Wishing for Harm

Philosophers lately have been writing about what is the proper reaction to Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. Mostly, they have taken to writing how it is wrong to wish that the course of his illness goes badly for him.

For example, Sasha Mudd, assistant professor of philosophy at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, writes in an op-ed in The New York Times: “I am not debating whether it is morally wrong to wish for the president’s death. It is wrong. Full stop.”

Brendan de Kenessey, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, writes in an op-ed in The Washington Post: “We should not want Trump to suffer from a disease.”

Mudd’s and de Kenessey’s arguments are different, but they each talk about the rightness or wrongness of wishing or wanting someone—in this case, Trump—to suffer harm. This is kind of a mistake.

It may be wrong to harm someone, even someone who has acted wrongly themselves. My neighbor may often yell loudly late into the night, annoying me and everyone around him. It would be wrong of me to silence him by giving him a poison that makes him unable to speak. But it doesn’t follow from the wrongness of poisoning him in order to permanently silence him that it is wrong to just wish for him to be permanently silenced.

Generally, it doesn’t follow from the wrongness of me bringing about some state of affairs that it is wrong for me to wish for that state of affairs.

Why not? The answer has to do with what a wish is.

photograph by Justin Weinberg

1. Wishes, Like Other Desires, Are not Chosen

The first thing to note is that a wish is a kind of desire. As we’ll see later, wishes are different from other kinds of desires, but for now what matters is what they have in common with other desires: they are not chosen.

The ideas of right and wrong are about what one should do, what one is permitted to do, and what one shouldn’t do. They are categories applied to actions that an agent may choose, such as whether to tell the truth or lie, or whether to steal something, or whether to cheat or play by the rules, and so on. They don’t apply to an agent’s unchosen circumstances or involuntary activities or behavior about which they have no choice. Someone hasn’t acted wrongly if they are born disabled or not, or born into a poor or wealthy country. They haven’t acted wrongly by breathing or sweating or feeling pain or having a thought enter their mind.

To talk about desires being right or wrong, then, is to presume that they are chosen. And the thing is, most desires are not chosen. We have almost no control over the desires that appear to us, and only incomplete and indirect effects on ridding ourselves of certain desires or avoiding them. Desires of all sorts appear to all sorts of people owing to all sorts of stimuli in ways we don’t quite understand or know how to influence. Except in unusual circumstances, we don’t choose them, and so we do not talk about having them as being right or wrong.

We do talk about the rightness and wrongness of choosing to act on certain desires, but that’s distinct from having the desires themselves. We also talk about whether it’s good or bad for people to have certain desires, either good or bad for themselves, for others, for the world, etc., and good or bad in both moral and nonmoral ways (such as a desire for power over others having morally bad effects or a desire for sugary foods being unhealthy). But that, too, is distinct from it being right or wrong to have certain desires. And we do talk about it being right or wrong to express one’s desires, but note that we are now talking about a choice of what to do, not the mere having of a desire.

One reason it’s a mistake to think that it’s wrong to wish that Trump suffer is that wishes are a kind of desire and generally, desires, being unchosen, are not the kinds of things that can be wrong.

2. Wishes, Unlike Other Desires, Are Disconnected from Reasons for Action

The second reason to think there’s a problem with the idea that wishing harm to somone is wrong has to do with the way that wishes are different from other desires.

A wish is a kind of desire, but is different from typical desires. What marks a wish out from other kinds of desires is its disconnection from our reasons for action.

If you have what we can call an “ordinary desire” for, say, popcorn, you (a) have both an idea of how you’d like the world to be (one with you having popcorn) and you (b) take yourself to have a reason to make the world that way (say, by making popcorn). This is the case even if you end up not making yourself popcorn because of a countervailing reason (say, you don’t want to spoil your appetite for dinner).

