A Brief Theory of Vindictive Hatred, with Examples
There are three clear examples of Walt acting hatefully and vindictively that viewers cheer. In the pilot, Walt and Skyler are clothes shopping with Walt Jr. For any teenage boy, mom fussing about with them in a store is potentially humiliating. Walt Jr. is particularly vulnerable, since he walks with crutches and his speech is slurred, the result of cerebral palsy. Noticing this, three other boys in the store mimic his gait, and stammer about buying “big boy” pants. Walt sneaks around to the front of the store and assaults the instigator. He causes the boy temporary pain and, one hopes, lasting humiliation. I contend he was right to do so. He was right in that, as a community, we can recognize this response as moderate and appropriate.
People who think Walt’s actions were morally good will balk at calling them hateful and vindictive, but they are. The essential element of hate is a focus on another person with the intent to cause harm. I will present a theory of hate as an Aristotelian virtue, but even Aristotle is of two minds. Aristotle says, “No amount of malice is moderate.”2 However, Aristotle also says “The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised.”3 Negative emotions like hate, when vented through appropriate vindictive actions, can be virtuous. Jeffrie Murphy is one of the few to offer a qualified endorsement of hate. For Murphy, retributive and vindictive passions are part of human nature. They must be satisfied to secure moral goods.4 Thomas Scanlon endorses the emotions that Murphy would call hate, and many actions that Murphy would call vindictive, but uses a different word: “blame.”5 Scanlon condones withholding social obligations or beneficial actions toward one who we blame, but not actively causing offense, harm, or injury. But I don’t see a meaningful difference between an act and an omission when both are intended to cause harm or hurt to an individual. My discussion owes much to these two scholars. But throughout I will use the word “hate” to name the virtue I am describing because that word brings with it the necessary connotations of malice toward an individual.
We are uncomfortable with hate for many reasons. The most basic argument against hate is that controlling the desire to hurt other people is essential for remaining a member of a moral community. But the need to control an impulse does entail the need to eliminate it. One could argue from the lessons of our dominant religious traditions. These tell us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, and forgive. However, theologians have devoted centuries of moralizing to making these absolutist claims more consistent with human nature. We could also hold up examples from Breaking Bad: Walt himself provides an image of the hateful person as irrational, obsessive, and self-destructive. In Nietzsche’s phrase, Walt is like a scorpion turning its poisoned sting against itself.6 However, Nietzsche’s scorpion consumes itself with resentment because it is impotent to act, not because it hates.7 Walt demonstrates that repressed hatred is soul-crushing. The prima facie intellectual case against hate has never been as powerful as it seems.
We may be uncomfortable admitting it, but hate is a profound feature of our culture. There is tension between our stated values and our actions and judgments. Leading politicians compete to be tougher on criminals and to prove they can torture and kill most terrorists. The criminal law and foreign policy we choose by electing these politicians does not reflect the value of forgiveness. Vengeance, and the vindictive infliction of punishment, may be second only to sex as the most popular trope in modern entertainment. Writers who need to generate connection to characters easily appeal to vindictive passions. As viewers of Breaking Bad, we may be appalled by the violence: Gus killing Victor, Todd shooting the child in the desert, anything Tuco Salamanca does. Yet, when each of these men dies horribly, we approve. In the pilot, we are surprised when Walt assaults the boy in the store, but I do not think anyone is appalled. We are meant to see Gus and Todd as cold and unprincipled. We are meant to see Tuco as insane and dangerous. But we are not supposed to see Walt as an explosive violent monster (not yet). As the boys leave the store, Walt Jr. smiles at Walt. Walt looks both scared and proud of himself. We are meant to see a man standing up for his son. The writers know they can appeal to this emotive judgment.
Walt’s action in the store is one of hatred, but is it virtuous? My definition of virtue is mostly Aristotelian, with a Stoic twist. In general, a virtue must produce some moral good. It must be a habit or state of character. It must admit of excess and defect, with the mean respected as virtuous. These are basic Aristotelian concepts. The Stoic twist is that hate is an ancillary virtue. Wisdom is a virtue that is good in itself and secures some good. It is good to be wise, and wise people flourish. As an ancillary virtue, hate is not good in itself, but secures some good. So there are additional restrictions.
