Martha Nussbaum, "What Is Anger, and Why Should We Care?"

"Although everyone is familiar with the damage anger can do in both personal and public life, people tend to think that it is necessary for the pursuit of justice.  People who don't get angry when they are wronged seem weird to many people, lacking spine and self-respect.  And isn't it servile not to react with anger to great injustice, whether toward oneself or toward others?  On the other hand, recent years have seen three noble and successful freedom movements conducted in a spirit of non-anger: those of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela -- surely people who stood up for their self-respect and that of others, and who did not acquiesce in injustice.  My lecture argues that a close philosophical analysis of the emotion of anger can help us to see why it is fatally flawed from a normative viewpoint -- sometimes incoherent and sometimes based on bad values. In either case it is of dubious value in both life and the law.  I'll present my general view, and then show its relevance to thinking well about the criminal law and about transformational justice."

Martha Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago Law School. This talk was recorded January 14, 2014 as part of the Chicago's Best Ideas lecture series.

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Martha C. Nussbaum
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Maimonides & anger

Maimonides (Code, De'ot 2:3) excludes anger (and arrogance) from his otherwise Aristotlian ethic of moderation and the middle path; they are never appropriate and must be purged completely.  He also mentions that there are situations in which feigned anger may be appropriate:

Anger is also an exceptionally bad quality. It is fitting and proper that one move away from it and adopt the opposite extreme. He should school himself not to become angry even when it is fitting to be angry. If he should wish to arouse fear in his children and household - or within the community, if he is a communal leader - and wishes to be angry at them to motivate them to return to the proper path, he should present an angry front to them to punish them, but he should be inwardly calm. He should be like one who acts out the part of an angry man in his wrath, but is not himself angry.

The early Sages said: Anyone who becomes angry is like one who worships idols. They also said: Whenever one becomes angry, if he is a wise man, his wisdom leaves him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy leaves him. The life of the irate is not true life.

Therefore, they have directed that one distance himself from anger and accustom himself not to feel any reaction, even to things which provoke anger. This is the good path.

What if...?

Hi Martha,

I agree with you that anger should be avoided when it is retributive and directed towards the misery and suffering of our fellow creatures but is it always this way and can anger ever be permitted as a ‘last resort’? Consider cases in which:

a) Person A becomes angry at some perceived injustice in the World, and shares their anger with a friend. The friend is not directly responsible for the injustice but feels partially responsible because they realise they could have done better. In this case, the anger expressed was not intentionally directed at any particular individual, and though the friend feels slighted or ‘pushed down in status’, in future they come to view the anger in a positive light, since it was an effective spur to immediate improvement.

b) Occupy. One of 'the 99%' becomes angry at inequalities in the political-legal system of the United States, and expresses their anger at a protest on Capitol Hill. The President receives a barrage of abuse on the way to work and she is understandably upset, but this is unfortunate since the anger is not directed at any particular person, merely ‘the President’ as the figurehead of a corrupt or inegalitarian system. The anger expressed is directed towards the tight network of power which basically excludes members of 'the 99%'.

c) What if there is a positive intention behind the expression of anger, such as rousing emotion in order to spur a person into positive action for the benefit of the wider community? We have all heard of ''preventative War'', so why not ''preventative anger''? If exhibiting anger towards an important person an earlier date can spur that individual to action which prevents worse suffering (torture, arbitrary killing) at a later date then perhaps anger, if not sheer outrage, is entirely justified and to be commended. In such a situation, perhaps protestors have been too meek, gentle, and let themselves be pushed around for far too long. In order to gain more attention and support, perhaps philosophers and other meditative mediators need to dig in their heels and become more angry about certain injustices in the World.

What do you think?

Thank you kindly :)