Monday, September 25, 2017

How to Love Your Neighbors and Enemies While Speaking Out Against Them in Public

I recently looked for an Aristotle quote for a book blurb—and found it in a past talk, which I whittled in half for this week’s dance since I think it is still timely.

My title raises at least five questions.

Q1. How is love relevant to the way communities deal with controversial issues? (As Tina Turner sang, “What’s love got to do, got to do with it? What’s love but a second hand emotion?”)

A: Many of the people we disagree with about controversial issues are people we already love: mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, friends, neighbors. If there is no way to love those we speak out against in public, then either we speak out on very few issues, or else we love very few people.

Q2. Why mention “enemies”?

A: It makes explicit that the focus is wide. Also, some who led our world by their teachings and lives believed loving enemies was an ideal worth striving for. Martin Luther King Jr. regularly preached a sermon titled “Loving Your Enemies,” and regularly practiced what he preached. Ghandi once said, “It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.” King and Ghandi studied Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

Q3. But isn’t loving our enemies logically impossible, like squaring the circle; or morally backwards, like punishing the innocent?

A: Loving enemies is not logically impossible once we clarify what is meant by “love.” Some believe that love is always what Tina Turner said: “just a second-hand emotion.” But there are different types of love, and the type relevant here has less to do with emotion and more to do with willing someone’s good. Immanuel Kant argued that if love were just an emotion, it would make no sense to command someone to love; he said our duty to love our enemies has less to do with liking them, and more to do with choosing to act in ways that benefit them. King made a similar point: “In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men.”

Is loving enemies morally backwards? In his UK radio talks around WWII, C. S. Lewis said “It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible.” Yet Lewis noted “I am to love [my neighbor] as I love myself,” and asked: “Well, how exactly do I love myself?” He eventually answered: “I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do.” King made a similar point: “what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy”” is that “you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does…”

Q4. Still, how can we love someone while speaking out against them? If we love someone, shouldn’t we just keep quiet?

A: Yes, as a general rule of thumb. But in the words of the scripture that John Lennon used, “There is a time for everything…a time to be silent and a time to speak…” Sometimes love permits, and even requires, speaking out against someone. We often value our friends precisely because they will tell us the hard truths about us rather than flatter us for their own advantage. An ancient proverb says, “wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” And another one says, “rebuke a wise man and he will love you.”

Q5. Still, what about doing it in public? Shouldn’t all speaking out be done in private?

A: Sometimes love permits, and even requires, speaking out against others in public. Aristotle, about to criticize his teacher Plato, notes “such an inquiry is made an uphill one by the fact that [these views] have been introduced by friends of our own. Yet, it would perhaps be thought to be better, indeed to be our duty, for the sake of maintaining the truth even to destroy what touches us closely, especially as we are philosophers or lovers of wisdom; for, while both are dear, piety requires us to honour truth above our friends.”

Sometimes love for people itself is what requires us to speak out in public. “When Peter came [to town],” Paul says, “I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong [and his actions were misleading those we loved]…I [spoke] to Peter in front of them all…” In 2008, New Orleans mayor Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation before hurricane Gustav. At his news conference, Nagin was blunt with his beloved fellow-citizens: “You need to be scared. You need to be concerned. You need to get your butt out of New Orleans.”

John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, argues that “the real morality of public discussion” requires “condemning everyone, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candor, or malignity, bigotry, or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves; but not inferring these vices from the side which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own…”

I close by noting two rival approaches for speaking out against neighbors and enemies in public. One is captured by the clever title of a recent book: What Would Machiavelli Do? The Ends Justify the Meanness. Another is captured by the parallel slogan, which is consistent with Aristotle, influential for Mill, adopted by Kant (& King, & Ghandi, & Lewis…), and available to each of us today.

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Russell, thanks for this. It's hard to imagine a more important or timely message. Three questions:

    1. Do you think there might be a more significant connection between love construed as an emotion and love construed as good will than you countenance here? Emotionally speaking, to love someone is to care deeply about them. It is difficult to get yourself to care for someone (i.e., take care of them) when you do not care about them. And similarly, it is difficult to even desire someones good. I don't think Kant is right when he says that if love is just an emotion it makes no sense to command someone to love. Certainly our emotions aren't under our direct voluntary control, but we can change our emotions toward people by deciding to think about them and behave toward them differently. Benjamin Franklin tells a story about a political enemy. Franklin knew that he could not afford to have this person as an enemy, and so he asked him to borrow a rare book. The man agreed because in the moment it would have been churlish to say no. But he then had to make sense of the fact that he had loaned a prized possession to someone he despised. He decided it was because Franklin was not such a bad bloke after all, and over time he became fast friends. I am not a Christian, but I think Christ requires us to figure out how to feel love towards our enemies, for that is the only real route to truly wishing them well.

    2. Do you believe it is possible to love someone while sincerely desiring that they suffer for their misdeeds? (Not because you think suffering will make him a better person, but just because they deserve to suffer.) If so, how is this possible on the concept of love you say is relevant here.

    3. On your view, is it ok to love your friends and family more than your enemies?

    1. Yes, yes, and yes.
      1. Whether Kant or Jesus can be construed to mean exactly what you propose, I think what you propose is exactly right--we can influence our affections indirectly through our actions, including our "affective love" through our "active love"…and hence we can have a duty to cultivate, and can be rational to command, the "affective love" of others including our enemies. Still, the execution of that duty, and the following of that command, come about through the "active love" of discovering and then doing what often brings no joy at first: the grunt work of thinking about other people in different ways than contemptible, and choosing to be with them and help them when it ain't no fun.

