Sunday Sermon: In Defense of Retaliation

I make no attempt to conceal the fact that I am a moral nihilist. No, that does not mean I want the world to end in blood and fire – it just means that I am unconvinced by the arguments I’ve heard, so far, that it’s possible to establish a useful, shared, long-term, notion of “right” and “wrong” that is not just someone’s opinion. But my interest in the topic has led me to do a lot of reading because I think it would be nice – unfortunately, so far, I don’t buy it.

Lately, I’ve seen a few humanists struggle with the problem that they value human life and well-being, therefore it’s perhaps not good to wish Donald Trump ill. That raises an angle to the whole issue of morality that I think a lot of people ignore, which makes it harder to achieve a functioning moral system: retaliation.

I can’t go through a list of all the moral systems that have been proposed, but I’ll note that most of them seem to leave out the “quid” for “nasty quo” – if someone is doing you wrong, what is it bad to wish them dead? Or, even to take steps in the direction of inhuming them? The notion of self-defense is time-honored, though it’s problematic too, so why can’t we simply assert that we feel threatened by Trump and therefore we wish he would die and remove the threat of himself? This is not a hypothetical: in fact, there is solid evidence that anyone whose life depends on, say, Obamacare or social security, may have that life-line cut off. Such a person seems to me to be justified in claiming that they wish the tantrum-tyrant dead because it might side-track his plans. Self-defense seems to be a reasonable angle, if one feels the need for some justification, and it extends in many ways, which is why it’s problematic: why do we restrict it to the self? Why can’t I claim “self-defense” on behalf of a child or a friend who can’t defend themselves effectively? Can’t I fairly with Trump dead in “defense of Fred”? And, if we extend it further, why not in “defense of all LGBTQ people”? See where I’m going with this: eventually, we can add a bit of dishonesty or hyperbole or over-sensitivity to the mix, and use self-defense to argue that just about anything – including aggressive wars, as Israel does – is self-defense.

Arguments from self-defense don’t work, for me, because they’re too easily a matter of opinion. What if someone else argued in good faith that Trump’s actions would be good long-term and that we simply don’t understand the situation as it is, now. I think that’d be a hard argument to make but we’d have to unpack that person’s reasoning and weigh their assumptions about the future, and benefits, against ours. It becomes a “land war in asia” battle of opinions and hypotheticals none of which help us reach a consensus – which is a problem when consensus is the object of the exercise.

A consequentialist argument for hating Trump might go something like: “It’s good for everyone because even though Trump appears to be too narcissistic for it to register, openly disliking Trump might positively influence his followers who might care about such things.” That exposes the Achilles’ heel of consequentialism – namely that one’s moral calculations can easily justify extremely unsound methods unless we create a circular argument by saying that our methods should only be ones that we already acknowledge as good or moral. Meanwhile I can say with confidence that putting Mitch McConnell’s head on a pike outside of the capitol would postively nudge the republicans toward being more honest, therefore “the greatest good for the greater number” takes over and we can roll the guillotine as long as we’re improving the long-term situation, by our calculations.

