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Ian James Kidd takes a look at humanity through dark glasses.
The condemnation of humankind is very topical these days. Given the global environmental crisis, the rise of far-right ideologies, destabilising social and economic equality, and other moral evils, many people issue denunciations of the state of humanity. Sometimes, the talk is just that – talk: expressions of frustration at our collective moral failings. Sometimes, though, there is a more practical spirit. At the more extreme end are those people who urge the end of our species, such as anti-natalists, including the Voluntary Human Extinction movement, who say humanity should stop reproducing. More moderate positions include those calling for a radical transformation of humanity, perhaps in the direction of smaller, simpler ways of life. The collapse of our industrial, consumerist form of life may be succeeded by life with a different, hopefully better, character – a hope offered for example by philosopher and Green activist Rupert Read in his recent book, Civilization is Finished (2019).
An appropriate term for these exercises in the moral condemnation of humanity is misanthropy.
In its everyday sense, a misanthrope is someone who hates, dislikes, or feels disgust at human beings and tries to avoid them. The title character of Molière’s 1666 play, The Misanthrope, Alceste, declares that he ‘hate[s] all men’, some ‘villainous’ and others complicit in their ‘evil’. By the end of the play, the misanthrope declares his desire to flee his corrupt and corrupting society.
Although the term has largely fallen into disuse, it still has this sense: to be misanthropic is to hate humanity and want to escape from it, or perhaps to do violence to it. The philosopher Judith Shklar warns that misanthropy is dangerous – it has the power to “make us miserable and friendless, reduce us to spiritual nausea, and deprive us of all pleasures except invective” (Ordinary Vices, 1984). Hatred and violence, she rightly warns, are a poor basis for a good life. If misanthropy necessarily involves this, then misanthropy ought to be avoided. Fortunately, it doesn’t.
Defining misanthropy as ‘a hatred or dislike of human beings or humanity’ is much too narrow. There are many forms of misanthropy, only some of which involve hatred. Confronted with these failings, we can feel anger – or bitterness, disappointment, poignant resignation, or, more cheerfully, a resolute hopefulness about our improvability. And actually, some philosophical misanthropes explicitly reject hatred as a response to our collective moral failings.
An upshot of this ‘misanthropic pluralism’ is that we can recognise the moral awfulness of humanity without drifting into hatred, violence, or despair. To do so, though, we need a better understanding of misanthropy.
Molière, Shklar, Schopenhauer, Kant
Oddly, there’s not much philosophical writing on misanthropy. It’s not a concept that’s really used among moral philosophers.
Sometimes it’s connected to pessimism or nihilism, which both express bleak visions of human existence. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was perhaps the philosophical pessimist par excellence, and also deeply misanthropic. But pessimism and misanthropy aren’t the same concepts: a philosophical pessimist thinks there are deep features to the world in general which make human happiness or flourishing impossible: absurdity, meaninglessness, suffering… The philosophical misanthrope, by contrast, focuses on our vices and failings. Granted, they are closely related, but they’re not the same. I could, for instance, think that human existence is cosmically meaningless without also regarding it as morally atrocious. We could be meaningless but, broadly, morally admirable.
A recent defence of philosophical misanthropy is David E. Cooper’s book, Animals and Misanthropy (2018). As the title suggests, his argument is that an honest appraisal of our treatment of animals justifies a misanthropic verdict on humanity as it has come to be. The plight of hundreds of billions of non-human animals shows a whole array of our vices and failings: arrogance, brutality, callousness, greed, hubris, mindlessness, wilful ignorance, vanity… the list is long and depressing. Cooper focuses on animals, although we can look at other areas of human life too. What we find, argues the philosophical misanthrope, is that human existence is saturated with failings and vices, including arrogance (again), cold-heartedness, dogmatism, greed, hypocrisy, insensitivity to beauty, myopia, moral laziness, selfishness, shoulder-shrugging indifference to the suffering of others, violence, wastefulness, and doubtless many others for which we don’t have names.
Given all this, it’s easy to understand misanthropy’s critique.
However, a catalogue of human failings isn’t enough to secure a charge of misanthropy. Imagine a critic who accepts that we have failings, but insists they are relatively superficial, occasional, and localised. They’ll argue that our vices are confined to extreme situations, such as war or political displacement – conditions that force us to become selfish and violent, against our better nature – or that these vices are confined to extreme people, such as psychopaths or moral monsters, who are hardly morally representative of humanity as a whole.
