Fiala on ethics: Love, respect cannot be taken by force

May 30, 2014 

Another awful story of mass violence comes to us from Santa Barbara — another story of promising young lives destroyed by a nihilistic young shooter. The shooter left a manifesto, reprinted in the Los Angeles Times, that contains an example of the typically horrifying moral reasoning used by those who justify violence.

The murderer resented those who excluded and rejected him. He wanted to prove his superiority over those who failed to love and respect him. He equated violence and cruelty with god-like power. He felt he was giving his "enemies" what they deserved. Guns and mental illness are obviously involved. But the flawed moral argument that led to his dreadful and nihilistic conclusion is also to blame.

Physical dominance through violence cannot create love, admiration or respect (or god-like power). Bullies, terrorists and murderers don't understand this. They resort to violence in an apparent effort to get what they want. But they also seem to know that the tool they employ is incapable of providing them with what they want. So they end up destroying the very thing they desire.

Murder and resentment are nothing new. Homer's "Iliad" chronicles Achilles' murderous rampage. Achilles kills everyone he encounters, without mercy, even desecrating his enemy's corpse. The Bible begins with the envious Cain killing his brother Abel. The terrain of resentment and revenge has been explored in various ways by Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Shakespeare.

The Star Wars film series provides a contemporary example: Anakin Skywalker's transformation into Darth Vader is fueled by resentful rage. The Santa Barbara manifesto fits this mold. A young man experiences rejection — and turns his rage against the entire world.

Literature, religion and popular culture remind us that villainous and vengeful pride leads only to the graveyard. But murderous young men seem not to care about this, willing their own deaths along with others — an absolutely nihilistic endpoint along the continuum of social instinct.

The experience of resentment and the desire for revenge afflicts us all from time to time. Who hasn't felt insulted, excluded or envious? Who hasn't been tempted to tell someone off or push back against an indifferent world?

When resentment rises, however, most of us are able to control it and prevent it from boiling over as vengeful rage. We learn that anger and revenge simply do not work to get us what we want. Most of us figure out how to soothe wounded pride with positive action. Instead of returning hurt for hurt, we learn that hard work, a sense of gratitude, the spirit of forgiveness, kindness, mercy, humor and love help to heal our wounds and create a better life.

Social philosophers describe the social world in terms of a struggle for recognition. We desire recognition by others. We feel resentment when we believe that we have not received the respect we deserve. Resentment is more than mere anger. It contains a moral judgment and develops when we believe that others should treat us better.

The agony of wounded pride is often deeper and longer-lasting than the pain of physical wounds. Resentment festers and broods, incubating plots for revenge. Revenge aims to pay people back for not giving us what we deserve, to take from them what they owe us.

But that is where resentment and revenge unravel. Violence takes what is not given, attempting to force others to give respect or love. But this destroys the very thing that is sought. Love, respect and recognition cannot be taken by force — we only receive them as gifts from others. Violence annihilates the conditions under which these social gifts can be given.

The struggle for recognition ought to properly lead to mutual recognition and reciprocal respect. This means that to be respected you have to work hard to earn it. To get love, you have to give it. And violence cannot get you what you want.

One moral of contemporary stories of mass murder is found in the resilience and compassion of the survivors. In the long run, positive social instincts such as empathy and care are much more powerful than the dark resentments that fester in the deranged minds of angry young men. Let's hope that somehow someone will find a way cure these angry young men, so that these horror stories no longer keep happening in real life.

 

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. He invites your suggestions at fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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