There is a lot of anger in the world right now. You hear it people’s voices; you feel it in the air. Turn on a TV and what will you see? Journalists snapping questions at politicians; politicians snapping back with indignation. Dip your toe into social media and what will you read? People seething and roiling in rage. Anyone who disagrees with them is a ‘fucking idiot’, ‘garbage’, ‘worthless’. The time for quiet reflection and dialogue is over. We are at war. Anger is our fuel.
As someone raised to view anger as a bad thing, but who falls prey to it all the time, I find this to be unwelcome development. There are, however, some who believe that anger is a good thing. There are moral philosophers, for example, argue that anger is an essential foundation for our moral beliefs and practices — that it is an appropriate response to injustice. Amia Srinivasan, for instance, has argued that even if anger can be counterproductive it is, for victims of injustice, often ‘apt’ and we need to factor that into our understanding of injustice. Similarly, the philosopher Sally Haslanger has said that being angry is important because it helps her to care about certain political issues. Indeed, she cites the need for some anger as one reason why she quit doing certain Eastern meditative practices such as yoga:
Eventually I quit doing yoga because I found it left me too cut off from the world, especially from the political engagement that I cared so much about. I didn't want to be serene. I didn't want to be centered. Or at least not as much as my involvement in yoga then required. My anger and my intensity are an important part of who I am, and I couldn't find a way to combine them with the yoga I was doing at the time.
In his fascinating book, The Geography of Morals, Owen Flanagan takes a long hard look at this positive view of anger by contrasting it with the Buddhist/Stoic view of anger (which favours purging ourselves of anger). He does this as part of an effort to understand what different moral traditions can learn from each other.
In the remainder of this article I want to examine what Flanagan says. In particular, I want to clarify and analyse the argument he presents for thinking that the Western moral tradition (currently in thrall to righteous anger) should shift to become more like the Buddhist/Stoic tradition.
1. Identifying Different Moral Worlds
I will start by saying something about Flanagan’s perspective and method. In many ways, this is more interesting and important than his specific arguments about anger.
Flanagan wants to explore different possible moral worlds. He believes that we each get raised and encultured in a particular set of moral traditions. These traditions tell us how we ought to feel and behave . Over time, these feelings and behaviours become solidified. We learn to see them as natural, perhaps even necessary. We refuse to accept that other communities exist with different, but equally valid, moral traditions. Flanagan’s goal is to get us to ‘see’ these other moral possibilities and take them seriously.
Flanagan tries to tread a fine line between moral objectivism and moral relativism when staking out this view. As I read him, he is committed to some form of objectivism. Thus he thinks there are some moral ‘worlds’ that are beyond the pale (e.g. the moral world of fascist Germany). Nevertheless, he thinks that the space of moral possibility is much wider than we typically believe. We shouldn’t dismiss all alternative moral traditions off the bat. We should reflect upon them and see if there are any good reasons (consistent with at least some of our existing beliefs) to shift over to those alternative moral traditions. This means adopting a form of super-wide reflective equilibrium: a method that looks to achieve balanced, reasonable judgments across different moral traditions and not just within one.
The discussion of anger is just a case study in the application of this method. Nevertheless, it is a case study that Flanagan takes very seriously indeed, dedicating three and half chapters of his book to its analysis. Being a Westerner, Flanagan starts within the Western moral tradition that endorses righteous anger. He argues that this tradition consists of angry feelings and behaviours that are endorsed and perpetuated by a superstructure of anger-related norms and scripts. In other words, individuals in the Western tradition experience feelings of anger (emotional hotness, rage, indignation, impulsiveness) and behave in angry ways (criticising, shaming, punishing, lashing out, violent rebuke). Some, but not all, of these feelings and behaviours are then reinforced and protected by norms (i.e. permissions and recommendations about when one ought to feel and behave angrily) and scripts (i.e. sets of patterned angry behaviours that are deemed appropriate in certain circumstances). These feelings, behaviours, norms and scripts are, in turn, supported by a deeper set of metaphysical and moral beliefs about individualism, inter-personal relationships and justice. This is what supports the view that at least one form of anger — righteous anger — is a good thing.