There are two moral goods secured by Walt’s action in the store: Walt Jr.’s self-esteem and a reinforcement of community norms. Self-esteem is the recognition of one’s proper value and place in a moral community. This moral good is required for human happiness and flourishing. Self-esteem can be diminished or reinforced by the actions of others.8 Walt asserted Walt Jr.’s value as a person in the face of those who had tried to diminish and lessen him. He demonstrated that Walt Jr. was neither a lesser being nor a proper object of ridicule. Moderate retribution confirms Walt Jr.s moral standing. Adam Smith shares the ambivalence people have toward hatred (which he calls resentment), but endorses this justification of vindictive hatred:
There is no passion, of which the human mind is capable, concerning who's justice we ought to be so doubtful, concerning who’s indulgence we ought to so carefully consult our natural sense of propriety, or so diligently to consider what will be the sentiments of the cool impartial spectator. Magnanimity, or regard to maintain our own rank and dignity and society, is the only motive which can ennoble expressions of this disagreeable passion. This motive must characterize our whole style and deportment ... When resentment is guarded and qualified in
this manner it may be admitted to be even generous and noble.9
Hatred aimed at those who degrade us is justified, but must be enacted well and moderately. A little vindictive hatred creates an ancillary good by reinforcing social norms. To use a newly popular term in the philosophical literature, the boys who make fun of Walt Jr. are “assholes.” They have an inflated sense of their own value and are dismissive and degrading to those around them.10 Not long ago, a person with a disability would have been an object of shame and pity. The boy’s behavior would have been dismissed as boys being boys. Yet, Walt’s action clearly asserts that this is not the case here and now. As passive observers of Walt’s reaction, we might have hoped for a less violent action in showing that their behavior puts them outside the moral community, but something needed to be done.
The second requirement is that the virtue have an excess, a defect, and a socially accepted mean. The excess of hate is easy to describe. As Smith notes, we often feel insults aimed at us to be worse than an impartial observer might judge. So we may hate disproportionately to the harm or hurt inflicted. We also can be excessive in our feelings about the amount of retribution required. If Walt believed that the boys deserved to experience life as Walt Jr. does, he might have beaten the instigators so badly that they, too, were mobility impaired for the rest of their lives. Or, we can hate too single-mindedly. Even when the person we hate merits hatred and the action we intend is moderate, we can still be consumed with desire for this revenge. Gus Fring is undone by this form of excessive hatred for Hector Salamanca.
No character in Breaking Bad exhibits the defect, too little hate, but examples are not very hard to imagine. Jean Hampton describes a rape victim who does not believe she has been violated.11 In Hampton’s example, this woman does not see herself as having sufficient value to be wronged by another person. Hampton recognizes this is a completely inaccurate sense of self-esteem. As independent observers, we hope that the community punishes her attacker through public recognition that he violated her dignity. The hate directed at a rapist is a basic human response to the violation of one’s dignity. Someone who does not believe they are worthy of feeling this hatred is objectively wrong.
The mean, as Aristotle tells us, is different for each person, so self-esteem is a subjective good. Assuming a person has an appropriate sense of self-esteem, the response necessary to assert their moral worth, to their own satisfaction, will be different. As a parent, my advice to Walt Jr. would be that a virtuous response to teasing should make him feel proud of himself. I don’t know what that would be for him, but finding it is crucial for developing and asserting his own sense of worth as a member of the community. This is the most significant point about virtuous hate: it is assertive, but not commensurate. Virtuous hate does not balance the scales of justice (in many cases, the scales cannot be balanced). Jeffrie Murphy provides a perfect picture of moderate hatred:
Speaking (as almost any Irishman can) from extensive personal experience as a rather vindictive person, I believe that I've often gotten even with people by actions that were moderate and proportional-perhaps involving nothing more than a few well selected (and hopefully hurtful) words or by actions no more extreme than no longer extending lunch invitations or rides to work with them ... Rarely have I been dominated by my vindictive feelings. I often let them float harmlessly in the back of my mind until an appropriate occasion for their expression occurs.12
In fiction, hateful characters are deep and broody, vindictive actions are dramatic and violent. Hate in real life is not necessary like this. A witty remark or the withholding of a social nicety is often enough to assert one’s value and signal that some behavior was inappropriate. In real life many people don’t brood, as they have Murphy’s proper disposition to act when the occasion arises.
The value of an Aristotelian virtue is judged by the role it plays in community standards of flourishing.13 Here we get mixed messages. We are told that vindictive passions are harmful to our own flourishing. On the other hand, we live in a culture that encourages individuals to vigorously assert and defend their self-worth in a harsh and competitive environment. We are told to forgive. But we voraciously consume revenge stories in fiction and on social media. In the episode “Cancer Man,” we meet Ken. Ken’s license plate, “KEN WINS,” tells us that Ken is an asshole. At the bank Ken loudly rates the attractiveness of the tellers. At a gas station he honks at an old woman who is moving too slowly. All the while he is on his phone, proclaiming himself to be the most awesome person in Albuquerque. Those who bear the brunt of his self-absorbed pronouncements are hurt and offended. Witnesses to his actions cringe. At the gas station, Walt pops Ken’s hood, lays the squeegee across the battery terminals, and walks away as the car shorts out and catches fire. Ken is not amused. Everyone else is. This is only virtuous in fiction.
In fiction we appreciate the dramatic over the moderate; in real life, blowing up a car is extreme. This constant diet of fictional excess clouds our understanding of moderation. In real life, words, wit, and small actions have power. There are many moderate hateful responses to Ken. The bank teller could go on break when Ken gets to the front of the line. Ken’s coworker could put his call on speaker, making Ken an object of ridicule for the office. These actions are malicious. They cause minor harm. If they were done to an innocent person, or if they were done to Ken because he is of a particular race or ethnicity, the person doing them would be condemned. We may not call these small actions “hateful” because we all do them and they don’t rise to the explosive level of Walt’s revenge as seen on television. But this reflects the lack of appropriate language for the virtue of moderate hate, not a lack of community standards for moderate hate directed at assholes.
