On “Wishing Someone Dead”

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.

23 Replies to “On “Wishing Someone Dead”

  1. Ooo, interesting as always! I agree that it may be permissible to wish for someone’s death; indeed, it may be more than permissible. But I don’t quite follow the second bit of reasoning. I don’t understand how an “act of God” could at all communicate my anger, or the “message” of my anger. First, we can ask: could an “act of God” (AoG) communicate anything (except God’s thoughts/intentions/feelings if we are operating in a theistic context, but I assume we are not)? And second, we can ask: can it communicate the moral demand of my anger in particular? I do see that the AoG could cause its “victim” to form the belief that they have done wrong. But why think it would cause its victim to recognize their wrongdoing and/or reform *as a response to our demand for acknowledgement/repentance*, which is, I understood, what anger seeks? Unless that victim somehow is confused enough to experience the AoG as expressing a demand from the one(s) he has wronged. Unless the wrongdoer will experience his suffering as an express message from the Erinyes on our behalf (which seems improbable), I don’t see the communicative justification for the death-wishing.

  2. Indeed, Olivia, it seems to me clear to me that it would be a paradigmatic thought on the part of the wronged party to wish for God to strike the wrongdoer down. But this is to wish something more than, and different from, “communication”. It is to root for the person to get hurt or more. But as I think you agree, this does not hurt Shoe’s conclusion here, but rather his thought that “anger’s most fundamental motivational impulse is to communicate to the wronger a demand for acknowledgment and repentance.”

  3. Right. Does anger want communication, or does it want pain, or does it just want the target to learn a lesson, painfully? I’m not sure about the middle option, but the last one at least seems plausible, for at least some flavors of anger. A Karmic lesson might actually be what we, the angry, would sometimes prefer.

  4. Does what the wish does to the wisher or wishers get included in the possible consequences of wishing someone dead? For example, does a habit of wishing a person’s death prevent the wisher’s acknowledgement of a good resulting from the action or policy of the person whose death is wished? And what results from this failure to see or acknowledge worthy actions?

  5. Are wishes morally evaluable as right or wrong? I’m inclined to think that these deontic concepts are only applicable to things which are subject to volitional control. Is wishing? It is when it takes the form of throwing a fountain in a coin or of reciting doggerel while gazing at a star, but if the “wish” is really just a desire or a hope that the wisher can’t help having then calling it wrong seems like a category mistake. It might be vicious or in some other way reflect badly on her character, but it’s not wrong.

  6. Thanks, Olivia! I’m not a retributivist, where the aim is suffering precisely for a wrong, and so requires a kind of proportional suffering for the wrong in light of the wronger’s desert for that suffering, and the suffering is causally related to the wrong and wronger. I instead think that anger evaluates a slight as such and so aims for the message to be communicated to the wronger in a way that will get the wronger to acknowledge the wrong and be remorseful for it. That means that the communication need not be delivered by the wronged person or that the wronger recognize it as a communication by that person. A message can thus be delivered that is causally disconnected from the wronger’s wish/aim. When the event that occurs is sufficiently closely-related to the original wrong so that the wronger “gets it,” that’s good enough, especially if you have no other way to communicate the wrong to that person.

  7. Thanks, Lauren! Yes, corrosive prudential consequences matter. But then it’s not the wishing as such that’s worrisome, only the possibly corrosive consequences of being a “wisher.”

  8. Thanks, Dale! I included something along the lines of what you say in the original draft, but I took it out. I will say that I believe attitudes are subject to moral evaluation (whether as just a matter of responsibility or as a matter of character), but I’m probably inclined to the view that there’s nothing deontically relevant to wishes, yes.

  9. I find it hard to believe that wishing anything could be wrong, regardless of the underlying attitudes. I’m inclined to think that our imaginations are no one else’s business and that we shouldn’t be in the habit of censoring our own minds. That said, I can see how certain forms of wishing (indeed, maybe all forms), though occasionally cathartic, could become compulsive, distracting, unhealthy, and, generally, prudentially unwise.

  10. Another quick thought: x’s death, in particular, seems like pretty poor way to communicate something to x. Where death is, they are not. So even if you think that the communicative aim could sometimes justify ill-wishing, *this particular form* of ill-wishing will misfire.

  11. Right-o, Olivia. That second reason will only get you to wishing ill of someone, or perhaps wishing for a sickness unto (almost) death.

