Articles & Essays

Misanthropy and Virtue – Raja Halwani

            I am a misanthrope, and I aspire to be as virtuous as possible. But misanthropy is, in brief, dislike of humanity. So can one be a misanthrope and virtuous? This is the question I would like to address.[1]

            Misanthropy has a few features.[2] Understanding them is philosophically interesting in itself and helps answer the question about virtue.

            (1) Misanthropy is dislike of humanity in general, not necessarily of every human being—one can be a misanthrope and still like, love, admire, respect, look up to, or idealize individual people, whether familiars or strangers. Of course, one can also be a misanthrope and dislike most people, even every person.

            (2) Misanthropy is dislike of humanity because humanity is a failure.[3]

            Why is humanity a failure? I won’t say much here because some philosophers have written on this.[4] But here is a general list. Psychological: human beings are often caught up in mental turmoil, such as anxiety, fear, envy, hatred, anger, self-deception, sentimentality, misplaced sympathy or pity, self-absorption, servility, and arrogance. Intellectual: human beings often display ignorance, stupidity, irrationality, lack of wisdom, immaturity, closed-mindedness, bias, self-deception, superstition, and shallowness. Moral: human beings often act in terrible ways; they lie, cheat, steal, kill, rape, torture, humiliate, blackmail, and fail to exhibit proper attitudes and emotions (or exhibit the wrong ones). Human beings also have many vices: they are cruel, selfish, narcissistic, envious, arrogant, superficial, apathetic, vain, self-indulgent, and indifferent. Moreover, they often know this about themselves and go to great lengths to hide this from others.[5] Aesthetic: human beings can be “obscene,” “putrescent,” and “packages of rotten tripe,”[6] but the aesthetics that concern me are those that emerge from the psychological, intellectual, and moral failings combined together to form a general picture of human beings, in which we do not appear to be aesthetically delectable objects, things to admire, let alone to feel awe at.

            Note two things. First, the above failures are pervasive: they occur across a wide swath of humanity, cutting across cultures, classes, races, sexes, and ages.[7] They also cut across time: human failure has been with us since we have existed, though there are specific periods when it peaks: slavery, the Holocaust, the Soviet gulags, and the genocide of animals, to give four examples.

            Second, although it is tempting to cite human goodness such as charity, generosity, kindness, compassion, and heroism to counter the claim that human badness is pervasive, remember that much of this human goodness is a response to human failure. That is, we would not need most of it were it not for human failure to begin with.

            (3) Given the above failures and their pervasiveness, misanthropy is a justified outlook. Part of what this means is that even if misanthropy is not ultimately true, we have very good reasons for believing it. Here, let’s distinguish between the reason for or the basis of the misanthropic attitude, which is human vices and other failures, and the object or target of the attitude, which is humanity itself, collectively and, in many cases, individually.

            (4) Misanthropy, then, stems from an evaluation of humanity as having failed. It is thus not a mere feeling, but a judgment of, an attitude towards, or an outlook on humanity, though one that is often accompanied by feelings such as pain, disgust, anger, frustration, and desperation.

            Even though misanthropy is not mere feeling and involves judgment, an interesting question is whether it is not mere judgement either. Does it have to be accompanied by a feeling or an emotional reaction, even if the reaction is not felt all the time?[8] One might claim that it must, because, otherwise, the concept of misanthropy would be emptied of its crucial meaning of dislike, and dislike is a feeling of sorts. But what reactions are these?

            The reactions can be distinguished in terms of their content and their kind. In terms of content, the reactions can range from the strong to the weak, such as contempt, disgust, hatred, anger, bitterness, frustration, disappointment, sadness, resignation, and desperation. Each of these can be a reaction to humanity’s failure. In terms of kind, the reactions can be background and situational. By “background” I mean the general emotion that colors a particular misanthropist’s reaction to humanity’ failure. By “situational” I mean the reaction to a specific situation. For example, X, Y, and Z are misanthropes with different background reactions: X regards humanity with bitterness, Y with anger, and Z with contempt. Nonetheless, each of them can situationally react in the same way—with sadness, for example—to a specific incident, such as witnessing a person hunt an animal for sport. They can, of course, react situationally differently, but the point is to highlight the difference between background and situational reactions.

            What matters here are the background reactions, because they are reactions to humanity in general, not specific human beings. Background reactions are not mysterious. Think of them as the emotional reaction that a misanthrope is disposed to feel upon thinking of humanity and its failures or upon witnessing a bad human action or personality. Much like thinking about one’s favorite music can make one feel joy, thinking about humanity can make the misanthrope feel anger, sadness, or any one of the reactions listed above. They are the emotional coloring of a misanthrope’s character in regards to humanity.

            Can someone be a misanthrope and not have a background reaction? I think yes, but to keep the discussion as forceful as possible, let’s say that a misanthrope does have such a background reaction. Does then the background reaction have to be negative, or can it be positive, such as compassion, sympathy, and pity? After all, we often have compassion or pity for specific people whom we think have failed, even culpably so.

