Once more, this post summarises my notes for those who could not attend and may find them of interest. I hope my reporting is reasonably accurate and focuses on salient arguments. My summary of the first lecture is available here.
You can request a draft of Nussbaum’s manuscript here, subject to the conditions laid out. Note that this lecture skipped some related sections of the manuscript, such as those on God’s anger, and the relation between anger and other negative emotions like contempt.
This second lecture is titled ‘Anger: Down-ranking, Weakness, Payback.’ The abstract reads:
This lecture (a very short form of the chapter 2 available on the website) analyzes the cognitive content of anger, starting from, but not totally agreeing with, Aristotle’s definition. With the help of an example, I argue that anger is almost always normatively flawed in one of two ways. Either it wrongly supposes that punishing the aggressor could make good a past damage – an idea of cosmic balance with deep roots in the human psyche but nonsensical – or, in the case where the angry person focuses exclusively on offense to relative status, it may possibly make sense (a relative lowering of the offender does effect a relative raising of the victim), but the exclusive focus on status is normatively problematic. Although anger may still be useful as a signal, a motivation, and/or a deterrent, its flaws compromise even this instrumental role. I then discuss a concept that I call the Transition: a constructive segue from backward-looking anger to constructive thought about the future. And I identify one species of anger that I do consider normatively unproblematic, which I call Transition-Anger. I also discuss the connection between anger and a displaced sense of helplessness, and examine a possible role for empathy in extricating oneself from the trap of anger.
I leave personal comments until the end.
The idea that anger threatens human relations is common throughout history. But recently, the idea has waned. One example is Strawson’s treatment of it. He sees anger as a reactive attitude without need of justification.
But analysing anger to identify its cognitive content seems crucial. Analysis will show that retribution, or Payback, is a key part. But Payback is problematic. Either it focuses on further injury, which does not address or remove the harm already done. Or it seeks gains in relative status. It may achieve this, but this achievement is built on distorted values.
However, there is a borderline species of anger which is not defective in these ways. It will be discussed later.
Anger is clearly cognitive. It involves appraisals, evaluations and beliefs which are eudaimonistic. That is, it involves beliefs which register views about what matters in life. It is related to subjective feelings and bodily changes, but these are too inconstant to be part of a definition.
So what is distinctive about anger? Aristotle’s analysis is too narrow, but as psychologists have often recognised, it offers a great start. Anger involves slighting, or down-ranking. It involves believing harm was done to you or those close to you. It claims the harm done was wrong. It is accompanied by pain and a desire for retribution.
Where grief focuses on the loss or damage itself, anger focuses on its infliction. An example brings this difference out. There is losing a child to illness. But then there is losing a child due to murder. The latter event causes a specific sort of pain.
The psychologist Richard Lazarus gives the example of a store worker who ignores a customer because he is on the phone. The customer may feel slighted, but if she learns the phone call concerns an emergency, she realises this is legitimate. The anger is dependent on perceiving wrongdoing.
Does anger at inanimate objects provide a counterexample? The Journal of the American Medical Association noted the phenomenon of ‘vending machine rage’ amongst men, which proved fatal when the machine toppled and crushed them after they kicked it. The best explanation here is that we temporarily irrationally believe the object is acting wrongly, as if it were a person. We quickly realise our error.
It is common for Aristotle’s talk of down-ranking to be dismissed. It is seen as reflective of an archaic culture obsessed with honour. But the self-congratulatory idea that such societies are primitive is comical given its continued importance even in the United States. Studies show insults, condescension – in short, status concerns – remain widespread in the West.
And indeed, status injury is often central to anger. But this has a narcissistic flavour. It focuses on one’s own standing. As Aristotle and Lazarus both note, it reflects personal insecurities. Anger only achieves an illusion of control.
Let’s consider Payback. First, note that it does not necessarily involve a wish to inflict harm oneself, nor does it involve a wish for violent revenge. The wish can be far subtler than this. It can just involve wanting unpopularity or misery for the wrongdoer. So the claim is instead that anger involves a wish for things to go badly somehow for the offender. Again, there is one exception to this account of anger which will be discussed in due course.
The claim that Payback is essential to anger is popular throughout history, but we can check it anyway with the following example.
Suppose Angela’s friend is raped by a young man. She could react in a variety of ways.
- First, she could feel her friend’s pain. Her circle of concern is damaged and the damage is wrongful. She supports the friend and attempts to help mend her life.
- Second, she could do all this but also feel a special pain about the wrong act. She subsequently forms a group for victims, leads a campaign and so on.
- Third, she could also decide to focus on the offender. She could want something bad for him.
- Fourth, she could also see the offender as insulting her through the wrongdoing against her friend. She feels humiliated and down-ranked as a woman, and she believes inflicting pain will rectify this.
In the first case, Angela shows compassion, not anger. The focus is on the loss to the friend, not the wrong act or the criminal.
In the second case, is Angela angry? There is a forward movement in her action aimed at rectification. It is close to what Nussbaum wants to refer to using a technical term: Transition anger. This is a special type of anger. The offender is still not the target. The focus remains on the victims.
But in the third case, it is clear that she is angry. She seeks pain to compensate for the damage done.
But the question is why Angela would mistakenly desire Payback. A non-cognitive account can just say we are wired this way, but Nussbaum must explain the mistake better. Angela’s thinking seems magical. Inflicting pain won’t ameliorate the situation. She might feel less helpless and it may restore a sense of control, but this would be illusory.
When Michael Jordan was asked if he wanted his father’s murderer to be executed, he rejected the suggestion. He observed it would not bring his father back. He could get away with this because his masculinity is unquestionable. Contrast it with Dukakis’s rejection of retribution in relation to the hypothetical rape of his wife. It significantly harmed his campaign for the presidency because affinity for this flawed idea of cosmic balance remains deeply ingrained.
