The John Locke Lectures 2014: ‘Anger and Forgiveness’ by Martha Nussbaum (Part 2 of 5).

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 InIt 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.

The John Locke Lectures 2014: ‘Anger and Forgiveness’ by Martha Nussbaum (Part 1 of 5).

[Update: When I posted this, I didn’t foresee the audience extending beyond the friends I sent it to and a handful of my Twitter followers. Leiter linking to it attracted much more attention than that. In light of the doubts since raised about the ethics of blogging unpublished work, I’m removing my notes. I may repost them and continue blogging, but only if I receive Professor Nussbaum’s blessing.]

[Update 2: Professor Nussbaum has kindly given her blessing, so I’ve restored the post below.]

This post summarises my notes for those who can’t attend and may find them of interest. I hope my reporting is reasonably accurate and focuses on salient arguments. You can request a draft of Nussbaum’s manuscript here, subject to the conditions laid out. The abstract for this first lecture reads:

Anger is not just ubiquitous, it is also popular – even among philosophers. Many people think it is impossible to care sufficiently for justice without anger at injustice. Many also believe that it is impossible for individuals to vindicate their own self-respect adequately without anger. These lectures will argue that anger is conceptually confused and normatively pernicious. It is neither normatively appropriate nor productive in either the personal or the political life. The first lecture introduces the core ideas, using as a metaphor the end of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, in which goddesses of retribution are transformed into guardians of social welfare. It also introduces a sub-argument concerning forgiveness: rather than being the normatively benign alternative to anger that many people believe it to be, forgiveness (at least as standardly defined) all too often proves a covert form of anger, extracting humiliation as a condition of forgoing angry attitudes.

I may add comments in future weeks, but the first lecture only laid the foundations.

The following debate was presented as arising in Aeschylus’s Eumenides. I omit references to the plot and characters to focus on the themes alone.

Legal institutions exist to replace blood vengeance. Reasoned argument rises up. Still, the legal system must incorporate and honour the dark retributive passions. Resentment retains its nature and place, but a new house is built around it. It becomes moderated by law.

In contrast, perhaps retribution belongs to barbarians. It is uncivilised. It exists only for evil’s sake. It is a passion that does not speak, but ‘only moans and whines’. It is destructive because it only exists to inflict ill. Joseph Butler later commented that the end of such a passion is the misery of others. It is thereby inhuman. These cannot be part of the rule of law.

So perhaps these dark forces can only be compatible with law and civilisation insofar as they are transformed. They must become human, good, benevolent. They must listen to the voice of persuasion. They aren’t contained. They must be profoundly reorientated.

Political justice does not just put a chain around resentment. It transforms it to be forward-looking and become a measured judgment.

From Eumenides onwards, Greek thinkers generally opposed retribution. Law was seen to close the door to retaliation and open the door to reciprocal good will. Aristotle describes the mean virtue with regards to the emotion of anger as ‘sympathetic understanding’. Much later, Strauss’s Electra emphasised how revenge makes love impossible.

These lectures take inspiration from Aeschylus, but they go further. Law indeed transforms anger. But anger is also always pernicious and problematic.

Central to the concept of anger is that bad must be done to the wrongdoer. This is the ‘Road of Payback’. The beliefs involved here are false. Payback does not reverse the damage. Or, when it does and anger can level things, it can only do so in an ugly and narrow-minded way that focuses on relative status.

Anger is deeply embedded in our evolutionary heritage, but it is flawed. It is useful as a signal of injustice, as a motive and as deterrence. But this is not enough to justify it. It impedes the generosity and empathy that revolutionary justice requires. Revolutionary leaders have to be strange people. They must be stoics, overcoming anger and leading others towards doing similarly. Their drive is to ‘build something better than what exists already’.

The concept of forgiveness is strikingly absent amongst the Greeks, but it is central to modern literature on anger. It is claimed to be a central virtue. We live in a culture of apology and forgiveness. No-one seems interested in criticising it.

Yet Mandela never employed the concept, and for good reason. The problem with forgiveness is that it is too inquisitory and disciplinary. It is too close to the anger it is supposed to replace.

Griswold maps out the process of forgiveness. It involves a moderation of anger from the harmed and a cessation of future wrongdoing from the harmer. Responsibility is acknowledged, deeds are repudiated, and regret is expressed. Reform is committed to in words and through deeds. Empathy is shown, and an explanation of how the wrongdoing occurred is offered.

