Misanthropy is the general hatred, dislike, distrust or contempt of the human species, human behavior or human nature. A misanthrope or misanthropist is someone who holds such views or feelings. The word's origin is from the Greek words μῖσος mīsos 'hatred' and ἄνθρωπος ānthropos 'man, human'. Misanthropy involves a negative evaluative attitude towards humanity that is based on a negative judgment concerning mankind's flaws. These flaws are seen as ubiquitous, i.e. possessed by almost everyone to a serious degree and not just by a few extreme cases. They are also held to be entrenched, meaning that there is either no or no easy way to rectify them short of a complete transformation of the dominant way of life.
The major flaws pointed out by misanthropes include intellectual flaws, moral flaws and aesthetic flaws. Intellectual flaws, like wishful thinking, dogmatism, stupidity and cognitive biases, are what leads to false beliefs, what obstructs knowledge, or what violates the demands of rationality. Moral flaws, like cruelty, indifference to the suffering of others, selfishness and cowardice, are often identified with tendencies to promote what is bad or with inappropriate attitudes towards values. Aesthetic flaws concern ugliness and include ugly aspects of human life, ugliness caused by human activities, vulgarity and lack of sensitivity to beauty. Proponents of misanthropy often focus on moral flaws and provide various examples of their manifestations, like mass killings, factory farming of livestock and pollution of the environment. Opponents respond to this by pointing out that serious moral flaws are only manifested by a few mentally ill people or under extreme circumstances, which is denied by misanthropes. Another important consideration for arguments based on flaws is that they highlight only one side of humanity while evaluative attitudes should take all sides into account. Other arguments against misanthropy are based not on whether this attitude appropriately reflects the negative value of humanity but on the costs of accepting a position associated with hatred, for the individual and for society at large. Defenders have responded to this by showing how a misanthropic perspective can lead to various different forms of life. While some of them are based on hatred and may lead to violence, others focus more on fear and withdrawing oneself from the negative influence. Further alternatives include resignation and activism fueled by the hope of bringing about radical transformation.
Misanthropy figures in various works of art and philosophy. It is closely related to but not identical with philosophical pessimism, which involves a negative attitude not just to humankind but to life as a whole. Misanthropic considerations have been used as an argument for antinatalism, the view that coming into existence is bad and that humans, therefore, have a duty to abstain from procreation.
Misanthropy (a word of 17th century origin, from the Greek misanthrōpos) is traditionally defined as hatred or distrust of humankind. But it has been argued in contemporary philosophy that this characterization does not fit all those labeled as misanthropes. On this view, a more encompassing definition sees misanthropy as a negative evaluation of humanity as a whole based on humankind's vices and flaws. This negative evaluation can express itself in various forms, hatred being only one of them. In this sense, misanthropy has a cognitive component: its negative attitude towards humanity is based on a negative judgment about humanity, it is not just a blind dislike.
One important aspect of all forms of misanthropy is that their target is not local but ubiquitous. So the negative attitude is not just directed at some individual persons or groups of people but at humanity as a whole. This distinguishes misanthropes from groups like racists, misogynists and misandrists, which hold a negative attitude towards certain races or genders, respectively. So these forms of discrimination and intolerance are not general characteristics of misanthropes. Both misanthropes and their critics agree that negative features and failings are not equally distributed, i.e. that the vices and bad traits are exemplified much more strongly in some than in others. But misanthrope's negative assessment of humanity is not based on a few extreme and outstanding cases: it is a condemnation of humanity as a whole, including the more ordinary cases. Because of this focus on the ordinary, it is sometimes held that the flaws are obvious and open to see for everyone but due to intellectual flaws, people tend to ignore them or even praise them as virtues. Some see the flaws as part of human nature as such. Others also base their view on non-essential flaws, i.e. what humanity has come to be. This includes flaws seen as symptoms of modern civilization in general. Nevertheless, both groups agree that the relevant flaws are "entrenched": there is either no or no easy way to rectify them, nothing short of a complete transformation of the dominant way of life would be required, if that is possible at all.
Forms of human flaws
A core aspect of misanthropy is that its negative attitude towards humanity is based on human flaws. Various misanthropes have provided extensive lists of flaws, including cruelty, greed, selfishness, wastefulness, dogmatism, self-deception and insensitivity to beauty. These flaws can be categorized in various ways. Traditional religious texts tend to focus on spiritual flaws, like impiety. But in the contemporary academic literature on the subject, the focus is more on intellectual flaws, moral flaws and aesthetic flaws. While all of these forms carry some weight for justifying a misanthropic perspective, it is often held that moral flaws are the most severe ones, for example, concerning human treatment of animals.
