Dr. Martha Nussbaum, “What Is Anger, and Why Should We Care?”
University of Chicago, Faculty of Law
At the University of Chicago’s 2014 Distinguished Speakers Series, Dr. Martha Nussbaum presented a short philosophical paper on the emotion of anger and its normative value in contemporary democratic society. She argued that while anger is often thought of as a prerequisite for caring for what is just, the notion of anger is in itself however inconsistent and normatively flawed for a democratic society based on the rule of law and transformational justice.
In the demonstration of her argument, Dr. Nussbaum re-tells the Ancient Greek tragedy Oresteia in which the Goddess Athena introduces two major transformations in Athens. First, Dr. Nussbaum tells us of how at the end of the Oresteia the Goddess Athena introduces the institutions of the “courts of justice”, “procedures of reason arguments” and “citizen juries” to essentially “terminate the cycle of blood vengeance”, announcing that “blood guilt” will no longer be determined by the Goddesses of the Furies but by reasoned processes. Secondly, Dr. Nussbaum also notes however how Athena persuades the Furies — the Goddesses of vindictiveness — to join her city and transform and re-orient themselves from within their own being as ” benevolent, constructive, forward looking sentiments, toward the entire city and restrain from stirring up anger within it”.
The Greek tragedy tells the story of how anger, and indeed the vindictiveness of the Furies, cannot be simply expected and be made to fit within the constraints of a “legal system and society committed to the rule of law” but have instead no place or form within it. Instead of being imprisoned in a cage, the Furies are persuaded, with incentives, to re-orient themselves internally within themselves and agree to “listen to the voice of persuasion”. Their vindictiveness is transformed into “something that actually protects life”, indeed their previous forms are no longer needed and take on a new posture and the furies themselves even take new names . Law takes up the “task of dealing with crime and leaving the family free to be a place for reciprocal goodwill”. It “keeps us safe from without and keeps us from the cycle of vengeful from within”. Dr. Nussbaum argues that “political justice must transform resentment from something that is barely human, bloodthirsty to something that is human, accepting of reasons, calm, deliberate”.
For a more philosophical definition of the emotion of anger, Dr. Nussbaum turns to an analysis of Aristotle’s definition. In the Rhetoric, he tells us that anger is a “pained response to a significant damage to something or someone that the person cares about and it is a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted”. While “anger is painful it also contains within itself a kind of pleasant hope for payback or retribution”. It is a particular response not to any old wrong act but a “slanting and a down-ranking”.
While Dr. Nussbaum disagrees only in small part with Aristotle’s definition, she notes however that the definition has wide currency and resonance. The problem with its retributive aspect is that it “does not help restore what was lost”. If we want a world in which the wrong or harm does not occur, “inflicting harsh [retributive] penalties will not accomplish that goal”. Even when the wrong or the harm affects our social status, anger is normatively flawed because the problem of seeing only it affecting your status is in part too “narcissistic” and does not belong in a “society where reciprocity and justice are important values”. It essentially “loses the sense that my actions have intrinsic moral worth”. Rape or murder is indeed normatively wrong because of the “suffering” that it inflicted, not just because of the way it affected my status. For victims for instance there is “something off putting in seeing it only as affecting your status than the pain and trauma”. Indeed, “the families of victims need constructive attention and none of this is likely going to happen if all we think about the offense is relative status”.
To support her argument that anger is not a normative value for a democratic society, Dr. Nussbaum turns to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech, in particular how Dr. King managed to “transition” his audience “from anger toward forward looking constructive thought and work”.
Dr. Nussbaum concedes however that the emotion of anger does have some but limited utility deriving from “an evolutionary role of fight or flight mechanism”: (a) “it can be a wakeup call — a sign that something is badly wrong”; (b) “it can be a motivator and help people address real problems without falling into the slope that payback”; (c) “anger can be a deterrent on others from infringing on their rights”. She concludes that nonetheless the problem is that anger “does not lead to a future of peace and conciliation but further devious aggression”. First, there should always be space for debate on how other forms and strategies of punishment in society measure in contrast to anger. Second, we must remember that “the constructive forward looking thought of doing with the problem of social undoing is what should interest us, not the fancy of payback”.