As someone raised in this Western tradition, Flanagan believed that it was necessary and correct for many years. He knew that other traditions saw things differently, but he couldn’t see those as viable options. If someone wrongs you, of course you should feel angry and look for retribution. How else are you supposed to behave? A couple of visits to post-apartheid South Africa helped him to reconsider. I’ll let him speak for himself on this issue:
Both times I visited…I found myself in feeling in awe that Nelson Mandela and his comrades had found it in themselves not to kill all the white folk…It amazed me that apartheid ended, that it could have ended, without an even worse bloodbath than had already occurred, and that South Africa found its way to enter an era of “truth and reconciliation”…The best explanation was that I was not raised to see how ending a practice like apartheid was psychologically, morally, or practically possible without a bloodbath. I didn’t see that this was a variety of moral possibility…I was raised in a world where every tale of the victories of the forces of good over the forces of evil involved righteous fury, death and destruction.
The Buddhist/Stoic view of anger is very different from the Western one.* Both traditions think that anger is something that ought to be eliminated from human life (as much as possible). The Buddhist view is deeply metaphysical in nature. Life involves suffering, according to the Buddhist. This suffering stems from mistaken beliefs about the nature of reality and the emotional reactions that arise from these beliefs. Anger arises from egoism: a belief that individuals are wronged by the actions of others. Egoism is mistaken. There is no self: the idea of a single conscious self is an illusion that can be revealed through meditative practice. Similarly, our belief that the world is divided up into concrete categories and individuals is also mistaken. The world is a single, interconnected whole. When we appreciate this, we can see how destructive anger can really be. Each instance of anger has ripple effects across the whole. It doesn’t just affect us or a handful of others. It affects everyone. Persisting with it prolongs our suffering. (I’m greatly simplifying a long discussion in Flanagan’s book)
The Stoic view is more pragmatic. The classic Stoic text on anger comes from Seneca. He argues that anger emerges as a response to injury and is manifested by the desire to cause injury in kind. There are three problem with this. First, anger tends to overreach and overreact. This is something you probably experience yourself: when you are angry you tend to lash out in a wild manner. You are rarely measured or proportionate. You need to ‘cool down’ to do that. Second, Seneca argues that anger is practically useless. Anger leads to the breakdown of relations and the severing of bonds of trust. The perpetual cycles of anger prevent us from moving forward with our lives and getting what we want. Third, Seneca argues that anger is not spur to virtue. It tends to wither the virtuous response and block us from true happiness. It is only the non-virtuous person who takes pleasure in causing pain and suffering to others.
Flanagan sees something attractive in the Buddhist/Stoic view. A world not prey to the dark side of anger sounds like a good thing. He thinks we should consider shifting from our current embrace of righteous anger to this alternative. But there are four major objections to this suggestion. Let’s address each of them in turn.
2. The Impossibility Objection
The first objection is that the Buddhist/Stoic view asks the impossible of us:
Impossibility Objection: Anger is hard-wired into the human mind/body. It is a psychobiological necessity. We cannot eliminate it without fundamentally changing human nature (which is something we cannot, yet, do).
This is a common view. Flanagan quotes several philosophers who have endorsed a version of it. Perhaps the most well-known is Peter Strawson who wrote a famous article back in the 1960s about the ‘reactive attitudes’ (anger, resentment, indignation etc) and the central role they play in human moral life. His view has been influential in both philosophy and psychology. Followers of his view tend to see anger as an instinctual given: as part of the fundament of humanity.
Is this really the case? Flanagan spends a long time answering this question (taking up an entire chapter). But he only really makes three key points. His first is that we need to critically scrutinise what it means to say that anger is a ‘psychobiological necessity’. Clearly, there are some things that are hard-wired into (most) humans from birth. Flanagan gives the example of crying. A newborn baby will naturally — without any instruction or learning — cry. They won’t, however, get angry. This is an emotional and behavioural trait that emerges later in childhood. This means that if anger is a psychobiological necessity it is one that emerges in the course of childhood development and not something that is there from the start. Furthermore, when it does first emerge it is not in its sophisticated adult form, with the associated norms and scripts. It is more like a raw emotion that gets expressed in various, not always consistent ways. This ‘developmental distance’ between birth and the emergence of anger should give us some pause. How do we know that something is a psychobiological necessity, and just not a strongly entrenched cultural norm, if it emerges in the course of childhood development? Flanagan argues that we have been historically too quick to assume that cultural norms are psychobiological necessities.
