Martha Nussbaum, “What is Anger, and Why Should We Care?”

Posted on January 16, 2014 by

Martha Nussbaum has given a very nice talk on why anger is “of dubious value in both life and the law“, the talk can be found here.

Although it seems obvious that anger can be bad for our well-being and is often associated with acts of malice and bad intent (and rightfully so), I do not think it is without value. Nussbaum argues that to view anger as the appropriate reactive attitude or emotion in nearly any case (both in law and in life) points to either a bad or incoherent values.

Here are a couple of reasons to think anger may have some value to our lives:

(1) Feeling angry allows us to severe relationships that would otherwise be detrimental to our well-being. Anger gives rise to resent which can allow us to severe ties with habitual transgressors who may abuse or mistreat us.

(2) Anger allows us to help protect ourselves and others from harming us. There are many situations in which anger allows us to overcome certain character traits such as timidness or an excess of fear.

There are a bunch of other ways that anger can serve us well. HOwever, with that said I do think one ought not get angry when it is not appropriate. Thus, for me, all emotions are useful to us and we should try and figure out those appropriateness conditions rather than try and do away with emotions because they tend to be associated with wrong-doing.

Zac Cogley, in his nice paper on anger and other “blaming emotions” (which can be found here) puts the point nicely when he says: “When a blaming emotion is fitting, it accurately presents its object as having the features contained by its appraisal; the fittingness of a blaming emotion is analogous to the epistemic relation that obtains between the world and a true belief.” Further, it seems that the transgressor deserves to have anger directed toward them if the anger is appropriate. Now, non-retributivists would disagree here, but, consequentialists have some unintuitive results as well.

Before getting completely off topic I’d like to hear what you think. Does anger have a positive role to play in our lives or should we work to treat all with kindness, even those who commit serious crimes against us?

(I first read about this on Leiter Reports, thanks to Brian for sharing)