Thursday, March 22, 2007


My post, “Bigotry and the Values Voter” brought a number of comments worthy of further consideration.

One of those comments is that I use the term “hate” too easily. Atheist Observer wrote,

I think you use the term “hate” too easily. I know good people who do not “hate” anyone, but they are told every Sunday that good morality comes from God, and honestly believe that without God you would have no reason to be moral. They are guilty of false beliefs, but not necessarily of hate.

Upon reflection, I am going to plead guilty to the charge of using the term “hate” too easily. In coming to this conclusion, I had some interesting thoughts about the issue.

Desire’s Effect on Reason

I have arguments for my position and my use of the word “hate”. It is grounded in part on the premise that a people seem to be reliably (though not perfectly) able to see the holes in an argument where they want to see them.

For example, I think that if I could snap my fingers and turn an anti-gay bigot into a homosexual, that he will probably find it easy to recognize the flaws in the arguments used to condemn homosexuality. That is, he would likely come to see how absurd it is for people to assert that his relationships are a threat to traditional marriage – that they are as much of a threat to traditional marriage as traditional marriage is to his relationships. He will likely recognize the bigotry of condemning him because somebody else molested a young boy – that this is as foolish as condemning all heterosexuals because somebody molested a young girl.

This is not a sure thing. The possibility of a Ted Haggart exists, that he will come to hate himself and to consider that hate justified. However, the general tendency is for people to see the flaws in arguments where they have reason to sincerely look for the flaws.

This is an argument for putting oneself in another person’s shoes when evaluating a moral argument. When we consider an action from the point of view of others, this will help us to determine if the arguments being used to ‘justify’ doing harm are, in fact, good arguments.

Reluctance to Do Harm

Above, I suggested that people tend to do a better job of seeing holes in arguments yielding conclusions they do not like. Here, I want to combine that with another premise – that a good person does not like to do harm to others. He will do harm to others, but he will first need to be convinced that it is justified. The presumption is that harm to others is not justified, and that it is the duty of those who advocate harm to prove their case.

These are the moral principles that ground the presumption of innocence and a right to a fair trial in criminal cases. The good person takes the default attitude that the accused is not to be harmed, and that the challenge is on those who argue for harm to show that they actually do have good reason.

When a person fails to see the flaws in an argument that are said to justify harm, we have at least prima facie evidence that he either (1) desires to see the victim harmed, or (2) is so indifferent to the suffering of the victim that he does not care to see if the argument for the necessity of harm is sound. Both of these are wrong, and make the individual worthy of moral condemnation. Yet, the issue here is not whether the accused is deserving of condemnation, but whether it is accurate to say that they “hate” their victims.

Hate and Indifference to Harm

I have been going straight from this desire to do harm or indifference to harm straight to “hate”. That was a mistake. Hate may easily be associated with a desire to do harm. However, it is not associated with passive indifference to the harm that others may suffer.

The drunk driver is indifferent to the harms that his (potential) victims may suffer. He does not care enough to prevent those harms and seems to have no aversion to putting others at risk. If he had such an aversion, then he would take steps to make sure that others are not put at risk. The claim that the drunk driver does not believe that he puts others at risk of harm does not shield him from these accusations. A concerned individual who truly wishes to avoid harm would put those beliefs under scrutiny – particularly with so many people insisting that it is wrong, and would not be easily tricked into believing that the arguments against risk are weak.

However, the drunk driver does not ‘hate’ his (potential) victims. Casual indifference to the suffering of others is not hate.

People often use the terms bigotry and hate interchangeably. However, the bigotry includes this callous disregard for the welfare of others that is far from hate. Martin Luther King opposed those bigots who truly sought to harm the blacks. Yet, he also criticized the moderates who stood back and did nothing while the extreme racists brutalized blacks. Those moderates are like the apartment dwellers who hear screams coming from a parking lot. They look down to see a man dragging a woman into a dark alley. They do nothing. Such a person is truly evil. However, it would be nonsense to say that he hates the victim of the crime.

Hate and False Beliefs

On the other hand, the Atheist Observer’s comment about hate also has a problem. The Atheist Observer seems to be suggesting that a mistake of fact is incompatible with hate.

On the contrary; hate is not only compatible with false beliefs, it can be grounded on false beliefs. A person might suspect that a co-worker is attempting to undermine his work. He may have picked up some evidence suggesting the co-worker has been spreading lies about him, and bad-mouthing him to the boss. His beliefs about his co-worker could generate some actual hate.

In this case, we would not say that the agent does not really hate his co-worker. Instead, we would say that the hate is real, but that it is also unfounded.

The person who has learned to regard the atheist as somebody who is inherently immoral, who is always badmouthing the theist and attempting to undermine his good deeds, and who has abandoned God because he seeks to deny judgment for his decision to live an immoral life, is somebody who has learned to hate atheists. His claim that he does not actually hate atheists rings as false as the KKK member who says that he really is not racist. He only wants the blacks to leave so that he can live in a wholly white society.

There is, I would argue, more hate going on than Atheist Observer accounts for with his argument. Yet, there is less hate going on than I asserted in mine.

Hate and Wrong

Indifference to harm may not qualify as “hate”, but it scarcely qualifies as a virtue either. People generally have a lot of very strong reasons to condemn an indifference to harm, to make the trait less common than it would otherwise be. In fighting this indifference (and condemning those who exhibit it), the goal is not to promote a desire to harm. This is not indifference, but it is not good either.

The goal is to promote an aversion to harm. Such an aversion would cause the agent to question any claim that that the victim deserves to be harmed. This will make it more likely that he would see the flaws in an argument to do harm, if there are flaws to be found. If the agent accepts flawed arguments for harm too easily, we may conclude that he lacks the aversion to harm that a good person would have.

1 comment:

Atheist Observer said...

I do not claim any relationship between false beliefs and hate. One can certainly hate and have false beliefs that support it. One can also be led to hate by false beliefs. If one believes that atheists are evil people because they have no God-given morals, that would certainly be an example. However if one believes that atheists are just as moral as others, they simply don't realize that their morality ultimately comes from God, then he is no more hateful that an atheist who believes that theists can be moral, but they do not realize their morality does not come from any god.
Some people do harm, some are indifferent to doing harm, and some may be actively seeking to avoid harm to anyone.