It’s just this sort of moral facelift that is rejected by a misanthrope. They think there’s nothing unusual or occasional about our failings – they’re built into and spread throughout our entire way of life. As evidence, they’ll point out that we don’t need to look long or hard to find instances of human vices and failings. Sometimes, all that’s needed is to look at the news, or out of the window, or in the mirror. Granted, most of our vicious behaviour may be fairly low-key – small acts of cruelty; a steady stream of little untruths. Montaigne called these ‘ordinary vices’, since they’re woven into our ordinary and everyday habits, activities, and ways of talking. Indeed, if we think that our vices only really count in their extreme forms, then we’re self-servingly undercounting.
A philosophical misanthrope therefore insists that our vices and failings have features that help to guard their claims against the philanthropic response. Three of these features are that our failings are entrenched, pronounced, and ubiquitous: they are deeply built into our activities, projects, and institutionalised ways of life; they are often obvious, as when we talk about our ‘naked cruelty’ or ‘blatant selfishness’; and they are spread throughout the world, except perhaps for a few secluded spaces. The misanthrope needs to make these three points, otherwise they fall short of a moral condemnation of humanity.
A good example of people who do make these points, are those modern radical ‘eco-misanthropes’ who regard destructiveness, indifference to nature, and wastefulness as utterly built into our ways of life, at the foundations. Another example are feminists who argue that dogmatism, injustice, and exploitativeness are deeply baked into systems of patriarchy such that if you remove those vices, the patriarchal system collapses. Clearly, we’re seeing that there are many forms of philosophical misanthropy. The common core is the moral condemnation of humankind, but that can be motivated by many different sorts of concern – for the plight of animals, the destruction of nature, the oppression of women… A further variation is in the different attitudes the misanthrope can take, depending on the specific target: hateful anger, hopeful activism, even despairing surrender. It should be clear, too, that the target isn’t individual people. The verdict is aimed at something collective: humanity; human civilization; human ways of life. A misanthrope can like, admire, and even love some individual people – most obviously, the rare few who are relatively free of our collective failings. That said, a misanthrope will regard some individuals as especially exemplifying those collective failings. Donald Trump, for instance, is often described by her critics as a symbol of all that’s wrong with us as a species – a living manifestation of such vices as greed, hubris, and vanity.
So misanthropy comes in many forms, but this pluralism creates a tricky set of moral and practical issues that come together in a difficult question: how should a person live once they deeply internalise a misanthropic vision? Clearly, a critical vision of the awful moral condition of humanity isn’t some cold, abstract doctrine, without implications for our conduct and life. Accepting that vision means changing how you live, feel, and think. Everyone who writes about misanthropy explores this question. It is, after all, a dramatic theme for playwrights and others, too.
Within the history of philosophy, Western and Eastern, I think we can discern at least four main misanthropic stances. Here a stance consists of a dominant emotion or viewpoint accompanied by a range of activities or commitments. It’s a way of both making sense of the world and trying as best one can to navigate it – a way of living out one’s misanthropy, as it were. Doubtless there are other ways to be a misanthrope too. But these stances are the most common.
Let’s start with the two stances described by one of the most influential of Western moral philosophers, Immanuel Kant.
Buddha, Heraclitus, Confucius, Zhuangzhi
The Enemy and the Fugitive
Among the few philosophers who devoted attention specifically to misanthropy, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is perhaps the most eminent, at least in the Western tradition. He distinguishes at least two problematic misanthropic stances. First is ‘the Enemy of Mankind’, who, dominated by hatred and disgust at humanity’s failings, feels driven to acts of violence. Sometimes these might be literal acts of physical violence – the sort that aim at disrupting social life, maybe, or which simply inflict harm on others. In other cases, the violence is more symbolic, such as controversial challenges to cherished ideals. Some eco-misanthropes fit this profile: the ones who want to ‘unmake civilization’, ‘tear it all down’, or who generally anticipate the extinction of humanity with quiet satisfaction.