In the fourth case, Angela slips from eudaimonistic concerns to being motivated by pride. And this common focus on the value of one’s own status explains the appeal of Payback.
But suppose Angela only goes as far as the third case. She wants something bad to happen to the offender, wrongly thinking this sets things straight. But this fantasy is unlikely to last. Insofar as she wants to help the victims still, she is likely to slip back into the focus of the first and second cases.
Now, the second case could involve punishment for the offender, but not as a matter of Payback. Instead, Angela will view it in terms of the future good it will do: reform, deterrence and so on. This is rational. It reflects an ameliorative spirit, instead of the perpetual obsession with status.
Status anxiety impedes the achievement of intrinsic goods. The wrongness of rape isn’t solely about down-ranking. Other harms need attention, which concern one’s absolute status. Similarly, it is true that gender and race discrimination involve down-ranking and humiliation; a denial of human dignity. But lowering the injurer isn’t rectifying. It substitutes one inequality for another.
To the surprise of many, the path for Angela that Nussbaum is recommending may seem utilitarian. Perhaps. But this conclusion arises naturally from analysing anger. Bentham had good insights here. Nussbaum no longer believes anger is constructive and essential as a response to injustice. By now, she thinks the proper concern is for future welfare.
Consider a political example of Transition anger, which resembles Angela’s reaction in the second case and avoids Payback. King’s I Have A Dream speech exemplifies this. The starting point is past injustice and harm caused. But the next move is very significant. He doesn’t illicit rage or demonise the wrongdoers. He talks of white people having written black people a ‘bad cheque’. Here he shows Transition anger. It isn’t retributive. He thinks ahead to improvement without Payback.
He mentions the risk of rage only to repudiate it:
[T]here is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.
His dream looks forward. He asks his audience to imagine brotherhood with their past tormentors. There is anger in his speech. But he reshapes retribution into hope. There’s also no talk of grovelling and forgiveness because this isn’t genuinely restorative.
In the Questions and Answers session, Nussbaum registered her disapproval of the practice which allows victims to articulate their pain in the courtroom before sentencing. Criminal trials should not be showcases for retributive sentiments.
She further noted that a key question we should be asking is how we stop crime in the first place. But we don’t ask it. She speculates that this is because in America, at least, the punitive macho culture embraces the opportunity for Payback. In particular, they want to imprison African Americans.
In response to a question about the nature of the wrongdoing intrinsic to rape, Nussbaum emphasises her belief in the special status we all hold as equal bearers of dignity. This requires respect, and rape certainly violates it. However, she still insists it does not follow that the right response is Payback. This does not vindicate one’s own dignity.
Nussbaum sees no problem with aiming to make the offender understand wrongdoing. The Truth and Reconcliation Commission was appropriate and helped rebuild South African society by restoring trust and showing openness. But the Commission separated accountability from Payback, which was one of its central virtues.
Nussbaum explained the case of a penologist called Braithwaite who works on restorative justice. He experiments with conferences between victims and juvenile offenders, but he ensures the wrongdoing is always separated from the harm caused. The emphasis is on the offender’s impact on society. Victims were not retributive. They wanted improvement.
An audience member offered an anecdote of a woman he knew who was raped, and who did not leave her university precisely because she was angry. She wanted the young man to be held accountable. This was so she could suffer less, not so he would suffer more. This could be shown by the fact that offenders sometimes suffer less when they are held accountable, because otherwise they experience guilt. But the woman’s desire for accountability would not wane if she learnt this was true in this case.
Nussbaum grants that accountability is extremely important. But this is because we want a society with less of these offences. It need not involve Payback. Nussbaum suspects the woman in the anecdote has Transition anger, which is very noble. It is also rare. The emotionally harmed normally desire the offender’s suffering.
I personally have two observations which there wasn’t sufficient time for me to ask as questions.
Firstly, by now I think we have a muddled picture of Nussbaum’s take on our ability to overcome anger. On the one hand, she claims anger is deeply ingrained in our evolutionary heritage. The logic of Payback is natural and people instinctively pursue it. She claims it takes a rare individual like King or Mandela to be able to instead look forward.
On the other hand, this second lecture invoked the case of Michael Jordan as evidence of someone overcoming any primitive desire for Payback. Presumably Jordan isn’t as special as King or Mandela. Is this evidence that progress here is not so hard after all?
Second, we are also receiving a muddled picture about the relevance of gender. Again, on the one hand we are told that anger is deeply ingrained in our evolutionary heritage. But Payback was also described on several occasions in this lecture as an especially masculine or macho desire. Yet Nussbaum also emphasises how women regularly employ Payback logic in cases of rape. There’s at least a little tension here. How are these claims to be reconciled? Is the view that men push a social norm that women then succumb to? Or is it naturally embedded equally in both male and female minds? But if the latter, in what sense is Payback a particularly masculine attitude? And what empirical evidence is there on these issues?
Finally, I was struck by Nussbaum’s comment about America’s possible desire to allow crime simply to fuel the Payback system, and how this targets African Americans. If you haven’t seen it already, I strongly recommend the documentary The House I Live In. It is certainly corroborative of such claims. Here’s is the blurb I wrote the other term when we screened it at Magdalen Film Society:
From across the Atlantic comes this new documentary brimming with insight into the socio-political foundations and failures of America’s ongoing war on drugs. Featuring extended interview footage with David Simon of The Wire fame amongst other experts, prepare to be taken through both macro-observations about the absurdities of current policy from a legal and policing perspective, and micro-studies of the havoc it wreaks on local economies, families and communities whilst the whole approach is tinted with the rancid smell of racism. Be prepared to leave informed and angry, exactly as the filmmakers want.