If you have, instead, a wish for popcorn, then you have that first part—the idea of how you’d like the world to be (one with you having popcorn)—but you don’t have the second part; you don’t take yourself to have a reason to make the world that way (say, by making popcorn). You’d be delighted if by magic some popcorn suddenly appeared, but the wish for popcorn plays no role in any action you are taking that’s aimed at acquiring popcorn.

Our everyday conversations don’t always track this distinction between ordinary desires and wishes, but I think that’s just because everyday conversations reasonably lack precision, not because the distinction is all that revisionist. It seems to me that most anyone wishing that Trump suffers from his illness is wishing for it in the sense I’ve articulated here. They don’t take that wish to play any role in supporting reasons for action aimed at making it the case that Trump suffers from his illness.

If the mental state of having of a wish isn’t even connected to any reasons for action aimed at the object of that wish, it is hard to see what the basis of calling the wish wrong (or right) could be.

Judgments of right or wrong apply to choices to act. In the previous section, it was the fact that wishes are unchosen that makes them unsuitable subjects for judgments of right or wrong. Here, I’m drawing attention the fact that wishes are not about taking action. That, too, renders them unsuitable subjects for judgments of right or wrong.

(I happen to think that this latter consideration is sufficient, such that even if some wishes are chosen, their status as disconnected from reasons for action is enough to insulate them from judgments of right and wrong, but I won’t argue for that here.)

3. Wishes Are not Magic

If merely having a wish for some state of affairs to come about made it more likely that that state of affairs would come about, then wishing for a state of affairs in which someone is harmed, thereby making it more likely that that someone is harmed, might indeed be wrong.

But wishes aren’t magic.

I’ve argued that talk about the rightness or wrongness of wishes is a kind of category mistake. But to say that wishes are not the kind of thing that can be wrong to have is not to deprive us of the means by which to make judgments about them. As I noted above, it may be good or bad for various reasons that certain people have certain desires or wishes. We might ask, then: is it bad to have wishes that Trump suffer? I think that’s a rather complicated question with lots of moral and empirical factors to consider, and can’t answer it here. For now, it’s enough to recognize that a ‘yes’ answer to this question doesn’t imply that it’s wrong to wish that Trump suffer.

12 Comments

  1. Well, if, as we see argued in a variety of philosophical traditions around the world, moral cultivation is possible and if, as many of these traditions argue, part of what moral cultivation involves is shaping not only our actions but our desires, then the above position seems to fall apart.

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    1. I agree that to some extent, indirectly and over time, we may be able to influence what desires we have. But even if that is true, it doesn’t seem relevant to the charges that it is wrong to wish Trump harm.

      Consider the following. Suppose if Joe gave $1000 to Oxfam he could save 50 innocent people’s lives, and suppose that we come to have the following judgment: it would be wrong for Joe not to give $1000 to Oxfam. But we then learn that Joe himself is actually quite poor–he doesn’t have $10 to spare, let alone $1000. We might withdraw our judgment that it is wrong for Joe to not give $1000 to Oxfam. But on the analog of your view, since it is in some sense possible for Joe to have been sufficiently wealthy to give $1000 had he made different choices earlier, or because it is in some sense possible for Joe to act in ways that will lead him to be be able to give $1000 in the future, it is still wrong for him now to not give $1000. That seems like a mistake to me. It is too indirect or distant a possibility to bear on the deontic status of his now failing to give.

      Likewise, that it is possible for someone who wishes Trump ill to have been, or to become at some point in the future, the kind of person who doesn’t have that wish, seems too indirect or distant a possibility to bear on the deontic status of them now having such a wish.

      Lastly, I’ll note that if your critique is correct, there is still the distinct point made in Section 2 of the OP that doesn’t rely on the claim that desires are unchosen.

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      1. I think Rob’s could point is that someone who so wishes has failed that moral cultivation to this point in their life – and that is the moral failing. It’s not wrong to wish Trump ill, but wishing Trump ill is evidence of our poor moral character, which we (supposedly) have some control over. So, people that so wish are rightly criticized.