The second point Flanagan makes is that there are some cultures where anger, if it can be said to exist at all, gets expressed in very different ways from what we see in the West. There is, indeed, a long-standing debate about whether you can meaningfully compare emotions across different cultures, but even if we accept that you can, we must also accept that the shared emotions can be quite minimal. Flanagan gives the example of Catherine Lutz’s work on the emotional repertoire of the Ifaluk people from the South Pacific. Lutz argues that the Ifaluk have a very different emotional repertoire from what you would see in North America. Their equivalent of justifiable anger — an emotion called song — is both triggered by different moral transgressions (much more minor that what would provoke an American) and results in different behaviours (the refusal to eat being one way of expressing anger). Similarly, Lutz argues that the Ifaluk don’t have an equivalent to the Western emotion of love; instead they have fago, which combines what we might call love, compassion and sadness into a single emotional response. Cross-cultural work of this sort suggests that there is more ‘cultural plasticity’ to our reactive attitudes than we might think. Thus, even if there is some basic reactive response like anger, there is room to play around with the behavioural norms and scripts associated with that response.
This brings us to Flanagan’s third key point which is that this plasticity opens up some space in which the moral reformer can play around. We can ask the question whether our current practices and beliefs around anger are morally optimal. Maybe they are not. Maybe they were once adaptive but we now have reason to think they are less so. Flanagan makes an analogy with vegetarianism to underscore this point. He argues that the desire to eat meat may be ‘programmed’ into us (to some extent) because it was adaptive to eat meat in the past. But we have since discovered reasons to think that eating meat is not morally optimal. Thus, if we can survive without eating meat — and many people do — there may be reason to shift our moral beliefs and practices to vegetarianism. Something similar could be true for anger and the shift to the Buddhist/Stoic view. All of this leads Flanagan to conclude that:
Even if anger is original and natural in some forms, those forms are inchoate until a moral ecology speaks, forms and authorizes them.
The claim then is that we should not authorize righteous anger. The persuasiveness of this, of course, depends on whether righteous anger is morally optimal or not. That’s where the next three objections come in.
3. The Attachment Objection
The second objection is that Buddhist/Stoic view asks us to forgo the goods of attachment:
The Attachment Objection: A flourishing human life will consist of relationships involving deep attachments to others. Deep attachments to others necessitate some capacity for anger. Therefore, in order to access the good of attachment we need to allow for anger.
It is often said that love and anger go together. How many times have you felt angry at someone you love? Surprisingly often, I suspect. This might seem paradoxical but it is not. When you are attached to another person, you care deeply about them. You want them to do well and act well. If they do, you will feel the positive emotions of respect, admiration and love. Conversely, you don’t want them to step out of line and do wrong. If they do, you will feel the negative emotions of anger, resentment and indignation. The claim underlying this second objection is that you cannot break the axiological link between the positive and negative emotions. You cannot have the goods of attachment without also being open to negative emotions such as anger. This is healthy, normal and desirable. If you were completely detached from others — if you viewed their actions with equipoise — you would be inhuman, alien.
I covered a variant of this objection previously when looking at the ethics of grief. To briefly recap what I said there, one common argument about grief is that experiencing it is a good thing because it means that the person who died meant something to you. If you felt nothing after their deaths, that would be an indictment of the relationship you had with them. Although this might be true, there are problems when it comes to the calibration of grief. Sometimes grief is overwhelming. It dominates your conscious life. You cannot move beyond it. In these cases the grief, though perhaps initially indicative of a positive relationship with the deceased, becomes destructive. This is one reason why Buddhist and Stoic philosophers also recommend limiting and extirpating grief from our lives. This doesn’t mean completely forgoing our attachments to others. It just means moderating those attachments and ensuring they don’t become destructive.
Flanagan thinks we should adopts a similar strategy when it comes to anger and attachment. We should recognise that attachment to others comes with a whole suite of emotions (respect, love, admiration, sorrow, grief, anger, indignation, rage). It is not at all obvious that each of these emotions is essential to attachment, i.e. that we cannot feel attached without one or more of them. Indeed, it already seems to be the case that some people can live deeply attached lives without experiencing one or more of these emotions. If this is true, and if some of the emotions commonly associated with attachment are destructive, then perhaps we should look to extirpate them from our lives.
Flanagan bolsters this by arguing that of all the emotions and passions associated with attachment, there is something troubling about anger. It is not just that anger tends to be miscalibrated and prone to overreach (as Seneca argued) but that there is something inherently destructive about it:
But anger is a response that marks injury and seeks to do harm. It is vengeful and spiteful. It does not seek to heal like forgiveness and sorrow. Nor does it encourage and compliment goodness as gratitude does. It is ugly and harmful, and in the business of passing pain.