This is a transactional account. It has a long Judeao-Christian history. The model is analogous to how God is supposed to keep a record of all our errors. If enough weeping, apologising and self-abasement follows, the errors will be written off. But self-abasement is a precondition of elevation.

Yet there is something remarkably unpleasant about the idea of grovelling to God, and even moreso to friends and family. It is narcissistic. It is also hard to reconcile with unconditional love.

Nietzsche was spot on in seeing traditional forgiveness as a concealment of anger and resentment. The key Judaeo-Christian virtue of forgiveness is not gracious. As Bernard Williams said in another context: it involves one thought too many. The list-keeping mentality is something generosity and love should eschew, preventing such procedural thoughts from taking shape.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni

Yet some Christians – including Butler and Smith – improve forgiveness by ditching this score-keeping mentality. There is an alternative Christian tradition of love, generosity and humanity. So let’s look at the Christian counter-tradition. It is sometimes called the ethic of unconditional forgiveness and love. It does not involve contrition.

Note, however, that Jesus does not show clear support for it. For instance, in the case of the adulteress he tells her to go forth and sin no more, which looks like a condition of forgiveness.

But the Sermon on the Mount is very clear: love your enemies; pray for those that persecute you. Do good to those who hate you. There are no conditions here. There isn’t a footnote that says ‘if they apologise’.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is even clearer. Here’s the jist of the parable. A son resolves to confess to his sins and express contrition. It is unclear if he is sincere. He has ample ulterior motives. But anyway, the focus of the parable is on the father’s reaction, which emphatically does not follow the model of forgiveness.

He cannot foresee what the son is going to say. He simply sees he is still alive and experiences extreme emotions of love. The translation of the metaphor could literally refer to his guts being ripped out. The father embraces the son without any questions. Even after the son’s statement of repentance, the father goes straight for celebrating without acknowledging it. He just says he is happy the son is alive.

We need to put aside the idea of conditional forgiveness to understand the story. The lack of calculation is what is great about the father.

Jesus here is speaking of God’s greater relation with humans as sinners. He is explicating the nature of God’s unconditional love.

The case of Mandela befriending the South African rugby team – without any rituals of forgiveness – is not far from the Prodigal Son.

In response to a question about self-directed anger and Nussbaum’s possible treatment of it:

Bernard Williams thought guilt was a form of self-anger which was destructive, whilst shame was productive. Nussbaum originally thought guilt was constructive to help seek reparations. Now, she sees the wallowing it encourages as hindering doing anything good about the wrongdoing.

When she initially outlined emotional capabilities in an earlier work, Cath McKinnon asked why anger was absent. Nussbaum bowed and included it on the grounds that she might have a blind spot on this. But now, she is sure she was right to have ignored it. Feminists often argue that anger is key for the oppressed. But Nussbaum is sure that women don’t need it to vindicate their self-respect. They do need to be conscious of their adaptive preferences in response to an unjust world. But this is a different matter.

In response to a question about whether central to anger is not so much Payback, but being noisy; demonstrating communicative persistence. It says we won’t look away from the wrongdoing. It says we will deal with it:

Nussbaum concedes this is one aspect of retributivism – expressing the gravity of a wrongdoing – which is worth retaining.

Leek and sprout sauté with lemon and pistachios.

A friend cooked with sprouts for me recently and I realised I hadn’t worked with them once since I began to take food seriously. That’s probably explained by the fact I grew up experiencing them as bland and boiled to be super-soft as part of Sunday roasts.

The idea here was to retain their natural nutty and crunchy qualities whilst adding another working class vegetable – leeks – and a posher touch in the form of pistachios and flaked almonds. Lemon, garlic and soy sauce ensured a flavour extravaganza. This one secured nods all round.

Serves four generously.

750g sprouts, trimmed and roughly sliced.

2 medium leeks, thinly sliced.

2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced.

200g pistachio kernels, lightly toasted.

50g flaked almonds.

1 tbsp soy sauce.

Half a lemon, zested and juiced.

30ml extra virgin olive oil.

Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper.

Warm the olive oil on a medium heat in a heavy saucepan or wok. Add the leeks, which should sizzle. Season generously. Stir regularly for three minutes, at which point they should have significantly shrivelled.

Now add the garlic and stir for another two minutes. Then add the sprouts, lemon juice and half the soy sauce and season very generously. Stir for another three minutes.

Turn off the heat. Add half the pistachios and the flaked almonds and season and stir once more. Finish with the lemon zest, the rest of the pistachios and a drizzle of the remaining soy sauce.

