Is it acceptable to wish harm on another person?

Another Reddit answer. Coincided with Trump’s visit to the hospital. Touches on various ways to see ethical dilemmas, as well as the negative health effects of cultivating hostility.

Question: Let’s say a person dying will indirectly cause me to be happier. I say that there is nothing wrong with simply wanting that person to die of some disease, say Covid-19. I have not actually caused the death. I am merely happier knowing that has occurred. For example, lets say Donald Trump gets Covid-19. There is nothing wrong with saying “I hope he dies”. My question is: What do philosophers have to say about this topic? (Asked by u/Iggy55)


Your question could be sliced into three bits:

(1) Is the death of the person an ethically worthwhile desire?

In other words, would the world be a better place if Trump dies? If yes, would this be enough to make his death an ethically desirable event? The anti-Trump utilitarian says “yes” to both. A pro-Trump Kantian (if they exist) says “no” to both.

Let’s say that you say “yes”. The question then emerges:

(2) Is expressing ill will towards a political enemy ethically desirable as a social act?

In other words, is it okay for you to root for the death of someone publicly? In this regard, one might maintain that civil discourse requires a certain code of civility, and therefore, that expressing death-wishes towards politicians corrodes an important institution. So, you might not want to express this publicly even if you feel so.

Pragmatically, you might also regard expressing this wish as a bad political strategy. This is well captured in the “hate breeds hate” mantra. Indeed, you can imagine the reaction that Trump supporters will have when they hear “anti-capital-punishment-liberals” cry for the death of their hero.

But let’s say that you decide to keep the thoughts to yourselves. You might still ask:

(3) Is expressing ill will ethical as a psychological act?

In other words, what about if the ill will is kept private? Here we can distinguish two kinds of “desire for his death”. One is an analytical note where one says “it might be better for the world of the man actually dies”. This relates to the first perspective. It is a similar psychological stance as one takes towards a relative with, say, terminal alzheimer: not desiring their death with animosity, but accepting that it might be the best alternative.

What about a more emotional expression of anger and hostility? This relates to u/doubleOhBlowMe ‘s point about the Dalai Lama, who said that one should kill Hitler but do it without a feeling of ill will or anger.

Why so? Even from a selfish point of view, you might want to notice that sentiments of ill will are typically bad for you. They are not conducive to your well being, nor to the wellbeing of those around you. They are unhealthy, just like cigarettes. And so, they are not desirable from a consequentialist or virtue ethics point of view.

Some scientific points:

  • High levels of hostility are associated with coronary heart disease. In a classic study, those with high levels of hostility were 5 to 7 times more likely to develop coronary heart disease before the age of 50. For this and other related findings, see this article.
  • On the flip side, feelings of goodwill have positive health effects. This is known as the Mother Theresa effect. In the original study, people who watched a video about Mother Teresa and focused on feelings of prosocial love produced significantly more secretory immunoglobulin A than the control group. See this article.
  • Fostering ill-will towards one person is likely to affect your emotional reactions to others, too. No one has studied this directly – no ethics committee would allow it. But consider the opposite effect: fostering feelings of goodwill to a selection of specific people leads to being more helpful to strangers in the future. In the most famous study, focusing on feelings of goodwill for 10 minutes every day for 8 weeks lead to a 500% increase, relative to controls, in how often they offered their seat to a limping stranger.  See this article. (Though note that same results were gained by simple mindfulness meditation. )

Hope this helps!

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