At its extremes, anger can sever the bonds of attachment and destroy once positive relationships. Flanagan’s suggestion then is that we redirect our emotional energies away from anger and towards sorrow, gratitude and forgiveness. These emotions are still associated with attachment and thus allow us to access the goods of attachment, but enable us to do so without the destructive consequences of anger. So when someone transgresses or wrongs us we should feel sorrow for their transgression, gratitude for the good they have done, and seek to forgive or move on.
4. The Injustice and Catharsis Objections
This idea that sorrow, gratitude and forgiveness should be our go-to emotions in the event of a moral transgression will be unsettling to anyone raised to think that anger and retribution are the appropriate responses to wrongdoing. If someone wrongs us surely we should not roll over and forgive; we should meet fire with fire? This is essential to the process of identifying and responding to injustice.
This is something that the third and fourth objections to the Buddhist/Stoic view try to get at. We can treat these objections as a pair since they are closely related:
The Injustice Objection: Anger is necessary, socially, if we are to properly identify and respond to injustice/moral wrongdoing.
The Catharsis Objection: Anger is necessary, personally, if we are to heal and move on from injustice/wrongdoing.
It is these kinds of objections that seem to motivate feminist and minority critics of Buddhist/Stoic passivity. I think this is apparent in the previously-mentioned work of Amia Srinivasan and Sally Haslanger. Their claim appears to be that women (and other minorities), as victims of oppression, need to embrace their anger if they are to address the conditions of their oppression. Flanagan cites other examples of this in his book, focusing in particular on work done on the appropriate response to sexual violence.
Flanagan is not as dismissive of these two objections as he is of the others. He recognises the importance of responding to injustice and accepts that some anger (minimal though it may be) might be necessary for psychological healing. Nevertheless, he thinks there are good reasons to think that anger is less important than proponents of these critiques make out. He makes three points in response to them.
First, he reemphasises that embracing the Buddhist/Stoic view does not mean giving up on all passions or emotions. It means accentuating and encouraging useful emotions and discouraging and extirpating destructive ones. This is done not by denying feelings but by moderating the beliefs, norms and scripts associated with them. This is important because it means that embracing the Buddhists/Stoic view does not entail ignoring all instances of injustice and becoming a pushover. It just means responding to injustice in a different way. To illustrate the point, Flanagan discusses a thought experiment (first proposed by Martha Nussbaum and based on the life of Elie Wiesel) involving a soldier liberating a Nazi death camp. In Nussbaum’s original formulation the soldier experiences profound rage and anger at what has happened to the people in the death camp. Nussbaum argues that this is the appropriate and desirable response to the injustices that occurred. Flanagan replies by asking us to imagine that instead of experiencing rage and anger the soldier experiences profound sorrow and compassion for the victims of the Nazis. Would this be any less appropriate and desirable a response to the injustice? Flanagan argues that it would not.
Second, he argues that anger is clearly not necessary in order to recognise and respond to injustice. To illustrate this he turns to his favoured example of the restoration movement in post-apartheid Africa. The leaders of this movement did not deny that people felt angry at what happened, but they did work hard to ensure that anger did not play a “pivotal or sustaining role” in seeking truth and reconciliation. They saw that anger could be destructive and that there was a need to ‘let go’ of anger if the society was to heal and move forward.
Third, and specifically in response to the catharsis objection, Flanagan argues that expressing an emotion such as anger often has a psychologically destructive effect, not a healing effect. The intuition underlying the catharsis objection is that anger is something that builds up inside us and needs to be released. Once it is released we return to a more normal, less angry state. The problem is that whenever this has been tested in practice, the opposite result is usually found to occur. In other words, instead of releasing and reducing angry, the expression of anger often just begets more anger (for a review of the main studies done to date, see here). This suggests that if we want to avoid destructive cycles of anger, we should avoid too much catharsis.
To sum up, Flanagan argues that we should consider shifting our moral equilibrium. Instead of viewing righteous anger as morally necessary and occasionally positive, we should see it as potentially destructive and counter-productive. We should shift to a more Buddhist/Stoic approach to anger.
To repeat what I said above, I think Flanagan’s argument about anger is not just interesting in and of itself, but also interesting from a methodological perspective. Trying to achieve super-wide equilibrium between different moral traditions can open up the moral possibility space. Doing this allows us to imagine new moral realities.
* Yes, of course, Stoicism is a Western tradition and so it is wrong to suppose that there is a single, unchallenged Western view of anger. Flanagan focuses on what he takes to be the dominant view within the Western liberal tradition.