The Stoic twist in this definition of virtue comes from Peter Abelard. The Stoic tradition holds that the virtues are unified. There is one virtue, usually justice or prudence, and all the other “virtues” are really just this one virtue expressed in different contexts. For Abelard the primary virtue is justice. The other virtues are ancillary virtues. Abelard argues, for example, that prudence is the ability to tell right from wrong. But this is only a virtue if one then chooses what is right. Similarly, many immoral actions display the qualitative elements of courage. Courage is only a virtue when the courageous person does what is right.14 Walt displays great courage when he sets up Gale to be executed and confronts Gus as his only remaining option to stay in business. Yet in no way are Walt’s actions virtuous. Hatred is an ancillary virtue of this kind. Hate is not good in itself, it is only virtuous when it secures other moral goods.
There is a difference between courage and hate. Courage is something we have to work hard to have. The virtuous persons must strengthen and increase their courage. Often the virtue is its own reward. The satisfaction received is simply from having had the courage to do what is right. Hate is something we have, but don’t necessarily want. Because we are more likely to err in excess with hatred, virtuous hate does not require strength the way courage does. Instead, it requires a great deal of self-awareness and self-control. There is much hard work involved in developing virtuous hatred, but this is just a different kind of work.
People can reasonably balk at these examples, saying that assaulting the boys or blowing up Ken’s car are not in fact virtuous acts because of Walt’s violence. But there is one instance where Walt unequivocally exhibits virtuous hatred. Bogdan Wolynetz owns the car wash where Walt works a second job, the same business that Walt eventually buys as a money-laundering front. Bogdan never misses an opportunity to belittle Walt. He even refuses to sell the car wash to Skyler because Walt is not man enough to negotiate the offer himself. In “Cornered,” Walt goes to get the keys after the sale and Bogdan tells him that the boss needs to be tough. He is not apologizing for his past behavior. He is intimating that Walt is too weak. He tells Walt to ask his wife for help. Walt is not bothered by the petty sexism here. Bogdan is a nasty man trying to degrade Walt. Believing he has sold an expensive problem to an unknowing Walt, Bogdan reminds him that the sale is “as-is” (Skyler has conned Bogdan into thinking the car wash has serious wastewater problems). On his way out, after insulting and privately gloating at having cheated Walt, he asks for the ceremonial framed first dollar that was left on the office wall. Bogdan is obviously hurt when Walt refuses to return this memento, reminding Bogdan that the sale was “as-is.” Bogdan leaves. Walt puts the dollar into the vending machine and enjoys a particularly satisfying Diet Coke.
All the elements of virtuous hatred are here. Bogdan had been intentionally and knowingly degrading to Walt. Even in Season Four when we know of Walt’s crimes and that he and Skyler have tricked Bogdan into selling the car wash, Bogdan is still an asshole. Since quitting the car wash, Walt had not been consumed with resentment or revenge fantasies. With respect to Bogdan, Walt does not even come close to the picture of a man consumed by hate. Keeping the framed dollar bill was mildly injurious to Bogdan (were this a prized possession Bogdan would have remembered to pack it, or maybe asked for it twice).
The injury to Bogdan is much less than that suffered by Walt, but Walt is satisfied. The virtuous hatred is assertive, not commensurate.
At this point it can be objected that Walt’s action is morally permissible, but not virtuous. The objection reflects the prima facie argument against malice. Wouldn’t it be better to just let it go? In the store with Walt Jr., Skyler says in the pilot, “Just ignore them, they don’t matter.” But this is just not true. The boys in the store and other assholes like Ken, and Bogdan do matter. If we are to live in a moral community of mutual respect, those who inappropriately degrade others cannot just be ignored. The objection, and Skyler’s words, reflects a Stoic influence: feeling injured is a failure on your part. You allowed yourself to feel hurt. Vindictive passions are always inappropriate because they are always misdirected. The view has been influential as an ideal, but has never been widely practiced. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca describes how the wise man avoids insults:
The wise man is slighted by no one because he is conscious of his own greatness, and assures himself that no one is accorded so much power over him; he does not need to overcome feelings of annoyance or distress he does not even experience them ... The wise man can dismiss the proud, the arrogant, and those who are corrupted by prosperity—these are the people from whom insults come—by the noblest virtue magnanimity. He will understand that all other men are his inferiors.15
This line of thought is appealing when we think about established power hierarchies. Professors, for example, should not allow themselves to feel vindictive hatred toward a grumpy freshman. But on a larger scale, this Stoic view should not be held up as an ideal. In a diverse community of moral equals, there will always be conflict. A person who is so far above the fray that nothing others do is significant to him cannot be an equal member of a moral community.16 Many people will feel it is beneath them to respond vindictively, even when a simple word like “asshole” would suffice. John Stuart Mill’s advice in On Liberty for calling out fools applies to the kind of assertive confrontation I am advocating. “It would be well, indeed, if this good office were much more freely rendered than the common notions of politeness at present permit.”17