Vegan umami risotto.

After making this one, I can testify that folk wisdom about the need for butter and Parmesan to make risotto sufficiently creamy is utterly false. If you have the patience to perfectly caramelise the onions, the creaminess takes care of itself.

The idea here was to mix as many animal-free sources of umami flavours as possible, so my refusal to eat asparagus during winter – Peruvian, out of season – was temporarily suspended. I added pine kernels to compliment the mild nuttiness, along with earthy chestnut and portabellini mushrooms. Further greens in the form of fried kale and peas rounded it off nicely.

It’s important to prepare the risotto’s ingredients separately and in advance, and not only to preserve their independent flavours. Stirring risottos is tiresome and tricky to avoid sticking and burning at the best of times, but it’s made a lot easier if you keep the ingredients in the pan at a minimum until the very last minute.

As always, though, equally important to making or breaking such dishes is the stock. I used ten ingredients to empower mine. You could get away with less than that, but don’t go too low, and definitely stay clear of the Oxo cubes. When you see the rich green colour after half an hour of simmering, you’ll understand why.

Serves four.

For the stock:

1 white onion.

2 garlic cloves, peeled.

A bunch of parsley.

A handful of thyme sprigs.

A handful of kale.

1 carrot.

1 celery stalk.

1 lemongrass stalk.

1 bay leaf.

1 kaffir lime leaf.


For the risotto:

240g arborio rice.

1 large white onion, finely chopped.

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped.

1 garlic clove, crushed.

150ml white wine.

750ml vegetable stock.

125g fine asparagus spears, cut into thirds.

250g chestnut mushrooms, quartered.

200g portabellini mushrooms, quartered.

A handful of thyme sprigs.

50g garden peas.

60g pine nuts.

40g kale, very finely chopped.

150ml olive oil.

Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper.

First, prepare the stock. Place all the ingredients in a large saucepan, add a litre of water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for half an hour. You should have around 750ml at this point. Discard all the ingredients and transfer the liquid to a measuring jug, ready to be slowly added to the risotto later, a ladle at a time.

Meanwhile, prepare the ingredients for the risotto.

Heat 25ml of olive oil in a frying pan and toast the pine nuts for a few minutes until golden. Add sea salt. Remove the pine nuts to a plate for later, and add the same amount of oil again. Once hot, add the crushed garlic clove and fry the kale for a few minutes, until it turns darker green and slightly crispy. Also remove to a plate for later. Season with salt and pepper.

Heat 50ml of olive oil in a saucepan and add the chestnut mushrooms, before rustling the thyme sprigs over them. Stir well so the oil covers them, and sauté until they turn dark brown and release their nutty aroma. Remove to another plate, then do the same with the portabellini mushrooms, topping up the oil if need be. Season both with salt and pepper.

Drop the asparagus spears into a saucepan of boiling water on a medium heat, and blanch for two minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse in cold water. Season with salt and pepper.

Now, for the risotto. Heat the remaining olive oil in a saucepan on a medium flame. Add the onion and stir constantly, ensuring it’s fully coated and doesn’t burn. Keep stirring until the onion turns soft and slightly golden, releasing its sweet smells – around five to six minutes. Add the chopped garlic and fry for another two minutes, before adding all the rice and stirring until coated, around another minute.

Here’s where the hard and tedious but most important work begins. Pour in the white wine and begin to stir vigorously. It should sizzle and evaporate fairly quickly. Now introduce the stock, a ladle at a time, stirring constantly and ensuring it is all absorbed before adding more. Continue for around twenty minutes, at which point most of the stock should have been added. You may need to adjust the heat depending on whether the rice seems to be sticking.

Transfer one final ladle of stock, turn the heat to very low and begin to introduce the other ingredients. Add the peas, pine nuts and kale and stir. Add the mushrooms and asparagus and stir again. Once the thick consistency returns, turn off the heat and serve. Finish with salt and pepper.

Struggle for Survival.

I took part in a poverty simulation event organised by Global Hand this evening. I think the offer reached my inbox through the Giving What We Can mailing list, and little detail was given in advance other than beaming endorsements from Ban Ki-Moon and Richard Branson.  It seems these folks shook up Davos slightly by attempting to demonstrate to millionaires how the Bottom Billion get by. The living we experienced was making and selling paper bags, using fingers as brushes and a messy flour-water concoction as glue, before bartering with local shop-keepers and buying basic necessities accordingly.