            The answer depends on how we understand “dislike”: if dislike can be purely a matter of judgment, then some people’s misanthropy can be located merely in the judgment of failure, and they can have positive background reactions. Call this “soft (or “weak”) misanthropy.” If dislike is a matter of feeling, then misanthropy cannot just be a matter of judgment, but must involve a background reaction, and that reaction will have to be negative to count as dislike. Call this “hard (or “strong”) misanthropy.”[9]

            (5) Misanthropy takes humanity to be culpable for its failure; it is blameworthy for it. Humanity’s failure is not one that occurs despite us and our best efforts; that kind of failure should elicit pity, not dislike. Humanity has failed at something that it need not have failed at. If the failure is not culpable, the range of responses to this failure would not be justified or rational: bitterness, frustration, disappointment, anger, and hatred would be either unjustified or irrational.[10] It would be like getting frustrated (angry, disappointed) at your computer or cat—understandable in that it happens, but ultimately irrational or unjustified.

            (6) Misanthropy is dislike of humanity by human beings, not by other creatures who can also evaluate us (e.g., angels, extra-terrestrials, or God, though whether God can be a misanthrope is a fascinating question in itself).[11] Even if we think that non-human beings can be misanthropes, misanthropy is a much more meaningful and interesting outlook when adopted by human beings themselves, much like one’s disappointment in members of one’s own family differs from one’s disappointment in strangers.

            (7) Misanthropy can be optimistic or it can be pessimistic. Optimistic misanthropy implies that humanity can learn and improve, while the pessimistic variation denies this implication. It denies the implication not because human beings cannot improve—both variations of misanthropy must assume that we have some ability to improve in order to hold humanity culpable—but because our history gives us no reason to expect improvement.

            Given the above features, can the misanthrope be a virtuous person? Which virtues is she supposed to have towards fellow human beings if she dislikes them? The question is pressing for two reasons. First, virtues are dispositional states that often require not only acting in the right ways, but also feeling the right emotions, and many of these emotions are positive. Virtues such as caring, love, generosity, and friendliness are accompanied by such emotions as sympathy, compassion, liking, joy, and tenderness. Second, the virtues, and virtue ethics, seem to require the adoption of a positive outlook on humanity: justice, courage, temperance, care, generosity, friendliness, patience, and love all assume a particular stance towards fellow human beings: that they are deserving of all the outcomes and attitudes that, respectively, flow from and underlie the virtues. To see this better, contrast it with the famous passage in Kant’s Groundwork where Kant discusses people whom nature made “cold and indifferent to the sufferings of others” and who are nonetheless able to help others merely from duty. Now change the case to someone who dislikes humanity, but who thinks it is her duty to help others. Misanthropes on Kant’s ethics can still act from a sense of duty, with no need for the requisite emotions.[12] This is not an option for an ethics of virtue, so what a virtuous misanthrope looks like needs to be unpacked.

            Virtue ethics, however, is not an ethics of only positive emotions. Depending on the situation, a virtuous person could feel negative emotions towards others. For example, witnessing acts such as abuse, cruelty, theft, and exploitation should give rise to reactions like anger, frustration, disgust, even contempt for the person doing the action. In short, there is nothing in virtue ethics that rules out experiencing such emotions. Indeed, the virtuous person would experience negative emotions on many occasions given the large number of bad actions that occur.

            On the side of misanthropy, and given that it is dislike of humanity in general, in situational reactions a misanthrope can feel love, tenderness, admiration, sympathy, liking, and so on for particular individuals, either for who they are or for what they do. For example, witnessing someone rescuing an animal, giving money to a homeless person, being honest, and so on, a misanthrope can react with positive emotions towards what he witnesses.

            Note also that in cases when a misanthrope does feel negative emotions, he can feel them for the same reasons that the virtuous person does: because the people act badly, not because they are people. The point is that situationally speaking, the misanthrope’s reactions to individual people and their actions can be on a spectrum from the negative to the positive, much like a virtuous person’s reactions would be. So as far as particular situations are concerned, there is no obstacle for a misanthrope to be virtuous and for a virtuous person to be a misanthrope.

            If there is an obstacle, it could be either because the virtuous person would not believe that humanity is a failure, or because the virtuous person would believe but would not have a negative background emotion to humanity (she would not be a hard misanthropist).

            Is there a reason why a virtuous person cannot judge humanity to be a failure? That is, can this judgment or belief be part of the virtuous person’s (theoretical) wisdom? Given that wisdom pervades every virtue, helping to orient the virtue to what’s valuable and important and to how to act in specific situations, are there any virtues whose existence is incompatible with misanthropy’s core idea? I cannot think of a single virtue that poses a serious obstacle (except for one). All virtues tend to manifest in interpersonal interactions, and, as we have seen, the misanthrope can feel the right emotions and treat others perfectly well in such situations. The only exception is the virtue of hope because it might clash with the idea that humanity is a failure, if we assume that hope requires the belief that humanity is redeemable or is basically good.

