05 February 2010

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The joy of spite

Dear friends,

This Sunday we are lucky because we have a few written comments from
Ceit who proposed the topic: the joy of spite.

I did not read Ceit's comments before I fished mine so that I won't be
influenced by her ideas. If, therefore, there are similar ideas in our
write ups it is probably because the subject is that powerful or that

All the best and see you Sunday. Incidentally, Ceit is also looking for
a flat, can you help?



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==========The joy of spite ===== comments by Ceit ============

Hi Lawrence,

I have just a few short thoughts on spite. It is something that we
enjoy, although it causes trouble and we know it. People revel in their
spite all the way to court sometimes, or to the bank to withdraw money
for damages incurred. Revenge is one thing, but spite is an obsession.
Our target must suffer for whatever injury was done, come what may.
Spite requires a lot of energy and time: you have to build the spite
fence or the spite house and pretend you like it; you have to wear the
clothes you bought out of spite that don't fit or look ridiculous; you
have to go three towns over to shop or eat at a restaurant because the
businesses down the street have earned your spite for poor service. I
spite businesses all the time myself. One condescending word or rolled
eye from the person at the register and I make a mental note never to
comeback, and I never do. Fortunately for me, there are stores all over
Madrid and it's not much of a hardship to walk one more block down the
street to buy beer. The thing I find odd about spite is that it is such
an expense of time and energy usually, and so contrary to the best
policy of cooperation for survival, so it really should be less common.
Yet, almost everybody holds some grudge for a personal offense, real or
imagined, and makes a point of sticking it to the offender. Wouldn't it
be better for society and for us as individuals in a society for this
behavior to be discouraged?

And speaking of spite, does anyone know of a place for me to live by
myself, for 400 euros or less a month? By myself. With no roommates.
Because I'm tired of dealing with people in my house all the damn time.
So I need a new place to live, where I can be alone. With my spite.


======== The joy of spite ========== comments by Lawrence

The two main schools of thought regarding the structure and scope of
living biological systems, such as human beings, are either we are the
product of cooperation between sub living systems. Or we are the product
of aggression and competition. For example, some see living cells, and
by definition, higher order biological systems, as basically the product
of microbes and/or bacteria cooperating to form higher order living
structures. Others would argue that living systems are the product of
systems competing against each other and basically being aggressive to
each other. And of course the strongest wins the day.

Let's forget for the time being such factors as random events, solar
radiation and catastrophes basically because they complicate our
arguments without adding anything relevant.

Therefore, competition is an instinctive process because it depends on
physical power and immediate rewards. Being genuinely nice and hoping
some reward to materialise some time in the next hundred years is just
not practical in a competitive environment. This does not mean that this
is a good strategy but it is really pushing one's luck. So basically,
competition is about maximising rewards in the here and now. Of course,
reality is not that simple nor straight forward.

On the other hand, cooperation is rational because it does depend on
assessing what the future would be like based on today's facts. In other
words, we have to employ a high level knowledge for cooperation to
success. We might choose to forego a reward today maybe because we can
see a situation in the future when the reward to energy ratio is much

But what does this have to do with our subject of spite?

Under the principles of competition not only do we seek to increase the
ratio between reward and energy spent getting that reward, but also
would try and avoid strategies that would probably won't bring any
reward at all. Being aggressive is very close to falling foul of these
two principles, unless that is we can get away with it, either by
gaining a massive reward for minimum energy cost or by making it very
costly for our opponent to retaliate.

Cooperation, on the other hand, implies that we try and avoid aggression
because it is not a strategy component of cooperation plus of course we
might jeopardise past energy invest. Cooperation also means that we can
enjoy any rewards due to us in relative peace and relative safety
because others won't be so quick to take such rewards away from us. It
makes more rational sense, therefore, to cooperate because it costs us
less energy and we can enjoy the rewards for much longer.

Spite, at face value, is an irrational strategy because we initiate
aggression knowing full well that we are going to get a payback in kind.
And as a ploy in a competition strategy spite does not make sense
because we are probably going to be worse off in the short term anyway;
the original aggression against us, the cost of energy to be aggressive
now, and the consequence of any reciprocated aggression due to spite.

And as a ploy in a cooperation strategy spite does not make sense
because we know very well what the future holds for us not to mention
that we might be increasing the odds against us by creating a serious
gap in the reward to energy ratio. For example, a good feeling of seeing
our boss embarrassed when we act out of spite but at the cost of losing
our job. Basically cutting our nose despite our face sort of situation.

Under the traditional model of life strategy, spite does not make much
sense. We employ a competitive move to injure ourselves, maybe as much
as we hurt our opponent, and yet we employ a rational process once again
to injure ourselves as much as our opponent.

The question, therefore, we have to ask ourselves is what is going on here?

