,” goes the mantra. But this is the kind of unexamined assumption we moral philosophers get the big money to critically investigate. I fully appreciate that there may be considerations against wishing someone ill/dead. But here are three reasons on the other side.
First, wishing someone’s death seems morally neutral on its own. What matters morally are the attitudes that underlie the wishing. When my beloved mother, in the grips of Alzheimer’s dementia for several years, became utterly unresponsive and couldn’t eat or breathe on her own, I wished for her death, for her sake. I suspect this is true of many, many other people faced with the care of their psychologically and physically spent loved ones. This surely isn’t morally wrong; indeed, it reflects love and concern for dignity.
But not only may one permissibly wish for another’s death for their sake; one may permissibly wish them dead for one’s own sake, as when one has been captured and is being tortured, and the death of one’s torturer is the only thing that would make it all stop.
Second, people who wrong others through deliberate misinformation, negligence, and disrespect merit anger from, and on behalf of, those they wrong. Anger fits wronging. And anger’s most fundamental motivational impulse is to communicate to the wronger a demand for acknowledgment and repentance. Sometimes that message is best communicated by those who have been wronged. But sometimes those wronged have no access to the wronger so as to communicate the demand. So sometimes that message can best be communicated by “acts of God,” such as, for example, being visited upon by an infectious and deadly disease one has dismissed as something one need not really worry about. One’s wishing such an act of God upon a wronger, as perhaps the only possible way of communicating one’s anger, may well be merited.
Third, Mudd points only to the consequentialist reasons in favor of someone being held accountable for their wrongful actions. But there are other consequentialist reasons that are quite relevant here, starting with those that focus on the harm that a very influential person might do in signaling to his followers that an infectious and deadly disease is no big deal, say, through holding a public event while still contagious to show to mask-less followers that they don’t need to worry about a thing. The death of such a person might finally wake said followers up to the realities of the threat, saving countless lives. Wishing such an influential person dead might again actually reflect a commitment to life and its dignity. (And there are of course other goods that might be produced by the death that could be relevant to the wishing.)
I hasten to add some caveats: First, wishing someone dead is perfectly compatible with harboring a range of other attitudes toward that person or the circumstances, including sadness about how things got to this point, and some sympathy for the person given their horrible upbringing.
Second, there are various ways one might express the wish. Dancing on the person’s grave, metaphorically, is likely not the best such expression.
Third, wishing for someone’s death is quite different from talking about wishing for someone’s death, especially when that person is a very highly placed public official, protected by laws expressly written to refer to people’s intentions toward that person. Indeed, I should make explicit here to any who may read this that I’m NOT talking about how I wish anyone dead, especially including the president of the United States. My only aim here, as I’ve said, is to critically examine the frequently-expressed assumption that it’s always wrong to do so. I haven’t surveyed any of the reasons that it may be wrong (see Mudd’s article for some); I have only offered some reasons on the other side so as to try and make the issue more interesting and less obvious.
Two notes. First, thanks to a great friend for very helpful comments on this post, many of which I have incorporated. Second, comments on this post will be closely moderated. Comments on the moral philosophy — and only the moral philosophy — welcome.