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HOW ANGER GOES WRONG

ANGER HAS GOTTEN a bad rap. It is condemned by the world’s religions and in many philosophical traditions; we’d be better off ridding ourselves of rage, they say, and condemning fury to the flames. Agnes Callard has, heroically, come to anger’s defense, presenting it as a necessary evil in an imperfect world. She goes further, suggesting that it is rational to crave revenge, and she rejects efforts to distinguish toxic anger from righteous indignation. Yet her embrace of this embattled emotion may go too far. We have much to learn by reflecting on what anger is good for and where it may err.

Critiques of anger abound. In the Bhagavad Gītā, Krishna describes anger as among our greatest enemies, which can lead only to delusion and despair. Buddhism counts anger as one of the three mental poisons, or kleshas; in Tibetan depictions of the Wheel of Life, anger is personified as a snake at the very center of the wheel, which, along with a bird (attachment) and a pig (ignorance), causes the unenlightened masses to remain trapped in a cycle of endless rebirth. The seminal Confucian philosopher, Xunzi, warns that rage will cause one to perish, and he says that we should learn to punish crime without anger. Zhuangzi, one of Taoism’s greatest luminaries, advises each of us to drift through life like an empty boat, to avoid incurring anyone’s rage. The Hebrew Bible depicts God as wrathful but cautions against human anger. Psalm 37, for example, urges that we forgo rage toward evildoers and trust the Lord to mete out justice. Christianity places emphasis on love and mercy, and the Holy Quran repeatedly refers to Allah as forgiving and forbearing.

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About Boston Review

Anger looms large in our public lives. Should it? Reflecting on two millennia of debates about the value of anger, Agnes Callard contends that efforts to distinguish righteous forms of anger from unjust vengeance, or appropriate responses to wrongdoing from inappropriate ones, are misguided. What if, she asks, anger is not a bug of human life, but a feature—an emotion that, for all its troubling qualities, is an essential part of being a moral agent in an imperfect world? And if anger is both troubling and essential, what then do we do with the implications: that angry victims of injustice are themselves morally compromised, and that it might not be possible to respond rightly to being treated wrongly? As Callard concludes, “We can’t be good in a bad world.” The contributions that follow explore anger in its many forms—public and private, personal and political—raising an issue that we must grapple with: Does the vast well of public anger compromise us all? FORUM Lead essay by Agnes Callard. Responses by Paul Bloom, Elizabeth Bruenig, Desmond Jagmohan, Daryl Cameron & Victoria Spring, Myisha Cherry, Jesse Prinz, Rachel Achs, Barbara Herman, Oded Na’aman. Final response by Agnes Callard. ESSAYS Judith Butler interviewed by Brandon M. Terry, David Konstan, Martha C. Nussbaum, Whitney Phillips, Amy Olberding.