The Unbearable Silliness of Loving One’s Enemy

Anant in a recent comment on this blog concluded with the seemingly wise statement “to revenge is pleasure, to forgive divine.” I say seemingly wise because it does not withstand any level of scrutiny. Forgiving an enemy may or may not be a very wise principle if you are dealing with an individual. Being magnanimous towards someone who in a momentary lapse of reason has harmed you could be a good strategy if the person realizes his folly and is genuinely sorry about his aberrant behavior. But it could be counterproductive if a priori a person knows that forgiveness will be forthcoming irrespective of how badly he behaves. In such cases, pious hopes that forgiving someone is divine only leads to less than desirable social outcomes.

The following is an exchange on the usenet group soc.cultural.indian in which the discussion was on the exhortation to ‘love thine enemy.’ I maintained that basically it is a silly contradiction in terms. It is silly to label someone an enemy and then proceed to ‘love’ that person. In contrast to that, I believe that an enlightened person realises that there is no enemy in the first place and hence the admonition to love thine enemy is non-binding and content-free. It is a narrow and myopic morality that first labels other sentient beings as enemies and then tries to gloss over the bigotry by entreaties of love. It is like offering to pay for the cast for someone whose legs you have deliberately broken.

Someone promptly responded with effusive piety:

“Enemy”, in this context, doesn’t refer to those whom one has hurt; it refers to those who would hurt one. You have no enemy only if there is no one who would hurt you. Having defined what enemies are, Jesus’ admonition was to love enemies rather than, say, cultivate a desire to break their legs.

My follow-up to that was that if enemy is defined as above, and the injunction to ‘love’ them holds for them, then we have a bit of a problem. That strategy is not evolutionarily stable. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is immoral. Here is why.

Suppose you define the social good to be that the total amount of misery is minimized. Assume that society has two classes of people: “leg-breakers” (LB) and “enemy-lovers” (EL). A person can choose to be either a LB or an EL based on their preferences and the prevailing conditions. The probability of an EL getting his leg broken is proportional to the fraction of population who are LB. If there are no LBs in society, EL don’t have an incentive to change their class and it is an equilibrium.

However, if the LB fraction is non-zero, then because only ELs get their legs broken, and because being a LB does not expose you to any risk of broken legs (because ELs don’t go around breaking legs but love those who break legs), there is an incentive for the more sensitive ELs to switch to becoming LB. This switch raises the fraction of LBs in society and therefore the remaining ELs are at a greater risk of broken legs. This causes even more ELs to switch.

As you can imagine, all this raises the total misery in society till you reach the other equilibrium where the entire society comprises of LBs. Of course, if LBs don’t break the legs of their own kind, this equilibrium point puts an upper bound on the total misery of society. The situation becomes much worse if LBs finally turn on their own kind once the number of ELs have been driven to zero.

The above model suggests that the strategy of not imposing a cost of breaking legs on LBs actually encourages the growth of LBs in that society [1]. You end up with a socially undesirable number of LBs.

The ethical position, it seems to me, is that socially harmful behaviour must be discouraged. Leg-breaking imposes what is called a negative externality, namely pain. To properly internalize this externality, you have to credibly commit to break the legs of anyone who breaks another person’s legs [2]. Assuming that a LB is a rational being, he would find the benefit of breaking legs (joy of seeing another suffer, for example) not worth the cost of breaking legs (pain of having their own legs broken.) So it would deter that behaviour and therefore reduce the aggregate amount of leg-breaking going on in society. It would lead to a more civilized society.

The above analysis could explain the saying that in the conflict between the Greeks and the Barbarians, the Barbarians win. This situation could arise only if the Greeks are more ‘civilized’ and employ the love-thy-enemy (or some similarly brain-dead) strategy while the Barbarians are not bound by any such rules. A real instance of the ‘Greeks versus the Barbarians’ model is what happened to India over the millenia. The invading hordes repeatedly brutalized the peaceful people of India [3].

