When people say, “I hate X!” or “X is evil,” it bothers me. When they say it during a discussion about ideas and about people with whom they strongly disagree, it bothers me a lot.
I’m not talking about simply saying, “I hate X,” as a way of adding dramatic effect to a statement, or even as a momentary, strongly negative sense of aversion toward an idea or person. What I mean is clinging to or indulging in that feeling, or nurturing a reservoir of hatred, or wearing hatred as a badge of honor. “Hatred is my muse!” as someone said recently, after Murray Rothbard.
I myself used to proclaim, “I hate the State.” Of course, I still do sometimes hate the State, but it’s not a sentiment I’m proud of anymore. In fact, I don’t think hating anything, whatever it is and no matter how terrible, is anything to be proud of. When I do feel that way, I try very hard to let it go.
Hatred As Poison
The change for me came when I realized that hatred does no good. It is at best counterproductive and at worst self-damaging. In a recent blog post, Bryan Caplan mentions a saying from the Buddhist tradition that captures what I mean: “Hating someone is like drinking poison and then expecting her to die.”
Now, I believe the State, with its monopoly over aggression, is the greatest cause of death and destruction in modern history. But it doesn’t do anything for me to then allow myself to hate the State. I don’t even have “cool hate” toward the State, whatever that might be. Hate is hate. (And by the way, those who hate “haters” are themselves also haters.)
What does any of this have to do with being a libertarian? I recognize that some will regard all this as irrelevant or wrongheaded. They may see hatred as a necessary, even desirable, element in intellectual discourse or social change entirely consistent with their understanding of libertarian principles. But my own libertarianism complements the Buddhist counsel to refrain from hate.
It may be easier for me than for other (anarcho-) libertarians to justify not hating the State. That’s because I don’t regard the State as evil. Indeed, that’s because I don’t accept the concept of evil, where evil is not simply a synonym for “really bad” but is an essence. That is, I don’t believe that anything or anyone is absolutely and irredeemably evil.
But if you do believe that evil in that sense exists in the real world, I still think it’s possible to not hate the State and at the same time be an effective fighter for liberty and a fierce opponent of statism.
Humility in the Face of Imperfect Knowledge
It may seem reasonable to hate the hateful. And if you believe in the existence of evil, which is hateful, then I suppose you ought to hate evil when you see it. But there’s the rub.
The world is not perfect, and our knowledge of that imperfect world is also not perfect. Indeed, the Austrian-economic concept of the entrepreneurial-competitive process, the driving force of the market, operates because entrepreneurship detects pockets of ignorance and error. There are many things we don’t know, and we don’t even know that we don’t know them. Unless, that is, we have an ah-ha! moment of discovery.
In the world we perceive, hate would seem to be justified when you can at least (1) recognize evil where it exists and (2) gauge the degree of evil present so that the degree of hatred you feel is commensurate with it. I don’t believe, however, given the inherent imperfection of our knowledge, that we can we ever accurately determine the degree of evil in a person or idea, or even tell whether it is truly present. And if we’re going to justifiably hate a thing, well, we’d better be sure, hadn’t we? Too often we feel certain, until later we discover we were wrong.
Recently, we have witnessed a sickening number of atrocious mass killings of innocents here and around the world. These actions are terribly, unspeakably wrong. Their perpetrators should atone for what they have done. It’s natural to react to them with disgust and, indeed, deep anger. But how does it help to effectively promote lasting happiness for all concerned to add that the perpetrators must be evil? Again, how can we be so sure?
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you strongly disagree with me. You may be confident that you know evil when you see it and feel it’s right to respond to it with hatred. I’ve found that many people just don’t want to give up the option to hate and condemn those with whom they strongly disagree, calling them evil or stupid, rather than simply ignorant or mistaken. Such animus is not only dangerous to oneself, but to others—especially those whose views we would like to change. Condemning one’s intellectual opponents as evil (or stupid) closes further discussion, does it not? The options that remain tend to involve exclusion and sometimes violence—neither of which rests comfortably with our ideal of a free and peaceful society.
Tolerance, Criticism, Forgiveness
I believe radical uncertainty about the social world implies both criticism and tolerance. Criticism includes criticizing oneself, too. How else can we begin to correct those imperfections we all have? Tolerance because, well, criticism without tolerance would be intolerable. To my way of thinking, radical tolerance and radical criticism (as I’ve said before) are at the root of the free and open society.
I also believe that recognizing the inherent imperfection of the world implies forgiveness. We can be wrong without being evil. Of course, if something is absolutely, irredeemably evil, what possible basis is there to forgive? Here again, I probably have a different interpretation of forgiveness than most others. Some believe forgiveness is something we give to others, but I think it’s a gift we give ourselves. It drains the poison of hatred from our system. This task is easier to do if we recognize that the differences in imperfection among us is one of degree rather than of kind.
This topic is huge—too big really to tackle in a thousand words or so. But it’s been on my mind a lot lately. Consider this piece the start of a longer conversation.