There are, of course, inevitable limits to the realism any such project could achieve. I knew I’d leave after two hours capable of buying ample food, and resorting to selling a kidney to pay a slum-lord is obviously much easier to just say than actually do. And that’s why I left feeling some scepticism about the organisation’s ambition to foster empathy. It certainly seems a stretch to think people will immediately imagine anything resembling despair or degradation – nevermind hunger – when the tasks at hand are made into practical, competitive games. On its own, this surely couldn’t spur moral reform and action.

It seems to me that the project is instead still promising for different reasons. It is plausible that by learning the facts about the obscenely scarce economic conditions so many people must operate in by playing them out first-hand, people will process and appreciate them more. There just is a real sense in which when we’re supplied with photos of people building paper bags and we’re informed they must make 22 of them in order to earn a measly 1.5p, actually proceeding to boringly build the damn things and see how little they go to succeeding in the context of the game – that does bring things to life in a way simply reading such facts might not. So the groundwork for achieving empathy later might be laid, rather than that emotion actually arriving in the course of the experience.

Supplement it with sufficient information of the kind Giving What We Can tends to provide, not only about how comparatively rich we all are, but also just how much good as individuals we can do, and there could be potential for persuasion there.

But my suspicion remains that it will be powerful only for those who already have their eyes at least half open. No amount of creativity can conjure up motivating compassion out of thin air.

Enough Said.

I saw it yesterday on the off chance the critics were right and this really was an authentic rom-com. I was a touch worried people’s critical faculties – not least my own – would have been lowered out of nostalgia for Gandolfini, but having reflected on it for a day now, I’m fairly convinced. The film certainly achieves significant emotional and ethical maturity. It manages to muster humour out of what is, on reflection, a pretty deceptive and sinister set-up, but it does so whilst still giving due attention to the harm the protagonist causes when her secrets inevitably unravel. There’s a great moment when she pleads, in apologising, that she didn’t know what to do, only to face the reply that she did know; she just didn’t do it.

And Gandolfini is, of course, wonderful. I suspect the film benefits greatly from the fact that the couple are middle aged and one of them is so non-stereotypically attractive. Half a dozen clichés are thereby avoided immediately. And his softness – helped, perhaps counter-intuitively, by the addition of a beard – is really far too convincing in the contrast it creates with the obnoxious, explosive Tony Soprano that we’d grown to know him as. It’s worth a look-in, at least until Cuaron’s Gravity arrives next week.

Ed Schultz at the Union.

Alas, nothing to see here. I’m quite used to speakers being underwhelming in person by now, but that’s normally because they’re sports-people or artists ill-suited to engaging in penetrating debate. You’d expect journalists, and especially those whose medium is television, to be far better. Schultz seems to have a good liberal heart, but it’s masqueraded under an all too American obnoxiousness. He’s far too inclined to shout in crude generalisations and condemnatory platitudes before simply invoking freedom and justice, rather than relying on composed empirical claims. In that sense, he comes across more like an angry grandfather incapable of carefully constructing arguments. In no real sense did he seem like a journalist. The contrast on MSNBC between the likes of him and Lawrence O’Donnell versus Maddow and Hayes is just so stark.

And my hunch that he’s barely a journalist was confirmed when we did briefly drag him through questions onto more substantial territory. A woman brought up the Snowden saga and I followed up by asking him what he would have done if he’d been asked to air the NSA leaks. His answer? He firmly believes that reform and checks on this abuse of power could have been more constructively dealt with through private, conventional channels. He would have refused to air any information on The Ed Show, instead swiftly directing Snowden towards the Senate Intelligence Committee. He justified this in terms of putting his role as a good citizen ahead of his role as a journalist, so I followed up by asking if he really thought there was a tension here. Isn’t it essential to the tenets of journalism that a functioning democracy is dependent on freedom of information, and insofar as one facilitates a vibrant public debate by airing secret abuses of power, one is performing an unparalleled civic duty? Again, denial ensued. He’s all for information distribution, but only to those that need it. So once more, the Senate Intelligence Committee would have done the trick.

Oh, and he really doesn’t worry about the NSA’s powers, because he trusts that Obama isn’t interested in our phone calls. I noted that one doesn’t need to claim that high government officials intend to exploit such powers to nevertheless concede that the system could end up being abused. ‘Point taken’, he said. If only he could similarly see the insanity of a someone with his platform hypothetically refusing to air some of the most important political revelations in recent memory.