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AGAINST MORAL PURITY

START AT THE END: “We can’t be good in a bad world.” Agnes Callard’s main claim is that the right moral response to injustice is a kind of anger that involves committing wrongs, sometimes very serious wrongs. Only in a world very different from our own, where people don’t do bad things, could we avoid such “moral corruption.” This conclusion is particularly surprising because, while taking herself to be arguing against a purified notion of morality, Callard seems to posit a moral standard none of us can hope to meet. How did Callard end up doubling down on moral purity?

To answer this question, we need to go back and follow the argument. Callard starts off by arguing that an apparent philosophical controversy about anger conceals a shared fantasy. Some philosophers believe the world would be better without anger, while others believe a certain form of anger is part of an appropriate moral response to wrongdoing. In fact, Callard argues, both camps reject two crucial characteristics of anger, namely, the tendency to bear a grudge despite the wrongdoer’s attempts at restitution and the tendency to exact revenge. Philosophers have been striving to purify anger from these nasty tendencies by describing them as pathological and unreasonable. But Callard insists these philosophers’ aim is unrealistic and their verdict is oblivious to the valid reasoning that supports the grudge-bearing and vengeful tendencies of anger.

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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.