Maybe the first assumption we make is that we assume that rewards must
somehow be measurable. How do we measure the pleasure and satisfaction
of seeing our enemy embarrassed in public? Spite gives us a satisfaction
that can only be achieved from a well thought out spiteful action. Don't
forget this is not revenge, since revenge does not logically imply we
are the victims of our aggressive act. When we employ spite we might do
on the basis that rewards might not necessarily be measurable. This
already suggests, if accepted, that reward might also be a rational
entity; we can experience it, but we cannot touch it. Maybe the joy of
spite depends on some form of rational pleasure as opposed to empirical

But there is a subtle satisfaction in spite that really rewards our
sense of competitive aggression as well. An aggressive act, for all
intents and purposes, is an intentional act. We might react
instinctively when confronted by fear or a threat, but in a completive
strategy, when we have time to consider the situation, I would suggest
that any action done in this context is done intentionally.
Incidentally, every lioness hunting its prey knows that completive
aggression is intentional.

Thus, spite gives us the pleasure and the satisfaction of having
mustered enough courage to be aggressive in a competitive and aggressive
confrontation. Look a it this way. The reason why we would consider
spite as a viable action is because our aggressor had been successfully
aggressive against us. By definition, therefore, we were the weak party
in an aggressive duel. Spite gives us the please and satisfaction of
being courageous.

In a normal competitive or cooperation strategy we usually have to spend
our energy first before we get the reward. For example, if we challenge
someone to give up the best seat in the cinema which they happen to be
occupying, we have to go through the whole process of stressing
ourselves, get our heart to pump more oxygen to our brain and our
muscles, especially the one we intend to use to punch the unsuspecting
victim if they don't give up their seat, plus, of course, running the
risk that we might be the ones to get beaten up. Cooperation, more or
less works in the same, being nice means spending energy now for a
reward later on.

Spite does not work like this, and this is the beauty and joy of spite.
Spite actually works the opposite way. The energy we use to be
aggressive is already, so to speak, deployed in the front line of the
battle by virtue of the fact that we have all this pent up energy from
the original aggression. So in terms of use of energy we are not
employing any new energy for our aggression, or at least not much more.

Hence, the beauty and pleasure of spite is that we receive the reward
before we are hit back with the negative consequences of our aggression.
To give a perspective of this idea, spite is like enjoying a few glasses
of the finest port and a decent slice of Christmas pudding know full
well that by the time the three kings arrive in town our gout would have
flared up higher than a Norwegian Christmas tree and we're bent tighter
than a camel's hump.

But a large proportion of the joy spite gives us comes from the fact
that we can basically have a blank cheque as to how much pleasure and
the type of pleasure we want to receive from our actions. I remind you
not only can we expect pleasure from mustering enough course to be
aggressive against a legitimate opponent, not only do we get pleasure
from seeing our aggressor receiving our blow, but we get a great deal of
pleasure from what I call collateral spite pleasure or satisfaction
(CSP). Basically, what this means is that because we are choosing our
actions carefully we can more or less determine the kind of reward we
receive from our aggression; of course there will also be the backfire,
but that comes later. And if we are careful we can determine how much
pleasure we get back and for how long.

To illustrate this collateral spite pleasure principle I'll give you a
quick account of one of my more memorable occasions when I did employ
spite as a strategy.

Basically I was in a restaurant where they had two menu del dia; one was
priced at 7.50 euros and the other 9.50 euros. Unfortunately, I couldn't
eat any of the first dishes in the cheaper menu (food intolerance to
what was on offer), so I agreed with the waiter that I have a starter
from the expensive menu and the second dish from the cheaper menu but of
course pay the price of the expensive menu. Sounds reasonable, even
though the problem was really a serious lack of imagination by including
the same ingredients in all the starter dishes of the cheaper menu.

But of course, the owners (husband and wife team) of the restaurant
thought otherwise to the agreement the waiter and I had reached. So
basically they charged me for all the items separately and the bill came
to something like 12.50 euros. I offered the owner at the cash register
twenty euros and course started complaining about the fact that they did
not charge what the waiter and I had agreed.

Immediately I saw here an opportunity of employing some spite with a
healthy dose of collateral spite pleasure. Spite because I was putting
myself in an embarrassing situation, would have had to pay the twelve
euros anyway and in the worst scenario they might call the police for
being an a** !#&e. After twenty minutes of arguing and standing my
ground the other owner told the one at the cash register to charge only
for the expensive menu.

And this is when the CSP kicked in, because not only did I know that
eventually I would be charged as agreed (I was not leaving until it
happened), but as soon as I got the change from the twenty euros I was
going to give it all (ten fifty euros) to the waiter as a tip. And as
soon as I did pass the change to the waiter the face of the person at
the register took a shape of unbelievable incredulity that not was it
priceless, but the pleasure was singularly unique.

To conclude, although spite is an irrational and aggressive strategy,
CSP would elevate this primordial instinct into a rational aesthetic. Enjoy.

Take care


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: The joy of spite

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