by Maia Muzumdar
Nominated by Mara Bollard for COGSCI 302: Topics in Moral Psychology
In this compelling, clear, and thoroughly-researched paper, Maia takes on a difficult, multifaceted question: is moral anger valuable? Emotions can be normatively evaluated in multiple different ways, and these evaluations sometimes conflict: for example, if you feel angry at someone for deliberately shoving you without provocation, your anger is rational, or fitting, in the sense that it accurately represents the shove as a wrong done to you. Yet, it may not be prudentially rational - that is, good for you in a practical sense - to get angry about the shove if doing so would make things worse for you. We might also wonder about the moral effects of getting angry with other people: can anger have morally good results, or is its expression harmful overall? These are just some of the issues Maia’s paper deftly examines as she develops a nuanced and empirically-informed account of what moral anger is, how it functions, and when it is (and isn't) valuable. Maia successfully integrates insights from theories in both philosophy and psychology to argue that moral anger is most valuable as a response to injustice when it operates in conjunction with another moral emotion: compassion.
- Mara Bollard
Moral Anger and Compassion
In recent literature in moral psychology, philosophers and psychologists alike have disagreed on the normative value of different moral emotions: the emotions that respond to moral stimuli and inform our moral beliefs and judgments. Among the moral emotions, anger is one of the most contentious. Some authors believe anger holds people morally accountable for their actions and is a force for moral improvement, whereas others consider it harmful and irrational. From the available viewpoints on anger, it is clear that both sides make valid points: anger can be harmful and unproductive, yet it can also be the impetus for moral change. I will provide the review of anger and relevant discussion necessary to attempt to converge these ideas. Drawing on the work of Myisha Cherry (2019), Martha Nussbaum (2015), David Shoemaker (2018), and Laura Silva (2021), I will integrate Cherry's concept of agape love into my normative evaluation of moral anger, informed by Nussbaum's and Shoemaker's competing theories of anger. I will adopt a pluralist view of anger that Silva proposes to resolve this debate surrounding moral anger. Ultimately, I will argue that moral anger is most valuable when it works with compassion to acknowledge and rectify past harms.
Anger is one of the most controversial emotions in the field of moral psychology. Moral philosophers and psychologists alike disagree on its normative value in morality: can we trust anger to guide us towards moral progress? In this paper, I argue that anger is most valuable in our moral lives in conjunction with compassion, as I believe that compassion can mitigate anger's potential harmful effects and allows it to work to rectify past harms.
To understand exactly what compassion is, I will begin with an overview of Cherry's (2019) argument of the partnership between agape love and moral anger. I then outline two opposite normative evaluations of moral anger, Nussbuam's (2015) and Shoemaker's (2018). In opposition to my thesis, Nussbaum conceives of anger as incoherent: that is, it is based on magical thinking and largely irrational, and has retribution (a term I use as interchangeable with revenge and payback) as a goal (2015, 47). Contrary to Nussbuam, Shoemaker contends that anger's singular goal is communication (Shoemaker: 2018, 74), and as such it motivates reconciliation between the agent and the wrongdoer. In this view, anger is a fitting response to moral injury. In attempting to converge between these poles, I adopt the pluralist view of anger as proposed by Silva (2021). Seeing as anger can be inconsistent in its goals and action tendencies, I ultimately claim that we should be wary of taking moral anger at face value: only by keeping compassion in mind can moral anger be used as a signal for moral change and be put to work to rectify past harms while maintaining a forward-looking, prosocial attitude.
Before any further discussion of anger, we must first define an emotion, and anger alongside it. Scarantino (2014), cited by Shoemaker, says that emotions consist of "appraising a stimulus a particular way, feeling a particular way, and being motivated to act a particular way" (Shoemaker: 2018, 71). An emotion's principal components are thus its elicitor or stimulus, any goal(s) or desire(s), and action tendencies (Shoemaker: 2018, 72).
Our definition of anger builds upon our conception of what emotions are: anger can respond to an elicitor, typically a perceived wrongdoing to "oneself or one's own" (Aristotle and Nussbuam: 2015, 42). This wrongdoing can range from a minor slight to a horrible act; and the victim can be yourself, someone you care about, or a group you identify with. Shoemaker proposes another distinct type of anger, goal-frustration anger, which is elicited by being prevented from doing or getting what one wants (Shoemaker: 2018, 73), like encountering a traffic jam on the way to an important appointment. Though it can be argued that goal-frustration anger is morally flavored, I set aside this type of anger and focus on the anger described formerly. Shoemaker labels this anger as "blaming anger" (Shoemaker 2018, 74) and any further reference to anger refers to this type. With our definition of anger (mostly) resolved I begin with an overview of compassion, and its unlikely relationship with moral anger.