            Here, note three things. First, a virtuous person can be an optimistic misanthrope. Second, even with pessimistic misanthropy, the virtue of hope can be retained in regards to various things other than humanity’s future successes. It can latch onto specific situations and people. So we can retain hope as a virtue but possibly narrow its domain. Third, and connected to the second point, this narrowing down of hope’s domain has no negative implications to someone’s virtue if he or she were to lack that specific hope about humanity future, because this hope is more intellectual than ethical, referring to ideas about the likelihood of humanity’s future failure or success. So its loss is not ethical but intellectual. Thus, it seems that no virtue need go against the judgment that humanity is a failure.

            This leaves us with the question of whether a virtuous person can be a hard misanthropist. And my answer is a qualified yes. Because misanthropy targets humanity in general, not particular human beings, a virtuous person can have a negative background reaction while situationally feel the needed emotions, whether positive or negative. My answer is qualified, however, because some background negative emotions might not be possible for a virtuous person. Contempt, hatred, deep bitterness, and resignation might prohibit doing some actions or doing them with the requisite feelings. For example, a person who hates humanity might not be able to pull off genuinely sympathetic actions that are needed in some situations. Thus, perhaps only those background negative reactions that do not block positive situational feelings and actions are ones that a virtuous person can have.

            Are the differences, then, between a virtuous (hard) misanthrope and a virtuous non-misanthrope to be located in the misanthrope’s judgment that humanity is a failure and his background reaction, both of which are situationally inert? No. There is another important difference, which is that the actions of the virtuous hard misanthrope would on occasion be laced with or accompanied by an additional thought or an emotion that reflect that misanthropy. Consider two virtuous people who rescue an abused dog from its owner. Each would feel compassion for the animal and perhaps anger towards the owner, but the misanthrope’s feelings might also be accompanied by her belief that this is yet another example of humanity’s failure, and it might also be colored with her background reaction of, for example, sadness or bitterness. Consider two virtuous people who feel gratitude at a stranger’s kindness towards them. The misanthrope’s feeling might be accompanied by the reminder that there are good people in the world. In short, a virtuous misanthrope’s actions, feelings, and judgments in particular situations might have added components—further beliefs, judgments, and feelings—derived from the misanthropic outlook.[13] They need not be present, of course, but if they are, they would be a further distinguishing factor between the virtuous misanthrope and the virtuous non-misanthrope.

            Human beings are rational beings. Our rationality is what sets us apart from other creatures and living things, and it has been used by philosophers and others to elevate us above them. Our rationality, however, is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it endows us with the capacity to reason well, to acquire knowledge, to make good judgments, to temper our emotions when they threaten to go awry, and to calm our psychology when it is in danger of spinning out of control. But our rationality is a curse because it endows us with the capacity to do the exact opposite of the things in the previous sentence. The misanthrope accepts that we are rational beings with a capacity for good, but he also accepts that our rational capacity for bad has proved to be the stronger of the two. We have used our rationality mostly for ill and we are likely to continue on this path.

[1] Another question regarding virtue is whether misanthropy and virtue ethics, as theories, can both be true. I do not address this issue.

[2] The first chapter of David E. Cooper’s wonderful book, Animals and Misanthropy (Routledge 2018) has influenced the discussion of misanthropy’s features, though I disagree with him on a few points. I recommend his book to anyone interested in misanthropy, animals, or both.

[3] I borrow this apt term from Cooper, p. 8.

[4] Including Immanuel Kant (who was not a misanthrope)—whose discussion of the topic is invaluable—and Arthur Schopenhauer (who was).

[5] See Ian James Kidd’s “Misanthropy and the Hatred of Humanity” (forthcoming in The Moral Psychology of Hatred, edited by Noell Birondo) on the fact that Schopenhauer noticed this about us. They also hide these traits from themselves. But hiding them from others adds a moral dimension that lacks in hiding them from themselves.

[6] Céline, Journey to the End of Night. Quoted in Cooper, p. 7.

[7] Some groups display some vices more than others. Men tend to be more physically violent and sexually abusive than women. Old people tend to be more bitter than young people, whereas young people tend to be more ignorant.

[8] For additional discussion, see Kidd, according to whom, “[Misanthropy] is not some set of propositions, coldly accepted, but a charged way of apprehending and responding to the particular ways that human existence has come to be.” Kidd’s discussion is of the topic is rich, but I worry that some of his points the types of ways misanthropes express themselves situationally and in action with background reactions.

[9] The discussion here is simplified to discuss some basic emotional structures of misanthropy. Kidd is surely correct to write that it “has many sources – a whole dynamic assemblage of moods, feelings, emotions, experiences, reflections, structures of expectations and worries, background cultural and contextual sensibilities, and so on.”

[10] If it turns out that humanity could not have but failed, then misanthropy would not be justified.

[11] One can be a misanthrope as one partakes in this human failure—indeed, even as one recognizes that one is partaking in this failure.

[12] The difficult questions for Kantians is the compatibility between the truth of misanthropy and that of human beings as having inner worth.

[13] Whether these components are added or somehow part of the other beliefs, judgments, and feelings is a complicated question.

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