Stepping away from systems of morals, there’s the argument from Game Theory. That is usually framed in terms like: “evolution implements a system aspects of which can be simulated in simple games that allow us to assess which decisions are optimal in certain circumstances” [my wording] That sounds awfully prone to circular reasoning, to me, but let’s explore down that path a ways. One of the situations that is often explored in game theory is The Prisoner’s Dilemma – a game with a small number of states that has been constructed so that the two players achieve best results if they cooperate. Another place game theory crops up is in the Trolley Car problems: given the assumptions of the game, what is the choice that results in the least amount of suffering, or its assumed converse – the greater number of survivors. Game Theory gives us an argument humanists sometimes deploy: the “tit for tat” strategy. The optimal strategy for The Prisoner’s Dilemma is cooperation. But how do you establish an agreement to cooperate? You “punish” the non-cooperator each time they do not cooperate. Retaliation. Perhaps we can argue that wishing Trump chokes and dies in bloody foam is a way of signalling that cooperation is a better strategy than constant betrayal. [Although, actually, in Game Theory terms, assuming Trump is always going to betray means the best strategy is to also always betray. Speaking of “sinking to the lowest common denominator”…] This is all an interesting set of ideas, and I like the fact that Game Theory can take into account retaliation/punishment as a way of conditioning other players’ responses, but unfortunately I am very skeptical that we can support any kind of moral system on such calculations simply because the situation a) is contrived b) is presumed to be honest. Since the situation is contrived, it bears only surface resemblance to any kind of reality we might encounter, and the most contrived aspect of the system is that it’s presumed to be honest. In the real world, we may play the best algorithm and still experience a negative outcome – in other words, the exercise is suitable for armchair philosophers, Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, but otherwise it’s just smoke and mirrors obscuring power and will.

extra credit answer: hit him with Ivanka and hope they both wind up in front of the trolley

Which brings me to the nihilist ‘argument’ for why it’s OK to hate Trump. Why not? I recognize that all of this is my opinion, but my opinion matters a lot to me and I loathe the guy. In other words, “I don’t care, do U?”

Let me make a note of something: perhaps you noticed that I describe certain things as “my opinion” and I avoid the commonly-seen construction “just my opinion.” The problem with that construction is that when people say “just my opinion” the “just” is often taken to mean “merely” when what they may mean is “solely.” It seems like reasonable caution to acknowledge that one’s opinion may not be held by others at large but if someone can interpret that construction as “merely” it chips away at the value of having an opinion, in the first place. It’s my opinion, damn it, and you’re welcome to it whether you like it or not. More importantly, I don’t have to defend it because didn’t I just say that I take this as a matter of opinion and therefore you’re welcome to argue with it, but it’s like telling someone that their favorite pizza topping is not really the best pizza topping.

It seems to me to be dishonest to offer protestations of caring when one doesn’t actually care. If we were to say, as Kant did, that honesty is always a virtue, then Melania was being more honest with the “I don’t care, do U?” than Biden was when he just said, “There’s no joy in being right.” [politico] Perhaps Biden is being sincere, in which case he’s the stupid one who loves the hand that smites him.

Here’s another way of looking at all of the stuff that is flying around, right now: it’s all signalling. None of it has any independent meaning beyond the embedded messages which are, “I’m trying to work with you.” and “I’m trying to show that I am a decent person. Please elect me.” or perhaps, “I have no ammunition left except to tone-troll you.”

Anyhow, if you value honesty, why not hate openly? Or fear/hate openly? One of the fascinating things about a malignant narcissist like Trump is that he really doesn’t care about your opinion; he probably does not even realize that your opinion exists. That frees him to act in what we see as unpredictable ways, because we’re governing ourselves by rules that he doesn’t recognize. Literally, it’s sociopathic, in the sense that society’s influence is largely ignored and therefore is mooted. That is the enemy’s great strength, right now, but it’s a stupid form of strength since it’s a “tell” that allows another person to predict the enemy’s moves because there are factors in the game that they’re not considering. I’ve been profoundly disappointed in the democrats’, for example, complaints that the republicans have been unfair – acknowledging thereby that they actually thought the republicans would give a shit about fairness – which is bizarre, given the history of the republican party.

So: is it acceptable to wish Trump ill? Of course it is. It’s not going to make any difference at all, so why not? I doubt it’s going to happen, but I think it’d be a Harlan Ellison-esque outcome if the guy winds up in a semi-vegetative state, breathing on a ventilator, until he experiences a crushing electoral defeat culminating in seeing someone’s hand reach down and pull the plug. I just wish he could feel my hatred, a little bit. But for him to do that, he’d have to give a shit about someone else and I know he literally thinks he’s the only person in the world who fully exists.

