Fred Phelps: Is It Okay to Express Joy When Other People Die?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Fred Phelps, the leader of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, died the other day at the age of 84. Phelps was near-universally despised. His church taught that when soldiers died in war, it was because god was angry at America for tolerating homosexuality. He believed that the best way to spread this message was to picket the funerals of dead soldiers with “God Hates Fags” signs. It’s not my purpose today to get into why this is repugnant (I assume the reader agrees with me on that), but to instead take Fred Phelps and use him as a case study to investigate the curious moral question of whether or not it’s okay to express the happiness we feel when repugnant people die.

A few weeks ago, before Fred Phelps died, I found myself discussing this question with a good friend of mine. What’s striking is that very nearly any time a controversial figure loathed by a large number of people kicks the bucket, those very same people cannot agree on what the appropriate response is. I was in Britain shortly after Margaret Thatcher died, and many Labour supporters, though they almost uniformly despised Thatcher, nonetheless differed mightily in their beliefs about how, if at all, that attitude should be expressed given her demise.

When it comes to moral theory, I’m a consequentialist, and that allows me to get clear on a couple matters very quickly. As a consequentialist, I do not think thoughts or actions are wrong in themselves. Rather, I think they are wrong insofar as they result in bad consequences that are not countervailed by any competing set of good consequences. If I punch a stranger at random, I harm that person without benefiting anyone, and therefore I do something bad. If I punch a stranger to stop that stranger from raping someone, I harm that person while conferring a larger benefit upon the potential rape victim, and therefore I do something good. “Punching” is not in and of itself a good or bad thing, it is the aggregate result of the punching that determines whether or not I was right to punch.

With that framework in mind, the first question to ask is, “who is being harmed when we express joy that someone like Fred Phelps is dead?” There are several answers to this question that people might give:

  1. Fred Phelps is himself harmed–some argue from the premise that the dead can be harmed and/or should be considered as if they could be harmed.
  2. God is harmed–some argue that that by taking joy in the death of another we in some way act against or dishonor a deity for which we should have reverence.
  3. We are ourselves harmed–some argue that by taking joy in the death of another we undermine our own virtue or character.
  4. The family and friends of Fred Phelps are harmed–some argue that by taking joy in the death of another in such a way that those who loved or cared about Fred Phelps can find out, we offend them or hurt them on an emotional level.

I think #4 is legitimate, but the rest are not. We do not have good reasons to take the dead themselves as potential recipients of harm, because the dead do not have ears to hear or nerves to pinch. Even if we presume that the dead live in a transcendent heaven that bestows upon them an omniscience of things that are happening in the world, this claim has wacky consequences–should we be trying to guess at what past dead generations would want us to do when we vote or make political decisions? This leads to a sort of death worship, a prioritizing of the dead over the living, which seems fundamentally unreasonable. To the extent that we honor the dead, we do so because other living people care about them. #4 is what matters, not #1. #2 is a contradiction in terms–any god worthy of the title is immune to any harms that mortals could cause. #3 is a virtue ethics position. Virtue ethics propose that our goal should be to live in accordance with some set of virtues conceived in some way, but virtue ethics has the problem of being unable to justify in the first place the conception of the virtues. If, say, we claim that being happy when someone dies violates the virtue of respect, it begs the question of why respect conceived in this specific way is valuable. The only plausible answer I can find to that question is some version of #4, that we should be respectful so as to avoid offending friends and family.

In sum, there is only ultimately only one possible group of victims here–the friends, family, and supporters of Fred Phelps. Consequently, it is only possible for us to do harm when we express joy at his death if we have reasons to believe that the friends, family, and supporters of Fred Phelps will hear about what we have said and be offended or hurt as a result.

In most cases, no one who might be harmed by our joy will ever come into contact with it. This certainly rules out thought crime–it’s okay to think “good riddance”, because no one who might be harmed will hear us think that. It’s also certainly okay to express our joy to others in situations in which we can be reasonably confident that no one who liked Fred Phelps is present or will hear of it.

But what about those people who not only want to be happy that Fred Phelps is dead in their heads and in conversations with their like-minded friends and family, but who wish to stick it in the faces of all of Phelps’ supporters? What about Labour supporters who wanted to parade their joy at Thatcher’s death in front of the noses of British conservatives?

In these cases, our joy will certainly do some harm, but that may not be everything it does. Even Fred Phelps’ own policy of picketing the funerals of dead soldiers has some countervailing positive features, and it is for this reason that our society often allows repugnant pickets. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill makes a stellar case for the benefits of offensive speech. There are two big reasons worth picking out for having speech that harms people:

  1. Uncertainty–there is always a chance, however small, that we may be mistaken and the repugnant view may prove true either in whole or in part. Even if it is not wholly true or even true on balance, there may be an element of truth to it.
  2. Dead Dogmas–even if the repugnant view is totally false, confronting it forces us to defend our own legitimate beliefs, and in the act of defending our beliefs we ensure that we hold them thoughtfully and not dogmatically.

When we take joy in the death of someone else in front of the people who liked that person, we are confronting them with a view they do not share–that the dead person’s views were repugnant–and forcing them to examine their own beliefs. This has some redeeming value, particularly if we really do think that our view is right and that they really ought to question theirs.

Even Phelps’ funeral picketing was redeeming in this way, because it helped make Christians (and people more generally) in the United States think about their religion and homosexuality in a different way. Christians were encouraged to have a think about whether their religion really justified Phelps’ pickets. This might have caused some to question their religious beliefs or to affirm an interpretation of what it means to be Christian that rejects Phelps’ pickets. Americans found Phelps’ views about god to be narrow and cruel, and this encouraged them to reject god so conceived, either in favor of a differently conceived god or no god at all. Today, many Christians likely believe that god doesn’t hate fags precisely because Phelps said they did.

So those of us who wish to take Joy in Phelps’ death (or in any other death for that matter) in front of people who may be offended or hurt by that joy should remember that our expression of joy is justifiable only insofar as we express it in a way that challenges the people around us to think. Labour supporters who used Thatcher’s death as an opportunity to make the case to conservatives that Thatcherite policy is harmful were justified in so doing. Labour supporters who used Thatcher’s death as an opportunity to hurl abuse at conservatives,  hurt their feelings, and make them feel defensive were not just acting as bullies–they were harming their own cause.

That said, it is always okay to be happy about a death in the privacy of our own heads or in conversation with confidants who share our views. Given that Phelps is almost uniformly loathed in the United States, it’s highly unlikely that most of us, in our Facebook posts or in jokes among friends, are likely to cause any harm worth troubling about. But if we should run into any of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, let’s at least try to make them think.