Intellectual flaws concern our cognitive capacities. They can be defined as what leads to false beliefs, what obstructs knowledge or what violates the demands of rationality. They include intellectual vices, like arrogance, wishful thinking, dogmatism, stupidity and gullibility, and cognitive biases, like the confirmation bias, the self-serving bias, the hindsight bias and the anchoring bias. Intellectual flaws can work in tandem with all kinds of vices: they may deceive someone about having a certain vice and thereby prevent him from addressing it and improving himself. A cruel person, for example, may convince himself motivated by wishful thinking that he is not being cruel but firm. Similar considerations have prompted some traditions to see intellectual failings, like ignorance, as the root of all evil.
But the more common approach within the misanthropic literature is to locate humanity's most serious flaws on the moral level. Moral vices are often identified with tendencies to promote what is bad or with inappropriate attitudes towards values. They include cruelty, indifference to the suffering of others, selfishness, moral laziness, cowardice, injustice, greed and ingratitude. The harm done because of these vices can be divided into three categories: harm done directly to other humans, harm done directly to animals and harm done indirectly to both humans and animals by harming the environment. Examples for these categories include the Holocaust, factory farming of livestock, and pollution causing climate change, respectively.
Aesthetic flaws are usually not given the same importance as moral and intellectual flaws, but they also carry some weight for misanthropic considerations. These flaws relate to beauty and ugliness. They concern ugly aspects of human life itself, like defecation and aging, ugliness caused by human activities, like pollution and litter, and inappropriate attitudes towards aesthetic aspects, like being insensitive to beauty.
Arguments for and against
Various arguments for and against adopting a misanthropic perspective have been presented. Proponents usually focus on various forms of human flaws, like the ones discussed in the last section, together with examples for when they exercise their negative influences. Opponents often respond to such examples by pointing out that they are extreme individual manifestations of human flaws, either by mentally ill perpetrators or by normal people under extreme circumstances, that do not reflect on humanity at large and therefore are unable to justify the misanthropic attitude. So while there are cases of extreme human brutality, like the mass killings committed by dictators and their forces, listing such cases is not sufficient for condemning humanity at large. Misanthropes have responded to this type of argument in various ways. Some hold that the underlying flaws are there in everyone, even if they reach their most extreme form of manifestation only in a few. Others point out that many ordinary people are complicit in their manifestation, for example, by supporting the political leaders committing them, even if they did not directly commit them. Another approach is to focus not on the grand extreme cases but on the ordinary small-scale manifestations of human flaws, as in lying, cheating, breaking promises or being ungrateful.
A different problem for arguments based on human flaws is that they present just one side of humanity while evaluative attitudes should take all sides into account. So it may be the case that despite having very serious vices, humans may also possess equally important virtues that make up for their shortcomings. While it is difficult to make such comparisons on a large scale, misanthropes have argued that at least for important subfields, like man's treatment of animals, the scales are clearly tipped against man.
Some arguments against misanthropy are based not on whether this attitude appropriately reflects the negative value of humanity but on the costs of accepting such a position, for the individual and for society at large. This is especially relevant if misanthropy is associated with a hatred of humankind, which may turn easily into violence against social institutions and other humans and may result in a lot of harm. Concerning the misanthropic individual, it has been argued that misanthropy makes one miserable and friendless and thereby deprives us of most pleasures. Defenders have pointed out that misanthropy is not necessarily connected to hatred, violence and friendlessness, i.e. that there are various other misanthropic forms of life that avoid these arguments.
Misanthropic forms of life
While misanthropy is based on a negative judgment of humanity, it is not restricted to just a theoretical opinion. Instead, it involves an evaluative attitude that calls for a practical response. This is realized in different forms of life that come with different dominant emotions and various practical consequences for how to lead one's life. These responses to misanthropy are sometimes presented through simplified prototypes that may be too crude to accurately capture the mental life of any single person but instead aim to portrait common attitudes among groups of misanthropes. The two responses most commonly associated with misanthropy are destructive and fugitive. The destructive misanthrope is said to be driven by a hatred of humankind and aims at tearing it down, with violence if necessary. For the fugitive misanthrope, fear is the dominant emotion and leads the misanthrope to seek a secluded place in order to avoid the corrupting contact with civilization and humanity as much as possible. The contemporary misanthropic literature has also identified two other less-known types of misanthropic lifestyles: the activist and the quietist response. The activist misanthrope is driven by hope despite their negative appraisal of humanity. This hope is based on the idea that it is possible and feasible for humanity to transform itself and the activist works actively towards this ideal. The quietist misanthrope, on the other hand, takes a more pessimistic approach towards what the individual can do for bringing about this transformation. In contrast to the more radical reactions of the other responses mentioned, they are resigned to quiet acceptance and small-scale avoidance.