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In line with my observation above, that there are a lot of signals crossing the ether, consider this one: [cnn]

The four progressive Democratic congresswomen known as “The Squad” expressed surprise on Friday night when Twitter posted about its policy against wishing harm or death to someone in light of President Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis.

Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts have all spoken out about the threats they receive on social media and say Twitter isn’t doing enough about it.
That was a message from Twitter, namely that Twitter, corporate, took sides long ago. Don’t ask them to be fair: hate them and ask yourself how to destroy them. Oddly, Trump was pointing to the knife that sits at social media’s throat: make them responsible for the information that they carry. Don’t make them responsible for the information but make them accept responsibility for carrying it. The DMCA’s safe harbor provisions are where to stick the knife. If the Failing New York Times can be sued for mis-representing a fact, some garbage social media site ought not have a safe harbor that “if you eventually say you’ll take it down, it’s OK.”


  1. brucegee1962 says

    I’m not sure if you quite address this above or not, but what you wrote made me think of something else: there’s a tradition in our culture that wishing for a particular state of events is morally equivalent to acting to make those events come to pass. This may be a holdover from some aspects of Christianity — coveting being right up there with theft in the ten commandments, Jimmy Carter feeling like lust in his heart required a confession, etc. So if you think that assassination of a president is bad for the country, regardless of how terrible the president may be, then by this logic wishing harm on the president is also bad.

    There is also the “pushing the unhinged” argument. We on the left have been saying for some time now that publicly saying “X ought to die” should be discouraged by all means possible because it helps create an atmosphere where someone is more likely to go out and kill X, when X = trans people, protestors, Black people, the Squad, etc. So what about when X is the president? When Sarah Palin put bullet marks on politicians, we said that was equivalent to actively encouraging assassination attempts. If we want to stay a Democracy rather than the evil Star Trek universe where everyone rises in rank through assassination, we ought to tone down the deathwish language on both sides, starting with our own.

  2. says

    There is a point I forgot to make, which is that I would give more credence to Game Theory arguments if we were able to accompany “tit for tat” responses with explicit messaging. I.e: “the reason I would be happy to see you die is ${list of reasons} and I want your death to be ugly and painful as a message to your followers.”

    In the doctrines of cyberinsurgency the author argues that malicious property damage and cyberattacks can be construed as a negotiating ploy/message. E.g: “we burned your police station as our way of defunding your police since you said you would then reneged on the promise. So that probably cost us all $4mn. Every time they break out the tear gas we will respond with something that costs at least $250,000. This is not random property destruction this is a message from us, delivered in a way you can neither ignore or prevent. Do not ante up because your exposure to us is greater than our exposure to you.”

  3. says

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … is it acceptable to wish Trump ill? … It’s not going to make any difference at all, so why not?

    Dwelling on such things does tend to have a negative psychological effect: increased tension, hostility, and depression, and reduced joie de vivre. Not that I recommend *repressing* such feelings – but I suggest one should *release* them, and spend time and energy on thoughts and activities that might improve or at least ameliorate lived experience.

  5. says

    What if someone else argued in good faith that Trump’s actions would be good long-term and that we simply don’t understand the situation as it is, now. I think that’d be a hard argument to make but we’d have to unpack that person’s reasoning and weigh their assumptions about the future, and benefits, against ours.

    I think the stickier wicket in that case would be the fact that if they genuinely believed that, then they’d be morally justified in killing you to prevent Trump’s assassination, and you are presumably less well defended than the president of the USA.


    True, but we do call it “defense of others” in that case. The moral reasoning is the same, so I wouldn’t pick that nit too hard.

