Antonin Scalia and the Ethics of "Celebrating Death"

[CN: Irreverent opinions about death]

With the sudden passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia this weekend, the Internet has filled up with sentiments about his death. Some people are cheering it, some are mourning it, and some are chastising the people who are cheering it because they find it inappropriate to be happy that someone is dead, regardless of who that person was or what they did.

Obviously, this is causing a lot of conflict, because the women, queer people, and other marginalized folks who are glad that Scalia’s no longer around to deny them civil rights don’t exactly appreciate being told they shouldn’t feel that way, and people who find it really inappropriate to “celebrate death” feel very uncomfortable.

Just to put this out there: I don’t feel any particular way about Scalia’s death. I think that it’ll have some interesting implications for the upcoming election, and I hope that this means that the Supreme Court will soon have a new justice who is liberal or at least moderate, but I don’t really feel anything. I didn’t celebrate his death. I didn’t mourn his death. I don’t have a lot of strong feelings about things that don’t impact me very very personally, and often I don’t even have any feelings about those things, and generally my writing and my activism is shaped by other processes besides my emotions. So. This is not an article about me and my feelings, and I’m not defending myself or my feelings here. I’m making an argument concerning ethics and I’m defending a broad group of people that I’m seeing get unfairly put down right now.

Death is never an easy subject to talk about no matter whose it is, and I think part of the problem is clashing social norms about responding to death. Some people are in the “never speak ill of the dead” camp; others are in the “you can criticize the actions of someone who has passed away but you shouldn’t be glad they’re gone” camp. The most controversial camp is the “I get to feel however the fuck I want about someone’s death and I get to say so on my Facebook page” camp.

I’m not much for relativism in general, but I think it’s worth noting that these different social norms exist and that they are not inevitable or universal. There is no intrinsic reason why saying mean things about someone who has died is wrong. You can claim that it’s bad because it hurts their surviving loved ones, but what if there’s no chance of them hearing those mean things? You can claim that it’s bad because saying mean things about people is just always bad, but then every single one of us is bad and there’s no point in calling the kettle black. You can claim that it’s bad because death itself is intrinsically bad, but the problem is that not everyone sees it that way either.

Personally, I think that life and death are both morally neutral. I think that human life in general does a lot of good and a lot of bad. I think that individual lives can cause a lot of good in the world and a lot of bad, too. I think that individual lives can cause a lot of good for the other lives they touch, but they can also cause a lot of bad. For each person whose death is terribly mourned, there’s probably a person whose death brings relief to those they have abused or otherwise hurt.

As uncomfortable as it is for some people to acknowledge that some deaths come as a relief to those who knew the deceased, there is no one better than that person’s victims to judge the moral value of their lives. Even more uncomfortable to acknowledge is the fact that some deaths bring comfort to the dying themselves. Life is morally neutral; some lives are so full of pain and suffering that death feels like a net good and as horrible as that is for me to contemplate, who am I to invalidate that?

No one in the broad “do not rejoice at death” camp has yet given me a good argument for why rejoicing at death is ethically wrong. They say it makes them look down on the rejoicers, but if you look down on people for their feelings about their oppression, that says more about you than about them. They say it “brings out the worst in people,” with no specifics about what “the worst” is. (Really? Being happy that someone is dead is worse than systematically denying civil rights to millions of people?) They say that death is intrinsically bad so it’s intrinsically wrong to be happy about it, but again, these are not universal values. If you view death as intrinsically bad, that’s a good argument for you to do your best to avoid death and celebrate life. It’s not a good argument for other people to have different feelings.

My own ethical orientation makes it difficult for me to view an action that doesn’t do harm to anyone as unethical, and making someone annoyed or uncomfortable or even a little upset isn’t necessarily the same as doing harm to them. (If it were, it would be unethical for gay couples to hold hands in public places.) The “don’t rejoice at death” camp ends up making a circular argument: rejoicing at death is wrong because it upsets people and it upsets people because rejoicing at death is wrong.

Here someone often argues that Scalia’s family is in mourning and would be very upset at the things that some people are saying. That’s quite possible, although it seems highly unlikely that any of Scalia’s family members are spending this time browsing the social media feeds of random unknowns like my friends and me. (Also, many of us keep our feeds private.) The likelihood of Scalia’s loved ones stumbling on my friends’ Facebook pages seems so low that expecting them to tailor their feeds with this possibility in mind is pretty unreasonable.

