Arnon Grunberg



On just deserts and other punishments – Sasha Mudd in NYT:

‘Mr. Trump’s diagnosis generated an immediate torrent of glee, gloating and schadenfreude on social media. It was followed by an equally quick and ferocious attempt to tamp it down. Joe Biden and Barack Obama, among other Democratic politicians, offered well wishes for the president and his wife, while left-leaning columnists rushed to wish them a speedy recovery. Many went on to admonish those rejoicing in the president’s misfortune, suggesting that such apparent meanspiritedness is but one more symptom of the moral rot that has come to consume our political culture.
While I agree that the gloating over Mr. Trump’s illness is morally concerning, I also find it fair to ask whether certain less celebratory but still positive reactions to his disease are entirely blameworthy and without moral merit.’


‘Ambivalent reactions to President Trump’s medical condition become more understandable when we appreciate that valid moral principles are often in tension with one another and can pull us in different directions. Condemning the pleasure that his misfortune has produced is certainly correct from one moral perspective, but there are also valid moral reasons to regard his illness as a potentially positive thing. Judging the moral meaning of Mr. Trump’s bout with Covid-19 — and our reactions to it — is no easy task.
The same bedrock moral principles — that life is sacred, that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect — make it wrong both to wantonly endanger others and to wish suffering and death upon any individual. We appeal to these principles in objecting to the glee and schadenfreude that engulfed Twitter in the wake of Mr. Trump’s diagnosis. From this perspective, it does not matter how morally corrupt he may be, nor the harms he has inflicted on others, wittingly or unwittingly, directly or indirectly. This is all beside the point when we consider that the president is a person with dignity or, as columnists more often put it, “a man with a family.” According to this line of thought, we should not wish to see Mr. Trump fighting for his life on a ventilator, no matter what he has done, and we are right to be concerned by attitudes that seem to contravene this principle.’


‘The sense that justice requires punishment for wrongs runs deep and is not the same as a mere thirst for revenge or a desire to get even.

On the contrary, punishment plays an important role in any healthy moral ecosystem. When the moral order has been ruptured, punishment for wrongs helps to repair tears to the social fabric and to reinforce the validity of the moral expectations that were violated. Imagining Mr. Trump’s illness as a metaphorical punishment for his misdeeds helps to satisfy at the level of fantasy a legitimate need to see justice done. Because Mr. Trump contributed to the illness and death of so many Americans, it is understandable that many feel satisfied in seeing him forced to contend with a harm to which he has exposed so many others.’


‘Those who regard Mr. Trump as the enemy may simply wish to see him suffer. Such a wish may be entirely untethered from concerns about justice or the consequentialist moral appeal of a world where he is too ill to campaign effectively. For these reasons we are right to be skeptical of their reaction. Moreover, the principle of human dignity tells us that even the president, for all the wrong he has done, deserves our good will.’


‘Nevertheless, I hope Mr. Trump returns to good health. I hope this both because Donald Trump is a human being with dignity, and also because the world needs this president to get his real just deserts.’

Read the article here.

I’m not so sure about the philosophical arguments here.

Schadenfreude can be very understandable, and in this case is perhaps more than just understandable, but to weigh the morality of this particular schadenfreude in a culture that is infested with schadenfreude, even though many people believe that it is just a fight for justice, seems to me slightly absurd.

If you think that Mr. Trump is the most evil president of let’s say the last 75 years – this is possible but how do we measure this? And worse than the presidents responsible for the Vietnam war? Worse than the one responsible for Afghanistan and Iraq? Maybe, but I need some arguments here – than you might conclude that even if you are a consequentialist, at this point of his presidency it is better for everybody, especially for his opponent and the supporters of his opponent, probably for the nation as well, that he will recover, which he apparently did.

Sasha Mudd thinks it is important that he recovers so he will get his just deserts. Again, this is highly understandable, but I’m not sure if this is something I would consider a sound moral argument. Get better, so we will see you in court? It reminded me of the psychologists in the army who are healing the soldiers, so they can be sent back to combat.

If I take Sasha Mudd’s argument seriously we might conclude that the president is not allowed to take his own life because in that case he will escape something that is called ‘just deserts.’

I’m having the biggest problem with the whole idea of punishment in this essay. Mudd is quick to state that punishment is not revenge, but she doesn’t make clear why that is. And here of course we are moving into territory that is slightly bigger than Trump and covid.

‘Punishment plays an important role in any healthy moral ecosystem…’

Yes, maybe, but then I’d like to know how we define punishment.

Do we need to punish people who appear to have accepted the responsibility for their misdeeds? What kind of punishment are we thinking of and how do we separate revenge from punishment? I happen to think that peace often weighs heavier than justice, and revenge is understandable but also the road to bloodshed, the road to an endless circle of revenge and more revenge.
(It seems highly unlikely that the current president would ever acknowledge any misdeed at all, but that’s besides the point I would say.)

Should we wish him ill, so his enablers can continue the ugliness with words that just appear to be more civilized? I’m in favor of diplomatic language, don’t get me right, but the current president is more a symptom of something rotten than the rot itself.

Above all, to glee because your enemy fell ill is most often just lowering yourself to the standards you claim to abhor.