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ON ANGER

Suppose that you are angry on Tuesday because I stole from you on Monday. Suppose that on Wednesday I return what I stole; I compensate you for any disadvantage occasioned by your not having had it for two days; I offer additional gifts to show my good will; I apologize for my theft as a moment of weakness; and, finally, I promise never to do it again. Suppose, in addition, that you believe my apology is sincere and that I will keep my promise.

Could it be rational for you to be just as angry on Thursday as you were on Tuesday? Moreover, could it be rational for you to conceive of a plan to steal from me in turn? And what if you don’t stop at one theft: could it be rational for you to go on to steal from me again, and again, and again?

Though your initial anger at me might have been reasonable, we tend to view a policy of unending disproportionate revenge as paradigmatically irrational. Eventually we should move on, we are told, or let it go, or transmute our desire for revenge into a healthier or more respectable feeling. This idea has given rise to a debate among academic philosophers about the value of anger. Should we valorize it in terms of the righteous indignation of that initial response? Or should we vilify it in terms of the grudge-bearing vengeance of the unending one?

I am going to explain how that debate goes, but I am not going to try to resolve it. Instead, I am going to peel it away to reveal a secret that lies behind it: we have been debating the wrong issue. The real debate concerns the three questions about anger and rationality in my second paragraph, which are not rhetorical, and to which the answer might well be: yes, yes, and yes.

first, the academic debate. In one corner, we have those who think that we would have a morally better world if we could eradicate anger entirely. This tradition has its roots in ancient Stoicism and Buddhism. The first-century Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca wrote that anger is a form of madness; he authored a whole treatise—De Ira, the title of this volume—about how to manage its ill effects. The eighth-century Indian philosopher and monk Śāntideva enjoined those wishing to travel the road of enlightenment to eliminate even the smallest seeds of anger, on the grounds that the full-blown emotion can only cause harm.

In the contemporary world, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum draws on Seneca and the Stoic tradition to argue that anger is an intrinsically mistaken attitude, since it is infected with a backward-looking “payback wish” that is vengeful and destructive. The correct response to any setback or injustice, in her view, is forward-looking: preventing similar events from occurring in the future. In a similar vein, Owen Flanagan, who draws on both Śāntideva’s Buddhism and a Confucian-inflected metaphysics, sees anger as an intrinsically hostile attitude, one that falsely presupposes a self-centered metaphysics of individuals who possess “intentions to be cruel, and to do harm or evil.”

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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.