      2. It's possible to "love" someone, affectively and/or actively, while sincerely desiring that they suffer for their misdeeds. Especially with the concept of "willing the good of the beloved" taking center stage, there's no necessary inconsistency (is there?) between willing someone get some of the bad that they deserve (say, in the form of suffering) and willing someone's good.

      I guess I do see the apparent inconsistency here--in the first-person case, my self-love does not seem consistent with my sincerely desiring that I get the suffering I deserve for my misdeeds, unless that suffering is likely to produce more long-term good for me (say, in character development, or living more carefully from this point on, or both). I need to think on this one some more…

      3. While it is indeed my view that it's OK to love my friends and family more than my enemies, I think I see why you are inviting me to consider this inconsistent with what's been said above: after all, my alleged exemplars here include an individual who is willing to sacrifice his own life for his enemies, and an individual who is willing to sacrifice his (willing) son's life for his enemies. While most folks would consider such behavior supererogatory, and most folks think it's OK not to do what's supererogatory, I'm not sure I have such a tidy solution available. I'm going to have to think about this one more too...

  2. I *love* this. Thank you for speaking on this (again), for it seems to be a message that is all too often lost in our devisive society. Love is not just an emotion, it is an action. One that can be especially difficult to carry out towards our "enemies".

    1. Kris, glad to hear you enjoyed the post. While a society with divisions need not be an unloving society, just as a family with divisions need not be an unloving family, I recognize that our society is experiencing a renewed "divisiveness" that easily spins off in unloving ways.

      In researching for the original talk I came across a line from Sir Winston Churchill to the effect of "you have enemies? Good! That means you've stood for something at least once in your life!" This is a sentiment, or thought, that I appreciate and even applaud. There's a big difference between trying to deal with enemies by loving them, and trying to deal with enemies by laying down and giving up, or (worse yet) becoming just like them yourself with the motto of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em." The fuller radio broadcast from Lewis brings this out nicely, when he talks about the need to fight and kill the Nazis even while "loving" them in the sense he had in mind.

  3. A very impressive array of sources here, Russell! It's hard to not see the sentiment here as noble and admirable, at least. But I do have concerns about some of the hairs being split here. I'll focus on this one here:

    "King made a similar point: “what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy”” is that “you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does…"

    Sometimes this distinction between person and deed makes sense, but in other cases it does not. Some actions are expressive of, or even part-and-parcel of the person's character. King's actions are an excellent example of this: his fight for social justice is not something that can be separated from the man. Someone who hated his actions would, per force, hate the man. Or to put the shoe on the other foot, George Wallace's staunch support of Jim Crow laws seem like such an indelible part of his character that it isn't clear to me you can excise those actions from our assessment of the man.

    To wit: it doesn't seem always possible to 'love the sinner and hate the sin.'

    1. Garrett's point connects with my second question above, in the sense that they both relate to whether loving one's enemies depends on something like a Christian metaphysics. Mean to say, that if we stipulate that everyone has a soul that may redeemed in heaven regardless of his or her actions on earth, then everything falls into place. I can love my enemy and desire him to suffer so long as I believe that this is what is required by an all-loving God. I can distinguish between a person and his deeds if I associate the person with an immaterial soul as well.

      But, I am inclined to see a human being as a physical process, and I distinguish the person from the human being mainly to distinguish those behaviors that seem characteristic of that process from those that seem aberrant. So I can hate the deed rather than the person when it is aberrant but not when, as Garrett says, it seems to flow from her character. And I lack the intellectual resources for loving a person while desiring their suffering, except when I believe suffering may better their own lives.

      When I think of people who I would ordinarily be inclined to hate, for example our current president who foments hate for personal gain, I find that the best I can muster is pity.

    2. Garret, thanks for the friendly pushback here, which Randy (so far) has also noticed--I will try to reply to each of your posts separately.

      I agree with you that some actions/deeds are (as you nicely put it) "expressive of, or even part-and-parcel of," a person's character. But that merely shifts the distinction from a "love man, hate action" posture to a "love man, hate character" posture. I find each posture coherent, perhaps equally coherent--in any case, coherent enough to accept.

      So I guess I'm saying that it's still possible (though difficult) to make the distinction in loving (between sinner and sin) that you cite.

      For what it's worth, the paragraphs surrounding the Lewis quote (from the source I gave in the post) echo both your sentiment in this reply and some of what I am trying to communicate in meeting you part-way (the short chapter titled "Forgiveness" is the place):

    3. Randy, thanks for raising this point. I'm replying to you "here" since my posting options aren't any more fine-grained within the indentation-layout of the page.

      I have heard Christian philosophers I respect make a similar point to the one you raise: that without a traditional (Christian?) concept of the self (especially the soul/spirit), modern materialism just leaves no wiggle room between a person and his deeds. Rather than quote this sentiment here, let me offer a different take.

      I think the distinction between person and deed is importantly distinct from the distinction between rival views of the self. Even granting the idea that the real person is the soul still leaves us with the fact that the real person, the soul, is what performed the actions.

      On a deeper level here, what we have is the distinction between a disposition and a manifestation of that disposition. Putting it simply (no doubt too simply), even a purely physicalist picture of a person's character can see character as a (physical) disposition, and the can see a person's actions as a (physical) manifestation of that disposition.

      Importantly, I think it's possible to love the person--the (physical?) substance which has the relevant dispositions--even if we hate both their actions (as defined above) and their character (as defined above).

    4. Randy, one more thought I should have included a second ago: the Lewis reference I gave Garret above also includes some statements affirming the compatibility of punishing someone with loving them, and on the practical strategy of trying to do the most difficult cases (he cites Gestapo, you cite Trump…) only after you've done the intermediate and easier cases (like familiar associates, family, etc.)--just as you do calculus after you've done arithmetic.