        We can excuse young children and their wishes. Their wishes are often selfish, but they get a pass, since they haven’t had the time to reflect on those wishes, whether a good person would have them, and what it would take to get rid of them.

        We have no such excuse.

        If Joe had, the day before, spent $1000 at the strip club, and that’s why he can’t give the cash to Oxfam, that seems like reason to criticize Joe’s character.

        So if someone says that we “should not want Trump to suffer from a disease”, it’s really just a recognition that that good people don’t have those wishes, and we should try to to be good people.

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        1. If “it is wrong to wish that Trump suffer” is shorthand for “a person who wishes Trump to suffer has poor character,” then indeed my arguments in this post do not overturn that.

          It is not at all clear to me that good people don’t have such wishes — I think there are a variety of moral and empirical considerations that bear on that — but that is a question that’s distinct from the one I take up in the OP, and is one I can’t address now.

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          1. I’m inclined to agree with the last sentiment. Perhaps if the target of the wish deserves to suffer, a good person will wish for justice to be served, and by extension, for the suffering. (Whether Trump is a deserving target I leave for others.) But there are people who, apparently sincerely, wish for, say, women on twitter to be sexually assaulted for their beliefs. I do think that having such a wish says something about the wisher that we can evaluate, and that evaluation is not based solely on the fact that the wish was expressed. (I take it that such people don’t believe they themselves to have reason to bring such things about.)

            The point of my comment, which I think was Rob’s point, was just that we can make sense of morally evaluating the having of wishes for harm – even if we accept the wishes are not volitional.

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  2. Intriguing piece! Perhaps I misunderstand the debate, but I thought the wrongness of a wish does not arise through the wish as such. Rather it arises through uttering that wish in public. For public utterances are a matter of choice and can be reasons for action, no?

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    1. Sure, and I do acknowledge this (“we do talk about it being right or wrong to express one’s desires, but note that we are now talking about a choice of what to do, not the mere having of a desire”). But I didn’t take the main debate to be over the expression of the wish but the having of the wish.

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  3. Cogent and obviously correct, Justin. Being swamped with work has prevented me from chiming in on the avalanche of sanctimonious blather telling us how wrong it is to have certain perfectly reasonable and understandable emotional reactions to the misfortune of appalling people. Nice job.

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  4. Hi Justin. Two points. First, since desires and wishes are ‘pro-attitudes’, which, among other things, means they orient the agent positively toward the content of the attitude, I would have thought it is that orientation that is morally criticizable. It isn’t just that I shouldn’t do morally bad things, I shouldn’t be positively oriented toward them. It’s true that if we focus narrowly on “choices to act” as the only bearers of wrongness, wishes won’t be wrong. But that seems too narrow a restriction. It seems wrong (or, relevantly morally criticizable) to hold racist or sexist beliefs, despite beliefs not being choices to act.

    Second, even if we’re troubled by the fact that wishes are “unchosen” — we might have a passing fancy — I don’t think that’s the phenomenon critics are targeting. Instead, wishing someone ill usually isn’t passing; it recurs and we sustain it in attention. And what we sustain in attention looks to be the sort of thing that is at least partially under our control.

    Importantly, I should note that the above is compatible with it being appropriate under certain circumstances to wish harm to befall certain people, as Alastair (and David Shoemaker over at PEA Soup) have suggested.

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    1. Hi Matt. I like the analogy to objectionable beliefs –it’s a good push — but I’m not sure I’m moved. I don’t think I agree that having a racist or sexist belief is itself morally wrong, and this is because having the belief itself is not a choice, and the having of the belief is meaningfully distinguishable from the choices that cause the having of the belief which are deontically criticizable.

      Let me try to say that more clearly: some actions or omissions that cause one to have a racist or sexist belief may be morally wrong, but the belief itself is not morally wrong. This is compatible with thinking that such beliefs are bad for people to have for various reasons.

