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On Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (2016). What role should we allow anger to play in our public life? Should systems of punishment be strictly impartial, or should they be retributive, i.e., expressive of public anger? Nussbaum thinks that anger necessarily involves the desire for payback, and that this is nearly always unhelpful. We should instead use anger (or rather, change it into "transition anger") to look toward the future and prevent future harm.
Whether in personal relationships, dealings with acquaintances, or in setting policy, anger as desire for payback tends only to further exacerbate bad situations. And "transactional forgiveness," i.e., debasing someone and making them jump through hoops before you accept an apology, is a historical relic that also just expresses hostility. But what about social justice—can anger help us focus on achieving that? Doesn't punishment need to express our collective anger against undesirable behaviors and those who perform them?
Martha is an engaging and provocative speaker, and Mark, Wes, and Dylan were happy to get to talk with her. After the interview, we three continued to talk to flesh out more parts of the book and elaborate our thoughts about what she had to say.
Wes thinks contra Martha (but with Aristotle) that ALL anger involves "down-ranking," but that this doesn't have to do just with your public status (what Martha is concerned with in describing some anger as involving this), but with any case where someone is disregarding something you care about, that you've identified as part of your circle of concern, i.e., part of yourself in a way.
Dylan, on the other hand, thinks that anger is better analyzed in the dynamic of the will to power, where you get mad because you're being thwarted in some way.
Mark brings up cases where we get mad at objects like your malfunctioning computer. Are those really just fringe cases where we're anthropomorphizing objects, or contra Martha, is it actually the case the anger does NOT necessarily involve an attribution of blame or desire for retribution?
Here's her Huffington Post article about sexual assault that she mentions.
End song: "Forgive the Disco," a Nussbaum-inspired vocal overdub by Mark Lint of an instrumental by Sean Beeson, interviewed on ep. #23 of Mark's Nakedly Examined Music podcast.
Nussbaum picture by Solomon Grundy.
Wayne Schroeder says
We must thank Martha Nussbaum for being amazingly coherent and articulate in her investigation of anger and in her dialogue with the PEL guys. Her project appears to take negative emotions, like anger, disgust, shame, etc. and extract the opposite positive philosophico-socio-politico values which these negative emotions threaten. She does well to ground anger in the philosophical such as Aristotle and Plato, and to extract the cognitive aspect for examination and a basis for social and personal ethics.
I think she does especially well to abstract out the significant negative cognitive evaluation which often accompanies raw anger which seeks the retributive/presumed-justice response of an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” and her excellent subsequent suggestion for turning toward the future for pragmatic personal and political outcomes, not just blind retribution.
This is where it gets interesting: Martha’s pride in there being no “pure non-cognitive theory” of emotions which she claims to seek year after year, with the interesting caveat that she writes of William James theory as “complicated,” or what I would call interesting, and helpfully informative of the underbelly of cognitive aspects of anger/emotion.
William James set out to answer the question: do we run from a bear because we are afraid or are we afraid because we run? He proposed that the obvious answer, that we run because we are afraid, was wrong, and instead argued that we are afraid because we run: “Our natural way of thinking about… emotions is that the mental perception of some fact excites the mental affection called emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression. My thesis on the contrary is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion”(called ‘feeling’ by Antonio Damasio).
With James’ theory of emotion being not “pure cognitive theory” we can include Martha’s missing elements of affect and instinct in order to address a more robust phenomenology of anger. The “fight-flight” response related to anger is instinctive and clearly is not just related to payback so much as pushback or runaway..
Perhaps it is the affective aspect which is most missing from Martha’s approach to anger. Maybe we can think of anger as immediate pushback against threat against personal value. At best, we are seeking to draw a line in the sand, a boundary of self-valuation, against which we stand strong. (this is what I think Martha was referring to as the positive aspect of outrage). At worst, we are seeking to go beyond mere preservation of the value of self, and seeking to aggressively cause damage to the other, perhaps no greater retribution other than the discharge of anger on the perpetrator, whether just or not, yes payback. This is the aggressive and negative aspect Martha has isolated and done well to address. In other words, there are many levels of possibility of responding in anger, and in anger management (though most may be payback).
Where Martha includes the non cognitive aspect of emotion well is via grief. Grief is about loss, not about payback–what makes this difference so important? The ability to down-regulate instinctive anger from payback, retribution, vengeance, resentiment, to affective grief is what I would call the great Transformation. The ability to experience instinctive “fight-flight” and not to react with either anger (fight) or fear (flight), but to “stop/drop&roll” and go under the anger/fear to the affects of threat/hurt/devaluation/grief enables us to carry out Martha’s very good suggestions of how to respond ethically, socially and politically–via affect as well.