Finally, the model also explains why an intolerant and cruel religion would spread in a population. If the population initially followed a peaceful and tolerant religion, the invading religion would have an advantage and the final equilibrium would be that the entire population would switch to the invading religion. A natural experiment which is finally coming to its inevitable conclusion is what you see in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The non-Muslim population is being absorbed by the Muslim population, as the LB-EL model would predict.


  1. A related bit of folk wisdom is contained in the statement that shielding a fool from the effects of his folly has the ultimate result of filling the world up with fools.
  2. The old eye-for-an-eye thing of the Bible. Gandhi noted that that strategy would make the whole world blind. My analysis suggests that it would have the opposite effect. If you can guarantee that anyone who pokes anyone elses eyes will have both his eyes poked out, everyone would think a million times before they give in to the temptation of poking anyone’s eyes out. In a Gandhian world, people who enjoy poking people’s eyes would have a terrific old time and a good number of people will have to go through life blind or at least semi-blind. In the non-Gandhian world, no rational person will find it beneficial to poke anyone’s eyes out.
  3. Not just peaceful, but evidently unspeakably stupid as well. One fellow called Prithviraj Chauhan defeated the same barbarian 16 times in battle and let the barbarian go. The 17th time the barbarian defeated Chauhan and promptly beheaded the silly bastard.

11 thoughts on “The Unbearable Silliness of Loving One’s Enemy

  1. Take a guess which type of person enjoys poking out your eye.. it ain’t for sure the weak one.

    It is the one with power. AFAIK, look at the behaviour of any govt especially the US. They will poke out someones eye and classify it as a legal act.

    Hell they can poke the eye of anyone for any reason and you are gonna poke them back??? Good Effing luck!

    So Chauhan get killed on the 17th time by the barbarian?? does that make the barbarian correct?

    Gandhi remember was just a human being but he was the best thing that ever happened to India (and the world) in the last few hundred years. I do not want to make him into an idol, but his philosophy was not just of non-violence.. he was also ready to DIE for his beliefs


  2. I think the word “non-violence” is a gross misrepresentation of what Gandhiji did. The more apt term is “anti violence”… he stood against any form of violence with civility.

    I don’t know why, but I always remember the story of Buddha and Angulimaal. There were a number of non-violent people who were afraid and didn’t venture into the forest. Buddha did. Had he killed Angulimaal, he would have been Prince Siddhartha; but because of ahimsa, he became Buddha, the enlightened one.

    I have mentioned earlier, and will do so again, that I do not believe in his doctrine of ahimsa. But I still believe that he deserves more respect than some of us give him.


  3. “Loving” your enemy could be a form of combat. It is like Jujitsu. Using your enemy’s actions and force to win.

    Is a military victory that the be and end all? What about cultural. Indian culture has survived every one of the invasions. Moreover Hinduism has survived and is confident enough to be tolerant of competing faiths. Perhaps it is our tolerant culture that enabled us to survive so long. We don’t get mad, we get even.

    In a fight between Greeks and Barbarians, the Barbarians will win militarily but the Greeks will win culturally. The children of Barbarians will end up as Greeks and profess sadness about the invasion by the Barbarians. Ironic?


  4. One fellow called Prithviraj Chauhan defeated the same barbarian 16 times in battle and let the barbarian go. The 17th time the barbarian defeated Chauhan and promptly beheaded the silly bastard.

    Whenever I read this thing, it just strikes to my mind as if India, with its policy towards Pakistan, is acting like Prithvi Raj. Just like Ghajni, Pakistan keeps invading India and India keeps forgiving it everytime even though we can see the kind of violence it is creating in some parts of India through proxy war on a day to day basis. I hate to write this, what if Pakistan successfully captures some Indian teritory atleast for a while, the kind of violence that it will unleash there will be unimaginable.


  5. “In the non-Gandhian world, no rational person will find it beneficial to poke anyone’s eyes out.” And exactly how many people are actually rational in your opinion? If everyone was really rational, would events like 9/11 happen?

    I guess its a question of believing/estimating what comes more naturally to people, and using that to carve a solution to the world’s perceived problem. You believe it is logic, while Gandhiji believed it was love.


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