I’ve also been hearing a lot of sentiments like, “Well, you get to feel however you feel about his death, but remember that he was also a human being who had people who loved him.” That’s certainly a nice thought; I always try to remember that people I strongly dislike or disagree with are human beings, and maybe that’s why I don’t actually feel happy about his death. (Again, I don’t feel sad about it either.) In general, I agree with the idea that it’s good to humanize people.

But it’s just another one of those vaguely positive and obvious statements that nobody seriously disagrees with. Of course it’s nice to remember that people are human beings, just as it’s generally nice to say “please” and “thank you” and to hold doors for people carrying large objects and to learn about the views of people who disagree with you and to stop and let a car out even when you have right of way because otherwise they’d be waiting to make their turn forever and that would suck for them. It’s just that these things are not always the most important thing for you to do in that moment, and they’re not always accessible for everyone to do, and (I would argue) they’re not ethical imperatives, just nice things to try to do as much as you can.

Notably, Scalia belongs to a category of human being that is least in need of humanizing, because people like Scalia are the least dehumanized people. Unlike those most impacted by his jurisprudence, Scalia has never been dehumanized on the basis of his race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or other category of privilege or oppression. So, sure, humanize Scalia, but all these condescending exhortations for others to do so sound a little #AllLivesMatter-y to me, especially when directed at those most directly harmed by Scalia himself.

Whenever I keep seeing something described as “crass,” “in poor taste,” “inappropriate,” and so on, I always get curious about what’s really going on, because these phrases actually say very little except “a critical mass of people disapproves of this; it’s not just me.” But what do they actually disapprove of, and why?

Most of the types of people who would appear in my social media feeds don’t actually believe that it’s wrong to have certain emotions, but many of them think it’s wrong to express those emotions at certain times (or ever). In this case, a private glee at Scalia’s death might seem petty to them, but it’s expressing the glee publicly (or semi-publicly, as Facebook often is) that’s really “crass” and “in poor taste.”

Unable to produce an argument for why being glad that someone who did terrible, terrible harm has died is actually harmful, they resort to phrases like “celebrating death” that are intended to make the targets of their ire look either like callous, spiteful children or else some sort of Satanic cult. But one person’s “celebrating death” is another person’s “feeling relieved or ecstatic that someone who has done them terrible harm can no longer do so.” And sure, if I got to choose, I’d have chosen for Scalia to retire rather than die, but nobody asked me.

I’m sure there’s a lot of personal satisfaction in taking the perceived high road and deciding that, even though you belong to a group of people harmed by Antonin Scalia, you personally will not celebrate his death and will mourn it (or be neutral towards it) instead. But I’m uncomfortable with any ethical system that’s based on having or not having–or expressing or not expressing–certain emotions. The only place I see that leading is lots of shaming yourself and policing others for automatic brain things that are mostly outside of our immediate control (and for wanting to share some of those automatic brain things with other people).

I also wish that rather than rushing to condemn perceived “crassness” or “poor taste,” folks would cultivate some curiosity about where these strong emotions are coming from.

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Antonin Scalia and the Ethics of "Celebrating Death"
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13 thoughts on “Antonin Scalia and the Ethics of "Celebrating Death"

  1. 2

    With a lifetime appointment, only death was getting him off the court. If he had retired, I’d be just as happy that he was done.

    I think the folks who are criticising those who are “rejoicing at his death” are partly misunderstanding, partly forgetting the deaths they have rejoiced in, and mostly just shaming the people the disagree with. Which is typical for supporters of someone like Scalia.

    My personal disagreement with Scalia started over the Second Amendment – I say it has nothing to do with gun ownership. But the more I looked into his work, the more horrified I became. Scalia is responsible for the deaths of many, many people, and for the unhappiness of many more. If I thought the effects of his life were just going to curl up and blow away, I would be rejoicing. Knowing that he will do no more is tempered by the fear that his followers will try to outdo him.

  2. 3

    I personally try not to celebrate anybody’s death, because it comes far to close to actively wishing harm on people for my own comfort, and I don’t think that wishing harm on people is a good mental habit to get into. But it’s the potential effects on my own mental equilibrium I’m concerned with there, not whether it upsets anybody else…

    However, some people make it very, very difficult, and I’m certainly not about to give anybody a hard time for it. And I’m more than happy to say that Scalia was a terrible person in all sorts of ways and I’m very glad he’s no longer on the court. Sure, yeah, all human life has intrinsic value, yadda yadda, but… Christ, what an asshole. Plenty better people have come to far worse ends.