A second misanthropic stance is what Kant calls ‘the Fugitive from Mankind’. Unlike criminal fugitives, moral fugitives flee out of fear, not guilt. They’re dominated by fear – of what we are, the harm we do, and the morally corrupting effects of being among us. Doubtless many Fugitive misanthropes will have their own share of failings; but they seek to avoid further moral corruption by escaping. This might mean literally escaping, to a desert island or otherwise going off-grid; or for many earlier generations, retreating into a secluded religious community or another space relatively insulated from the entrenched failings of the wider world. When the Buddha declared the superiority of the monastic life, his reason was that it’s free of those corrupting influences which feed our vices – materialistic desire or sensual temptation, say.
Kant rejects both these stances, since he rejects hatefulness, although not because it’ll make us miserable and friendless. Rather, he thinks that we ought to respect the moral dignity of our fellows, even when they consistently fail. Hatred is not only incompatible with respect, it destroys it. This is why Kant judges the Enemy stance as ‘contemptible’. Fugitive misanthropy is similarily rejected. Granted, there may be no hatred here, nor impulses to violence; but there cannot be genuine human goodness without human community, either. Despite his reputation as an austere thinker, Kant affirms that we’re moral and social creatures. A Fugitive cannot flourish precisely insofar as they flee from others. Perhaps they can live, isolated and secluded – but they cannot live well.
The Enemy and Fugitive misanthropic stances existed long before Kant. If we push back to classical antiquity, we can find people who reported an abiding hatred or fear of humanity. Plutarch declared that “he who hates vices, hates humanity” – pretty much the motto of the Enemy. Heraclitus of Ephesus, the ‘weeping philosopher’, also lamented the vices and folly of his peers, eventually – so legend tells – fleeing to live in the mountains. Probably that’s exaggerated, although it illustrates an understandable desire to abandon the human world. But hatred and fear can be difficult to sustain. Perhaps misanthropy is more bearable if it’s rooted in other emotions or understandings. We can find these other misanthropic stances by looking East.
The Activist and the Quietist
The systematic appraisal of our moral condition and potential has been deeply rooted in Indian and Chinese philosophical traditions from their earliest known stages. Looking at the Indian schools, the picture is bleak: human beings are trapped in cycles of dukkha (‘suffering’, ‘imbalance’, or ‘dis-ease’) and rebirth, within a ‘wheel of suffering’ driven by our vices and failings – especially, for the Buddhist, the ‘unwholesome roots’, of hate, delusion, and greed. All the classical Chinese schools, too, share a grim picture of the state of humanity. They saw a world dominated by cruelty, greed, mendaciousness, selfishness, instability, waste of talents, relentless violence. The Confucians, lament that the rites and the teachings of the Sage Kings are forgotten. For the Daoists, human beings no longer follow the Way of Heaven. For the Mohists and Legalists, only austere moral self-discipline and strict systems of penalty and punishment could change our immoral condition for the better. Granted, the Indian and Chinese schools emphasise many good things too – virtues, wisdom, compassion, mindfulness, ritual conduct, enlightenment, the Way. But the very fact that they must teach about them is itself a sign of disorder. Preaching ethics is itself a sign of decay, of a world going wrong. When the world is in good moral order, predicted Laozi, there will be no need for sages, rituals, and the teaching of virtue.
The Indian and Chinese schools generally rejected hatefulness as an attitude towards humanity. Buddhists regard hate as a vice, for instance, while, even if they disagree on much else, Confucians and Daoists agree that the true sage is neither hateful nor violent.
The case is less clear-cut with the fearful moral Fugitive. The Buddha taught the superiority of a secluded monastic life, and Daoists too were suspicious of the corruptions of the ‘artifice’ of city life. But other Chinese schools reject the Fugitive spirit. Confucianism, Mohism, and Legalism wanted to reform the social world, not abandon it. Confucius sometimes declared his frustration and announced a desire to sail away to some faraway land, but then calmed down and returned to his moral mission. So Indian and Chinese traditions offer us different misanthropic stances.
We might call the first of these the Activist stance. Misanthropes of this kind are motivated by hope. They see the entrenched moral failings of the world, and respond with determined commitment to change this. Their sense of hope shows itself in ambitious large-scale efforts aimed at reconstructing our collective condition. This may include moral teaching, religious preaching, or socio-political activism, or some combination of these.
Confucius (c. 551-479 BC) is a good example of the Activist. There were many Activist strategies within his difficult life performed to repair the moral infrastructure. Form a community of disciples. Spread the world. Perform good works. Consult with rulers, if they will listen. Act as vivid models of the virtues to inspire others. Restore the rites and a respect for tradition.