  12. Interesting post, Dave. And very interesting exchanges in the comments.

    I wonder if there’s a relevant distinction here along the following lines (I’m not sure I can articulate it precisely). What I have in mind is (i) wishing someone dead unconditionally vs. (ii) wishing someone dead on the condition that better alternatives are not available.

    I think this distinction fits your cases: you wish your mother would get better, but given that this is not a possibility, you wish her suffering to end in the only possible way, namely, death; you wish that the wronger gets the message, but the only way for that to happen, in the circumstances, is through an act of God, specifically, death; you wish the wronger’s followers would get the message, and in the circumstances, the only thing that may get through to them is the leader’s death. In all of these cases, it seems to me that you’re (ii) wishing someone dead on the condition that better alternatives are not available. This is compatible with it being the case that (i) wishing for someone’s death unconditionally is wrong full stop.

    Assuming the distinction makes sense, and depending on what you each mean when you talk about wishing someone dead, you and Mudd may not be in disagreement after all.

  13. Dave,
    Like you, I was baffled by Mudd’s assertion that it’s “full stop wrong” to wish someone dead. I do, however, have two (read, many, but I’ll spare you the details) worries.
    The first is that I agree that it can’t be the case that wishing someone dead necessarily puts strain on whether I regard them as having human dignity. No more so, at least, than wishing they had never been born in the first place which seems often to be a permissible (and possibly morally recommended thought). On the other hand, I imagine that I could replace the content of the wish with something much more vile, and suddenly it would start to put strain on the idea that I could consistently wish something and regard the target of said wish as someone possessing even a minimal sense of human dignity.
    My second worry is that even if I don’t owe Trump anything anything insofar as my wishes for continued health (or lack thereof) are concerned, I might still imagine owing someone wishes for continued good health (or at least not wishing them dead). Insofar as this seems at least plausible, I might think our wishes are sometimes subject to deontic pressure.

  14. Mike (and Philip — and George Sher!): As I said in response to Dale, I think wishing isn’t governed by deontic morality at all, frankly. But there are moral considerations in the area, including those of character and, more interesting for my own purposes, responsibility/accountability, which I do not think tracks deontic morality in the way it has been supposed by many to do (e.g., Darwall, Wallace). Wishing someone dead will often reflect that you are a certain sort of person (good or bad!). And if I find out that you’ve been wishing me dead for a while (especially you, Valdman), it will hurt my feelings, which is a responsibility response to a feature of your agency (a feature not at all guided by deontic morality). But thanks for that reference to Sher, Philip! I’ve known about that paper somehow in the back of my mind for a while now, but I’ve not looked at it yet.

  15. Ben, thanks! I read you as saying that perhaps Mudd is saying that what’s wrong, period, is wishing someone dead where there are no other alternatives? This would be a substantial concession, it seems to me. But regardless, I’m not sure what’s meant by wishing someone dead unconditionally. One would think one would do so for reasons, and if one is rational, then those reasons would have to do with an end that only the person’s death would fulfill. Perhaps you have in mind wishing someone’s death for no other reason than that I hate him? Why do I hate him? Perhaps he has wronged me and my family. Then my wishing might be guided by my second reason above, an anger at wronging that seeks dramatic communication and reparation. Here the anger’s reason comes from its correctness as an evaluation (its fittingness). Perhaps there are less dramatic means I could wish for for getting that message across? Perhaps. But anger may not care so much for such refinery in expression. Perhaps I just hate him and wish him dead for no reason? I would be an odd bird, in that case, or worse.

    Perhaps I could get what I want most efficiently were the target of the wish to be tortured for years upon end? If there are gradations in the moral badness of wishes, that strikes me as worse than wishing that person dead.

  16. Geoff, thanks! Good stuff. I particularly like the connection to wishing that someone had never been born. What’s the relevant moral difference to wishing them dead? But as I just suggested to Ben, yes, if there are gradations in the moral qualities of wishing, wishing for someone to be slowly torn apart and eaten by wolves does seem worse than merely wishing for their (painless?) death. I think the target of evaluation in both cases is going to be characterological, though, and not a matter of deontic morality regardless.