    1. 3.1

      I don’t think that wishing harm on people is a good mental habit to get into

      This. I think that Scalia’s white, male, etc. privilege only makes this a little bit harder–once people decide that someone’s “bad”, dehumanizing them comes naturally.

      But sometimes it may be appropriate to dehumanize people, to some degree? For example, I am uncomfortable with the idea of calling someone who’s arguably a war criminal a “friend”. Yet my instinct is to say that calling Kissinger a friend feels wrong to me, but rejoicing in Kissinger’s death also feels wrong to me. And I’m not sure what the difference is.

      My instinct is that it’s a dangerous mental habit in one way to forget that someone’s a human being, but it’s dangerous to be so used to thinking someone is your friend or a “normal person” that you lose sight of the fact that they have done something horrible. (You could also apply this to finding out someone you know is a rapist/pedophile/etc and the denial people often go into–or the fact that they don’t let this stop them from inviting said person to parties, and it’s the victim(s) problem if they don’t want to socialize with them.)

      I’m not sure how to balance these two so I’m not gonna tell other people how to react.

  3. 4

    I think Sara Benincasa summed it up pretty well here :

    https://medium.com/@SaraJBenincasa/on-the-death-of-a-brilliant-public-servant-fe2a7b6fcd5c#.ezfpfwzcd

    I shall now proceed, with great enthusiasm and passion, to speak ill of the dead.
    Please do not mistake my energy for joy. He sought to take it away from so many people I love. I can summon, at best, relief. … (snip) .. I’m sorry, am I supposed to be RESPECTFULLY SAD that a racist anti-gay non-elected official with the power to rule my personal life died?
    Interesting.

    As at least one person has noted on facebook that I’ve seen it’s worth noting the reaction of many in Britain who hated Thatcher all her life had to her death which was in some cases, wildly celebratory and to the hypocrisy of many calling for respect for the dead in their reaction to people who they think are bad dying.

  4. 5

    Yeah, Thatcher was one case where my normal attempts not to celebrate the deaths of awful people completely and utter failed, in the most spectacular fashion. OK, I didn’t actually put up bunting, but only because the shop had sold out…

  5. 6

    Two points i strongly appreciated here: (1) The straightforward observation that the harm incurred from expressing relief and hope at Scalia’s departure from the Supreme Court doesn’t compare to that incurred from Scalia’s presence there. Even setting that massive second harm aside, a weaker point seems defensible to me: that the benefit to oneself of publicly expressing that relief and hope, and having it generate support from one’s social network, itself may outweigh the harm of offending others. I guess that tags along (2) Recognizing that practicing virtue by humanizing people isn’t a categorical imperative but can be weighed against the virtue of asserting one’s own dignity (e.g. in the form of relief and hope).

    Speaking from a position of privilege (the same as those you mention of Scalia’s), i suspect that there’s a factor behind a lot of the celebrating by people of relative privilege that deserves to be disentangled from these. As an example: Many years ago i celebrated the death of Strom Thurmond, more openly and snidely than anyone else i knew. Looking back, i think this had less to do with my informed understanding of Thurmond’s role in perpetuating Jim Crow segregation and impeding the advancement of civil rights and more to do with my ideological attachment to liberal causes and liberal politics per se. It might be fair to say that i invoked the harm he caused, not incorrectly, but for the sake of defending my own satisfaction rather than for celebrating the relief and hope of those he hurt. Had i not spent some effort since then better understanding the dynamics of oppression and the ethics that have been developed around them, i might be in the position now of projecting my own past onto anyone presently celebrating Scalia’s death, and criticizing them for it in the same way as others you’ve seen do. Instead, i’ve chosen to restrain my own urges to celebrate but instead support the expressions of relief and hope i see among my friends, especially whom i know to be among those targeted by Scalia’s bigotry.

    I don’t mean to deny that a person in my position can or should celebrate Scalia’s death for the end it brings to his own obstruction of rights and welfare to already-oppressed people, or that it’s anyone’s business to challenge such a person’s authenticity in doing so. It does seem important to me, though, that such a person take stock of where their own positive feelings are coming from. (I’m mostly just sharing and not confident i’ve covered my bases here, so i’d be interested to hear disagreements.)

  6. 7

    I’m not going to pretend to mourn the passing of someone who made it life’s work to hate everything that I am and believe, and used his considerable power and influence to destroy the lives of a great many people.

  7. 8

    I know too little about Scalia to have any strong feelings about his death. I understand though that he played an important role in American internal politics. Ophelia on B&W quoted extensively from some writings and interviews with Scalia, so after reading this I have some idea why people react the way they do – but that’s about it.

