photograph of unmarked headstone in cemetery
"Miami City Cemetery" by Phillip Pessar is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

David Koch, one of the infamously influential and wealthy Koch Brothers, died on August 23, 2019. He and his brother, Charles, used the wealth and influence built through Koch Industries to fund Americans for Prosperity. This organization championed fiscally conservative causes like cutting taxes, defunding certain welfare programs, and deregulating industries. It also advocated for socially conservative causes like restricting abortion, impeding the expansion of LGBTQ rights, and funding programs that deny the scientific consensus on climate change. They achieved significant success in their aims through the influence of so-called “dark money” – funding spent by non-profits groups in support of political causes, the sources of which do not have to be disclosed in official reporting.

His death was met with celebration by some, notably talk show host Bill Maher. He said, “I’m glad [Koch]’s dead, and I hope the end was painful.” Maher’s remarks drew criticism from right-wing commentator Sean Hannity, who responded, “The guy you’re talking about and his wife donated $1.3 billion to charity. Until you do that, just keep your big mouth shut.” A tweet by philosopher Rachael McKinnon, on the other hand, argued for the moral permissibility of sentiments in a similar vein to Maher’s. Specifically she argued that it is morally permissible to be happy when a person who has caused extensive harm dies of natural causes. (McKinnon did not address the permissibility of hoping that an evil person should suffer, however.) Are sentiments like Maher’s morally permissible, or is it wrong to celebrate the death of those who are responsible for extensive harm, destruction, or death?

This is not a new question, and is one which has been in the news within recent memory. In 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed by United States military forces in Pakistan, there was cheering and celebration on the streets in parts of the United States. This reaction set off a series of articles asking the question: were those celebrations morally appropriate? National Public Radio (NPR) news had quotes and interviews from both philosophers (Christine Korsgaard) and members of religious communities (Arsalan Iftikhar and Shmuel Herzfeld) weighing in generally on the side of a negative answer. They argued that celebration is not a morally acceptable response to anyone’s death—not even when the person who died was in large part responsible for actions and institutions which have caused a great deal of harm, destruction, and death.

However, they did indicate that some positive attitude short of celebration may be appropriate. Iftikhar and Herzfeld agreed that relief and gratitude were appropriate attitudes in response to the death of Osama bin Laden. This is in-line with McKinnon’s assertion in her tweet. It can be morally permissible to have some sort of positive attitude about the (impending) death of an enemy. But Korsgaard warned that there is a danger of conflating satisfaction at the defeat of an enemy with slaking a thirst for retribution: “If we have any feeling of victory or triumph in the case, it should be because we have succeeded in disabling him — not because he is dead.”

Retribution is a prominent concept in the discussion of justice. The idea that justice can be achieved through the application of appropriate punishment is called retributivism. It is embodied by statements like, “The punishment should fit the crime.” Those who do wrong deserve to have punishment inflicted on them, and it is good for wrongdoers to get what they deserve. This view can provide a basis for the idea that it is morally appropriate to have and express positive sentiments about a person suffering, provided that their suffering was proportional to their wrongdoing and was the specific result of punishment for that wrongdoing. It is only the context of punishment which makes suffering, an otherwise universally bad thing with negative moral value, a good thing with positive moral value.

Here is where at least Maher’s sentiments fall short of moral propriety. Koch died of natural causes, which cannot be considered punishment without endorsing very specific notions of something like divine justice or karma. Further, returning to Korsgaard’s quote above, there is no sense in which Koch’s death will impede the harm caused by the organizations Koch Industries funds—that is, David Koch was not in anyway “defeated”. All that is left to say about the view is that it approves of something which shouldn’t be approved of—the suffering of another person. McKinnon doesn’t go as far approving of another person’s suffering. Her view about Koch’s death is more along the lines of what Iftikhar and Herzfeld said about bin Laden’s death. When a person who has caused a great deal of harm, destruction, or death dies, feeling some measure of relief is acceptable.

Evan Butts is an adjunct professor at Lincoln University and Farleigh-Dickinson University. He was written articles concerning issues at the borders of epistemology and philosophy of cognitive science. Evan's current research aims to articulate the similarities between the metaphysical theories of William James' pragmatism and Nagarjuna's Buddhist metaphysics. Follow him on Twitter @evanbutts.