      I added the clause about “meaningfully distinguishable from the choices that cause the having of the belief” so as to forestall a certain type of counterexample-by-physical-analog: “Suzy pulls a trigger on a gun, firing it and sending a bullet into flight that hits innocent guy Victor, damaging his heart and killing him. Once it is in flight, Suzy cannot stop the bullet, and so she has no choice about it’s killing Victor. Your view, Justin, is that though (perhaps) voluntarily caused, having a racist belief is not itself under the agent’s control and so cannot be wrong. Likewise, in this case, your view must be that, though voluntarily caused, the death of Victor is not under Suzy’s control, and so Suzy’s killing of Victor is not wrong. And that’s incorrect.” Were Suzy to say, “I didn’t kill Victor, a bullet entering his heart did” we wouldn’t take that distinction seriously.

      How much work that clause can do for my view may depend on facts about our psychology I’m ignorant of regarding belief formation, and I would be there are some interesting hard cases there.

      As for your other point: “Wishing someone ill usually isn’t passing; it recurs and we sustain it in attention. And what we sustain in attention looks to be the sort of thing that is at least partially under our control.” I’m inclined to agree with you here, but I’d need to think more about what constitutes “sustaining in attention” and to what extent typical evidence of that (observable chosen actions) might be being mistaken for the wishing itself.

      Anyway, thanks for your comments!

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  5. Hi Justin, I actually agree with everything you say in this piece other than that it disagrees with mine! I agree that wishes and desires can’t be morally right and wrong, because these categories apply exclusively to voluntary actions. And I agree that the fact that it would be wrong to act so as to bring about a state of affairs does not imply that it is wrong to wish for or desire it.

    (In fact, I assume that most people who think we positively *should* want Trump to suffer would still agree that it would be wrong to, e.g., deliberately sabotage his treatment. Even an act utilitarian would have to make some pretty ambitious assumptions, e.g. about guaranteed secrecy, to make that come out as permissible).

    For this reason, I was careful not to say that it is *wrong* to want or wish for Trump to suffer from Covid. The claim I made was that we *should not* have this desire. Now, some philosophers take ‘X should not A’ to be synonymous with ‘it would be wrong for X to A’. In fact, I don’t think that’s true even for actions: I think I should floss at night, but it wouldn’t be morally wrong for me not to floss.

    But more to the point, I think we can apply normative standards to attitudes while denying, for the reasons you cite, that attitudes can be morally right and wrong. Epistemologists talk about what we ought to believe; responsibility theorists talk about when blame is fitting or warranted; and I don’t think either assertion relies on the claim that these attitudes are under our voluntary control. Instead, the idea is that an attitude can be fitting or unfitting, apt or inapt, rational or irrational, supported by the evidence or not – even if it can’t be morally right or wrong. That’s the standard of evaluation I had in mind in my piece (though of course, the public op-ed context and word limit prevented me from making these sorts of distinctions).

    For desire and wishes, I think the relevant standard has to do with the value of the object: one should desire/wish for p to be the case only if there would be something valuable about p’s being true. (I don’t take this to be a full account of the fittingness of desires, just a necessary condition). This led me to tackle the question of “should we want Trump to suffer from Covid?” by asking “Would there be anything of (non-instrumental) value in Trump’s suffering from Covid?” And my (to be sure, far from thoroughly defended) conclusion was that while there would be non-instrumental value in Trump’s suffering as a result of being held accountable and punished, there is nothing non-instrumentally valuable about his suffering as a result of being infected with Covid. And assuming that we should wish for something only if it has some value, that is what led me to claim that we should not want Trump to suffer from a disease.

    I completely agree with you, Justin, that it’s not morally wrong to want Trump to suffer from Covid. But I think we can rationally evaluate attitudes that are not under our voluntary control as correct or mistaken: this seems to me undeniable for belief, and plausible (albeit more controversial) for desires. And the conclusion I was aiming to defend was not that wanting Trump to suffer is morally wrong, but just that it is a mistake.

    On a different note, I think your analysis of the distinction between wishes and other desires is spot-on.

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