    My thoughts about celebrating death are very mixed – nothing definitive, I’m afraid. In the OP Miri mentioned three standpoints:
    – the “never speak ill of the dead” camp.
    – the “you can criticize the actions of someone who has passed away but you shouldn’t be glad they’re gone” camp.
    – the “I get to feel however the fuck I want about someone’s death and I get to say so on my Facebook page” camp.

    I can’t easily identify myself with any of the three. There are always reservations and fears.

    Would I rejoice after Stalin’s death? Yeah, that’s quite plausible. (On the other hand, there are these old black-and-white documentaries showing the brainwashed crowds, devastated and crying after the death of the Great Father – maybe I would end up as one of them? Who knows!) Indeed, in some cases I would join happily the third camp. Hell, I could even create my own Facebook account for this occasion, and that means something!

    No, I do not think that rejoicing at death is always ethically wrong. Still, I would reserve such a reaction for extreme cases *only*. The line between “feeling relieved or ecstatic that someone who has done them terrible harm can no longer do so” and plain old-fashioned orgy of hatred it too thin to be disregarded.

    Still, what should be counted as an “extreme case”? Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer. Margaret Thatcher was mentioned in the comments and it’s a very nice example, illustrating some of the ambiguities and dangers.

    She is well remembered here. Already in 1976, when the Labour government boycotted the ceremonies at the Katyn monument in London (commemorating the massacre of the Polish done by the Soviets in 1940) , Margaret Thatcher sent Airey Neave to participate. Later, in the 80s, she was showing support to the “Solidarity” movement, which brought her an immense popularity in my country. I remember the eighties well. At that time the Western left was received by us as hopelessly self-absorbed and untrustworthy. It was people like Thatcher – and not the western left-wingers – who brought hope to millions of us. Indeed, after she died, there was some talk here of erecting a Margaret Thatcher statue.

    Only later I found out how she was hated in her own country. Rejoicing her death? Yeah … I can’t help feeling that this is done by the same sort of people who in the eighties were so reluctant to move a fucking finger! It strengthens my picture of the Western left as self-absorbed, unreliable and sensitive only to their problems. It’s probably very unjust of me. Sorry, but even after all these years I feel about it rather strongly. Fortunately, Miri is “uncomfortable with any ethical system that’s based on having or not having–or expressing or not expressing–certain emotions”. So be it.

    Scalia belongs to a category of human being that is least in need of humanizing

    I would say that the more people rejoice after your death, the more real is the need of humanizing. And yes, it concerns even Stalin.

  8. 9

    Rejoicing her death? Yeah … I can’t help feeling that this is done by the same sort of people who in the eighties were so reluctant to move a fucking finger! It strengthens my picture of the Western left as self-absorbed, unreliable and sensitive only to their problems.

    Well, I can understand why you might feel that, but it’s a complicated matter. While she was on the right side of your particular issue (and I’m happy to admit that even as someone who despised her and everything she stood for), she was also on the wrong side of a lot of other issues. For example (just to pick one amongst many), she was a very strong supporter of the apartheid regime in South Africa… But yeah, ultimately most people are more concerned with their own issues than other people’s, and I’m not sure that that’s entirely unreasonable.

  9. 10

    Thank you for so eloquently articulating what I’ve been feeling but have been expressing in much different–and far more profane–terms. It’s been annoying me to no end to have all these armchair moralists crawling out of the woodwork trying to finger-wag and tsk tsk tsk at me and others for not feeling sadness at his passing and even daring to criticize him, as if death just magically reversed or downplayed all the horrible things he said and did when he was alive, that we’re not supposed to think about any more because he’s dead (which is also annoyingly circular).

    I also hear the nonsense answer of “Well, he’s not here to defend himself!” So? Lots of people aren’t here to defend themselves–Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam, Nicolae Ceaușescu–and yet I don’t see anyone trying to shame people for talking about how horrible they were. (Not in any way trying to make a 1:1 comparison, just pulling out some clear historical examples.)

    I don’t like telling other people how they should feel. It stinks of cheap moralizing just to make the shamer feel more important. It’s a kind of self-satisfied smugness I can live without.

  10. 11

    […] “Antonin Scalia and the Ethics of ‘Celebrating Death’“–“Here someone often argues that Scalia’s family is in mourning and would be very upset at the things that some people are saying. That’s quite possible, although it seems highly unlikely that any of Scalia’s family members are spending this time browsing the social media feeds of random unknowns like my friends and me.” […]

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