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Anger has been getting a lot of attention in moral philosophy, which is partially due to Matha Nussbaum, who argued in her 2016 Anger and Forgiveness that anger is not a helpful emotion in reacting to wrongdoing and injustice, although she qualifies this by granting a place for a temporary transitional anger. Her main target is retribution, and she argues that anger is essentially about seeking retribution. It's an interesting debate, and one that has been going on since ancient times. The Stoic Seneca regarded anger as dangerous because it led to a loss of self-control, making a person unpredictable and a threat to their own best good. Some forms of Buddhism are associated with similar prioritizations of remaining calm no matter what the circumstances. On the other side are those who argue that anger can be justified and reasonable, and failure to be angry in the face of injustice shows too much acceptance of it. While it is true that unrestrained action when angry can cause many problems, it is further argued, it is also true that righteous anger can be inspirational and effective in the fight for justice.
There are many empirical issues here: is anger actually useful in achieving justice when there has been grave injustice? Can we compare an angry fight for justice with a calm one, and which tends to be more successful? Is it true that angry people tend to be unable to control themselves? How much variation is there between people in their ability to control themselves when angry? Are there cultural differences in the expression of anger and the extent that anger is productive in solving moral problems?
But there are also some obvious conceptual and definitional issues to address, starting with what we mean by anger. Anger can describe actions, moods, feelings, thoughts and personalities. Is anger a thing in itself, a process, or some aspect of a person's mental life? Is it, as Nussbaum claims, intrinsically tied to a desire for retribution or maybe revenge? It seems that we can be angry not just with people but also with animals, plants, the weather, and cars. If someone gets angry with a toy on the floor for making them trip and fall, are they actually angry with the toy or with a person for leaving the toy there? If they are angry with the toy, are they making some kind of mistake? How is anger related to resentment? Then there are wider ethical questions about anger, such as when is anger deserved by a wrongdoer, does forgiving them mean you can no longer be angry with them, and is revenge ever justified?
So an examination of anger needs to address both empirical questions, definitional questions, and wider philosophical ones. That's what The Moral Psychology of Anger, edited by Cherry and Flanagan, does.
This is a fairly short book with an introduction by Flanagan and then 156 main pages of text. There are 9 chapters, varying between about 10 and 20 pages long. There is a fair amount of overlap between many of them. Flanagan's introduction is especially useful because it sets out the ideas in reasonably plain language and presents a guide to the relevant literature too.
The first five chapters all argue in favor of a role for anger.
Lee McBride takes issue with Nussbaum arguing for an Aristotelian account of anger as a virtue, where the anger should be proportionate to the offense. He rejects the idea that we should aim to minimize anger or restrict it to for when it is useful. Sometimes in cases of justice, and McBride is especially thinking of racial injustice, he argues anger is appropriate.
Céline Leboeuf takes a phenomenological approach to anger using the work of Franz Fannon, and from her analysis argues against Nussbaum that anger is instrumentally useful, again with cases of racial injustice as the central case being examined. One might debate the status of her causal claims, given that her analysis is apparently just based on self-analysis and appearance, rather than any sociological or experimental psychological work, but this is standard for phenomenology.
Antti Kauppinen argues that anger is conceptually tied to caring about other people, and the behavior of other people, so if we cannot get rid of anger without losing what we take to be centrally important to life. It's a broad argument that goes quickly. His central idea is that in defending anger, we do not need to defend vengeance and retribution, but instead should have a forward-looking approach that makes the function a constructive one of getting people to behave better.
Myisha Cherry, co-editor of this collection and host of the Unmute podcast, also defends anger and in her contribution assesses people's judgments of the reasonableness of other people's anger. Her argument is a general one but focuses on the evaluation of political anger, which she uses in her central examples. She analyzes how we may approve of some political expressions of anger while disapprove of others, assessing the role of sympathy with others and also judgments about their actions, and some causes of our tendencies to go wrong in our evaluations. She plays particular attention to the role of gas lighting in erroneously evaluating error. Her work here isn't so much advancing a particular theory of when our evaluations are right or wrong, but rather she is providing readers a set of techniques or tools with which to example particular cases of evaluating particular anger.
David Shoemaker defends angry blame in his chapter. He considers various arguments against the rationality, coherence and morality of angry blame and rebuts them all. He points out that it is more common for philosophers to defend resentment or indignation as moral emotions rather than anger, but he argues that they are closely related, and that arguments against anger will also apply to its close relations. Shoemaker argues, taking his cue from psychological studies of anger, that its main function is not retribution per se, but rather the communication of disapproval of an action. Angry emotional responses are appropriate when a person has been wronged. With this understanding of anger in hand, Shoemaker makes quick work of its critiques.
In the sixth chapter we get the first argument against anger, but even this one is more programmatic than absolute. Bryce Huebner who works in both philosophy and psychology explores the importance of patience and argues for the elimination of anger. He draws on the work of the 8th century Indian Buddhist Shantideva (also spelled Śāntideva), known for his philosophical poem Bodhicaryāvatāra. Part of his point is not just that we should aim for calm, but we should aim to make a world where people have no cause to be angry -- one that eliminates injustice. Huebner discusses racial injustice, and argues that we should "act to dismantle the forms of white fragility that perpetuate racial injustice" (101). He does not say much about how to do this. He does acknowledge that anger can be useful as a signal to cases of injustice, so it seems that while he would like a world in which there is no reason to be angry, he is not necessarily against all expressions of anger.
Emily McRae also discusses Buddhist thought, but explores a different vein, that values anger more. She focuses on what she calls tantric anger. It is a channeling of anger for the use of good that does not involve any desire to cause suffering. One might wonder whether this really counts as anger as we normally think of it, but McRae does not address that. Her main focus is on the idea that tantric anger is useful for oppressed groups.
Agnes Callard contributes what is probably the most perplexing chapter in the book. She explores the idea that some causes of anger can never be undone, so we have reason to be angry forever. For example, if you betray another person, then even if you apologize and make amends, you can never erase that betrayal, and they have a reason to be angry with you for the rest of their life. If they find a way to get over it, it is not because that reason has disappeared. She argues that the problem solving view of anger, which is close to Nussbaum's notion of transitional anger, that anger does have a useful function when it rights the injustice that caused it. Callard objects to this mainly on the grounds that it makes the problem solving an individual project for one person, when repairing a relationship has to be a joint project by the people in the relationship. She emphasizes the joint actions necessary for the repair and the co-valuing of the relationship that this requires. Callard's approach brings to mind the goals of restorative justice, but she never mentions the idea (and indeed, nor do any other authors in the book). Her proposal is interesting, although framing it as being about reasons that last forever may obscure the appeal of her ideas.
John Protevi supplies the final chapter. About "beserker rage" it is the least good fit in this collection, and seems more about psychology than morality. It is mainly about the role of anger in the military and warfare.
Overall, this book is a valuable addition to the literature on moral psychology, especially with its focus on anger related to oppression. It's not the deepest exploration of the issues, but it includes a fresh group of scholars who write clearly and provide reasonable justifications of their ideas.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.