Misanthropy in art and philosophy
Gustave Flaubert once declared that he would "die of suppressed rage at the folly of [his] fellow men." Misanthropy has also been ascribed to a number of writers of satire, such as William S. Gilbert ("I hate my fellow-man") and William Shakespeare (Timon of Athens). Jonathan Swift is widely believed to have been misanthropic (see A Tale of a Tub and, most especially, Book IV of Gulliver's Travels). Poet Philip Larkin has been described as a misanthrope.
Molière's play The Misanthrope is one of the more famous plays on this topic. Less famous, but more contemporary is the 1971 play by Françoise Dorin, Un sale égoïste (A Filthy Egoist) which takes the point of view of the misanthrope and entices the viewer to understand his motives.
The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus was by various accounts a misanthrope and a loner who had little patience for human society. In a fragment, the philosopher complained that "people [were] forever without understanding" of what was, in his view, the nature of reality.
In Western philosophy, misanthropy has been connected to isolation from human society. In Plato's Phaedo, Socrates describes a misanthrope in relation to his fellow man: "Misanthropy develops when without art one puts complete trust in somebody thinking the man absolutely true and sound and reliable and then a little later discovers him to be bad and unreliable ... and when it happens to someone often ... he ends up ... hating everyone.": 94 Misanthropy, then, is presented as a potential result of thwarted expectations or even excessively naïve optimism, since Plato argues that "art" would have allowed the potential misanthrope to recognize that the majority of men are to be found in between good and evil.: 95 Aristotle follows a more ontological route: the misanthrope, as an essentially solitary man, is not a man at all: he must be a monster or a god, a view reflected in the Renaissance view of misanthropy as a "beast-like state".
In the Judeo-Islamic philosophies (800–1400), the Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon uses the Platonic idea that the self-isolated man is dehumanized by friendlessness to argue against the misanthropy of anchorite asceticism and reclusiveness.
There is a difference between philosophical pessimism and misanthropy. Immanuel Kant said that "Of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing can ever be made", and yet this was not an expression of the uselessness of humankind itself. Kant further stated that hatred of humankind can take two distinctive forms: aversion from men (anthropophobia) and enmity towards them. The condition can arise partly from dislike and partly from ill-will.
Martin Heidegger has also been said to show misanthropy in his concern of the "they"—the tendency of people to conform to one view, which no one has really thought through, but is just followed because "they say so". This might be thought of as more a criticism of conformity than of people in general. Unlike Schopenhauer, Heidegger was opposed to any systematic ethics; however, in some of his later thought, he does see the possibility of harmony between people, as part of the four-fold, mortals, gods, earth, and sky.
Misanthropy is closely related to but not identical with philosophical pessimism. Philosophical pessimism is the view that life as a whole is not worth living or that the world in general is a bad place, for example, because it is meaningless and full of suffering. This view is perhaps best exemplified by Arthur Schopenhauer. Philosophical pessimism is often accompanied by misanthropy by holding that humanity is also bad and maybe partially responsible for the badness of the world. But the two views do not entail each other and can be held separately. A non-misanthropic pessimist may hold, for example, that humans are just victims of a terrible world but not to blame for it. Eco-misanthropists, on the other hand, may claim that the world and its nature are valuable but for the negative, destructive influence of humanity.
Humanity is a moral disaster. There would have been much less destruction had we never evolved. The fewer humans there are in the future, the less destruction there will still be.
Antinatalism is the view that coming into existence is bad and that humans, therefore, have a duty to abstain from procreation. An important argument for anti-natalism is the misanthropic argument. It sees the deep flaws of humans and their tendency to cause harm both to other humans and to animals as a reason for avoiding to create more humans. These harms include wars, genocides, factory farming and damages done to the environment. This argument contrasts with philanthropic arguments, which focus on the future suffering of the human about to come into existence.
Detestation of people, misanthropy in general may be a reaction to social orders perceived as barbaric, repressive, unfair, or hyper-competitive. In his 1949 article Why Socialism? Einstein gives the example of a cultured man who states that the destruction of humanity would not be a bad thing.
- Asociality – lack of motivation to engage in social interaction
- Antisocial – disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others
- Antihumanism – rejection of humanism
- Cynicism (philosophy)
- Emotional isolation
- Hatred (video game)
- Machiavellianism (psychology)
- Misotheism – hatred of God
- Rational egoism
- Rejection of anthropocentrism
- Social alienation
- Voluntary Human Extinction Movement
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