The hopeful Activist is a more attractive figure to modern sensibilities than either of Kant’s misanthropes; certainly to generations inspired by social justice movements, climate activism, and other determined efforts to save the planet. But we shouldn’t rush to embrace it uncritically. Other misanthropes urge caution about enthusiastic world-changing Activism. The Buddha, for instance, was averse to ambitious Activist projects. For one thing, the deep causes of our moral awfulness are entrenched features of reality – dukkha and the transience of all ‘conditioned’ beings. Such causes are coped with through personal ethical and spiritual practice, but they cannot be changed by social and political actions. For another thing, muscular Activism is inconsistent with the Buddhist virtues of modesty, quietude, restraint, and equanimity. This is why we need a further stance.
This fourth main misanthropic stance is Quietism. Like all philosophical misanthropies, it reflects a negative, critical appraisal of the moral condition of humanity. What distinguishes a Quietist is their spirit of resignation. They judge that little, if anything, can be done to transform humanity for the better. Perhaps they judge that the immensity of our failings is beyond repair. Perhaps they fear that any grand transformative efforts run the risk of backfiring, maybe by giving powerful new scope to our grandiosity, hubris, and capacities for self-delusion. Better to respond in more modest ways. Quietist misanthropes therefore find ways of accommodating to our collective failings. They avoid entanglement in the more corrupting areas of human life, where the temptations of ambition and power are strongest, and seek out simpler, inconspicuous ways of living, away from the busyness and haste of the mainstream, keeping their heads down and remaining safely distant from the fray, where they strive to cultivate virtues such as detachment and diffidence.
A good example is found in the Daoist, Zhuangzi (c.369-286 BC), the Daoist philosopher of ‘butterfly dream’ fame. Among modern Western audiences, Zhuangzi is celebrated as a romantic, even anarchistic, sort of figure – a cheerful, long-haired, barefoot iconoclast, cocking a snook at pompous sages and eschewing the formalities of Confucian ritualism. Actually, things are more complex. His vision of human life was bleak. Most people are alienated and confused, he thought: painfully fluxing, ‘worried then sad’, as their life ‘rushes on like a galloping horse’, having forgotten the Way (the Dao).
Zhuangzi’s own life was one of modest accommodation to this world. The Book of Zhuangzi shows him eschewing political office, avoiding the controversies of disputatious scholars, keeping company only with a few trusted friends, and cultivating spontaneous affection for birds and beasts. Such modest strategies enabled him to live within the human world and either cope with or avoid its corruptions and temptations.
The Misanthropic Predicament
A long list could be given of Enemies, Fugitives, Activists, and Quietists. Across the world’s philosophical traditions, these four misanthropic stances recur again and again. Each shows us a particular way of trying to live out a misanthropic vision. Granted, we’d need to spell out their details in light of some interesting questions I’ve not discussed. What is the relation of misanthropy to religion? Is it sensible or fair to condemn humanity, rather than specific groups of humans? What if the misanthropic verdict is exaggerated? And even if it’s true, should we broadcast the bad news about humanity?
All of these are important questions, but we’re only likely to want to explore them if we’re already persuaded of the philosophical seriousness of misanthropy. This means rejecting the dictionary definition of it as ‘hatred of humanity’. There are many ways to be a philosophical misanthrope, only one of which is characterised by hatred. In fact, it may be that the misanthrope themself doesn’t settle into a single stance. Looking at the writings of many misanthropes, I more often see a painful oscillation between different stances – moments of angry hatred followed by resigned calm that rise up into optimistic hope and back again. Confucius often wanted to give up, but was always pulled back by his hope for humanity. Into his later years, however, his Activism gave way to a resigned Quietism. What this suggests is that the real philosophical task isn’t about living out a single misanthropic stance; it’s about dealing with the emotionally and morally difficult oscillation between stances. Coping with this is the heart of the misanthropic predicament.
© Dr Ian James Kidd 2020
Ian James Kidd is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Nottingham. His website is www.ianjameskidd.weebly.com.
• This article is the text of the George Ross Memorial Lecture given at the Philosophy Now Festival in London in January 2020. You can watch it online at https://philosophynow.org/videos.