    I don’t know about wishing people good health as being owed. My thought would be that such deontic pressure is exploded by there being none in cases of wishing someone ill health, so I modus tollens you. But I like the strategy and would be interested in hearing if others think there’s such pressure in the positive case, that we owe some people (friends and loved ones) an obligation to wish them good health.

  17. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for the reply. Your point about gradations is well taken. But I’m not sure it’s getting at what I was trying to, probably because I didn’t explain myself all that well. So let me try again.

    What I had in mind (and this probably got confused by my terminology, sorry) was something like this: there’s what one should think or do, all things considered (what I was calling “unconditional”), and then there’s what one should think or do, holding certain things fixed (what I was calling “conditioned”).

    Consider smoking. One should not smoke cigarettes. But given that one is a smoker, one should smoke filtered cigarettes. So, I might wish that my partner smoked filtered cigarettes. And I might, compatibly with this, wish they didn’t smoke.

    Holding fixed that someone is going to spread a dangerous message that will facilitate transmission of a pernicious virus, perhaps it is warranted to wish him dead. But this is only to claim that it is a conditionally warranted attitude. And it strikes me as compatible with this to claim that it’s wrong, always, to wish someone dead, without any conditions. Moreover, it strikes me as compatible with claiming that what’s wrong with wishing him dead unconditionally is that it fails to respect human life. The conditions are alternatives that would better respect this; but if there’re not possible, then perhaps that changes the normative landscape.

    Now, I’m not sure how to interpret Mudd’s original claim. But I thought that this was an interesting possibility. And it doesn’t seem to raise the gradations issue in the way you suggest above. Or am I missing something?

  18. If we accept Mudd’s premise that (human?) life is “sacred,” then it seems that wishing for one to die is, at best, a “blasphemous” wish.

  19. Hi Dave — interesting stuff. Two things. First, I would’ve thought that *if* it’s morally okay to kill someone in certain circumstances, then it is morally okay to wish them dead under those same circumstances. For example, it’s morally okay for me to kill in self-defense. Under those same circumstances, it also seems okay to wish my attacker death’s. (Indeed, on some views, this might even be preferable for *I* won’t have to kill them under such a scenario,) These aren’t the cases you have in mind, it seems, but they would appear to be enough to show that Mudd (et al.’s) universal prohibition is mistaken.

    Second, the larger point seems to me that the moral status of wishing for x is largely governed by the moral reasons relevant to x. One might wish for someone’s death (or their suffering) because one takes delight in the prospect. I take it this is the locus of most critiques in the present case. But one might wish for someone’s death because one takes it to be best all things considered, or deserved, or for some other reason. (Here I may be just rephrasing your point in slightly different terms). Those sorts of wishes seem less objectionable, largely because the moral phenomena with which they’re concerned are less objectionable.

  20. Hi, Ben, I think I’ve got what you have in mind more clearly now, sorry for the obtusity. But I think I still have a hard time understanding unconditioned obligations. As Chris Rock once said, “There could be a reason to do anything. There could be a reason to kick an old man down the stairs.” So it’s not wrong for someone who’s dying on the battlefield to smoke a cigarette, or for someone with a rotten liver to take one last drink. But conditional on your being otherwise healthy and with a family who loves you, it might be wrong to smoke or drink. What I’m suggesting is that all obligations, if they are to be plausible, must be conditioned. Otherwise, you get late-stage Kant sticking to his crazy guns that it’s wrong to lie to the murderer at the door.

    Nevertheless, I fear I still might not be getting you.

  21. Alan: Perhaps. My facility with the obligations surrounding blasphemy are a bit rusty. My hunch is that that’s a biteable bullet, regardless.

  22. Matt: Agreed on both points. So the toughest case ought to be this one, the one you note: “One might wish for someone’s death (or their suffering) because one takes delight in the prospect.” So perhaps there’s no desert, merit, fittingness, or good consequences at stake. “I just wish the guy dead because I hate him, and nothing would delight me more than his death.” [Come to think of it, Ben, is this the kind of case you have in mind on behalf of Mudd as “unconditioned”? (It still seems conditioned on the guy being “hateworthy,” perhaps.)] Given what I’ve said above, I don’t see even this as falling under the rubric of deontic morality. Now, crucially, that’s not to say that it’s not something for which someone is *accountable* and even anger-worthy (indeed, I argue for just this view of accountability in RFM), but it’s just not the kind of thing that’s governed by moral obligation.

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