  6. komarov says

    Re: Twitter

    Another explanation why Twitter is taking action against illwishers is because it’s easier to do. I believe automated filtering of a rather narrow subset of tweets involving POTUS, Covid-19 and a “negative outcome” is fairly straight-forward to set up.
    Compare that to your generic racism and death threats, with much more generic targets (a few promintent and thousands of regular ones), and it becomes much harder to effectively filter out without too much collateral damage to precious free speech.* Besides, the usual suspects on that side have had decades of practice on how to threaten, intimidate and insult just below the radar. The elite among them have probably earned honorary law degrees by now and have an uncanny, albeit unconcious, understanding of how AIs and filter scripts think.
    Also, this is POTUS, so it’s the one rare occasion where the marketing department leans on the tech department because this one might actually hurt the bottom line. It’s also an opportunity to magnaminously take action. Look, we’re doing all we can here. (Please ignore all that inaction over there, and there, and there …).
    This would have been the same for a blue POTUS. But if some lowly congresspeople, or a couple minorities making up the bulk of the world’s population are denigrated, who cares? Not marketing, nor the bottom line.

    Anyway, why would twitter take sides? They’re a major corporation, the US government is on their side, not vice versa. It’s bi-partisan, of course.

    *Trans.: We don’t want too many Nazis to emigrate to our budding competition.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    if someone is doing you wrong, what why is it bad to wish them dead?

    What about the morality of offering petty, inconsequential corrections on the Interwebs?

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    The originally proposed solutions for the prisoner’s dilemma were indeed overly simplistic, not accounting for the fact that human beings are not purely rational. But more sophisticated treatments have introduced twists including the one you mention: retaliation.
    The moral prisoner’s dilemma
    One problem is keeping retaliation in scale. A continuing Hatfield-McCoy blood feud is presumably not a desired outcome.

  9. Curious Digressions says

    It’s not going to make any difference at all, so why not?

    My ill-wishing isn’t going to have any impact on the state of his health or well-being, so I’m comfortable saying that he could be best redeemed by composting.

    Arguing that individual negative thoughts increases the negativity of the collective doesn’t wash with me. It’s the same issue I have with asserting that violence is always wrong. If *everyone* shared the belief that ill-wishing and violence was always wrong, then I’d be the first to say that it’s a great idea. Otherwise, you’re just wearing a “kick me” sign and hoping that your assailant will feel guilty for kicking you. It isn’t your fault that someone chooses maliciousness, but failing to expect viciousness from vicious people seems short-sighted.

    In my opinion, the world would be a better place if the guy were dead. I would greatly enjoy his dying from something that he’s denied is a problem, but that merely speaks to my black sense of humor. I would do a happy-dance and get on with my life. That said, it’s not my responsibility or prerogative to take any action that would result in his death. I’d rather live in a world with less interpersonal violence rather than more, so I’m not going to behave violently unless I don’t have a reasonable alternative.

    Granted, “reasonable alternative” is subjective. Also see: circular arguments.

  10. brucegee1962 says

    If we’re going to start talking about the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a few years ago I came up with a twist on it, and I’d love to see what the rest of you think. This is a four-player variant, based upon the idea of societal competition — we don’t just compete with each other as individuals, but rather as teams: tribes, nations, and cultures. As team members, we want to see our team win, but we are also tempted to be freeloaders — to coast and hope that our teammates will pick up our slack.
    I’ve worked some on an unfinished essay that looks more into the real-world applications of my variant <a href="link text

  11. says

    As I understand it, the prisoner’s dilemma is a bit more complicated than you characterise it here.
    Properly constructed, the total negative consequences will be least in the situation where neither betrays the other, but the best outcome from the individual perspective of each prisoner is betrayal.

    It’s almost a restatement of the tragedy of the commons, in which every person acting in their individual best interest results in massive negative consequences for everyone. This is incomprehensible to anyone who believes in rational individual agent theories of economics and is an old and well known example of why capitalism does not and cannot provide positive results.

    The root of the failure in both cases lies in the perception of self interest being separate and distinct from the common interest. So long as we all consider ourselves individuals, independent of the collectives in which we live, we will inevitably continue to make dumb choices.

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