Anger and compassion
Given anger's historical association with retribution, and even violence, it is frequently thought of as the antithesis to love, or at the very least incompatible with it. However, Cherry argues that, not only are anger and love compatible, but anger is an expression of love (2019, 17). Here, the term love refers to agape love, a type of love named by the ancient Greeks (Cherry: 2019, 2), characterized by its unconditional nature and universality (Cherry: 2019, 3). Note that I use the terms compassion and agape love interchangeably, as they both represent the intention to keep goodwill and respect toward others in mind. In this sense, compassion does not require a mutual relationship of friendship, or even personal familiarity; rather, compassion is an attitude, and can be felt toward those we do not know, or even those we do not like (Cherry: 2019, 3). Agape love's unconditionality is crucial in its relationship to anger: if we keep compassion toward all others in mind, even in the face of injustice, we can maintain our position in the disagreement while not allowing anger to cultivate vengeful or vindictive action tendencies. This is enormously difficult to do, especially in the face of injustice: it seems virtually impossible to feel anything positive toward those who perpetrate unjust systems or are complacent in their function—yet it can be done. As cited by Cherry, Martin Luther King Jr.'s writings make it clear that his treatment of his anger toward racial injustice is the prototypical embodiment of how anger and compassion can work together to rectify past harm.
King writes that "creative understanding" (King and Cherry: 2019, 5) is required to take this stance. When his home was bombed, he tried to empathetically understand the perpetrators' context (Cherry: 2019, 5) rather than blindly follow his (fitting) anger. He realized that it was not necessarily their fault as people, but rather the fault of the cultural context they existed within (Cherry: 2019, 5). Importantly, this fact did not negate the harm they caused, and did not excuse their actions; the perpetrators should still be held accountable, but it is clear that the root culprit is the racist system they were brought up in. Practicing agape love towards those we are angry at can strengthen the moral value of our anger: by critically examining our anger and the relevant agents, it is clear that anger's first reaction, which may be one of retribution, is likely not the path to follow. By distilling moral anger with compassion in this way, we can see more easily who, or what, the true agents of wrongdoing are. In this way, we can maintain the integrity of our anger and wield it as a signal that something needs to change. Anger, if utilized carefully, can achieve acknowledgement of past harms as well as forward-looking rectification. Compassion is the key to this formula of anger; it unlocks moral anger's prosocial potential. In his argument, Shoemaker also gestures to this idea of agape love in a moral community; let us now explore his view on moral anger more thoroughly, as well as the contrasting view held by Nussbaum.
Evaluations of moral anger
The disputed goals and action tendencies are at the core of moral anger's shaky normative stance. At the fore of the debate we have Shoemaker and Nussbaum; communication vs. retribution, respectively. Here I go into detail about each of their stances.
Shoemaker's communication view of anger advocates for moral anger and claims that its central goal is communication; in this view, anger can strengthen a foundation of mutual respect in a moral community. Shoemaker argues that anger's main goal is to communicate with the target (2018: 74) rather than get payback, and, ideally, obtain an expression of remorse (2018, 81) from the offender. His view, that anger's goal is to communicate and thus motivates action tendencies that attempt reconciliation and forgiveness, is in direct opposition to the retribution view. Further, Shoemaker describes moral anger as reifying "empathic glue" (2018, 82) in a moral community, a concept that parallels compassion as discussed above. Moral anger demands respect and acknowledgement for everyone in a moral community, and, by communicating this goal, it strengthens the morality of the community.
Conversely, the retribution view, put forth by Nussbaum, argues that a necessary condition for anger is the presence of a (irrationally) retributive goal of some form; this is the basis with which it rejects the value of moral anger. Central to Nussbaum's argument is the inherent desire for payback or retribution in anger; she writes, "anger involves, conceptually, a wish for things to go badly, somehow, for the offender…as a payback for the offense (2015, 46). In other words, the retribution view thinks anger's chief goal is payback; importantly, this retribution is not necessarily violent. Nussbaum dismisses moral anger on the grounds of magical thinking: she argues that the desire for retribution, inherent in anger, is irrational because it cannot change what happened in the past (2015, 47). In this way, the retribution view favors anger as a backward-looking emotion; that is, fixated on past harm and unconcerned with future social welfare. Anger's supposed irrationality is one prong of Nussbaum's view on anger. But can anger ever be rational? Indeed, Nussbaum construes anger as rational when it responds to a status injury, which is a perceived slight against one's social ranking that occurs as a result of an insult, condescension, or wrongdoing (2015, 44). However, Nussbaum argues that narcissism is at the core of status-injuries, since the threatened relative status of the individual is the key elicitor of anger rather than the bad qualities of the act itself (2015, 45). So in the case where anger is rational, it is narcissistically morally questionable. This is the second half of Nussbaum's argument against moral anger.
Until we reach convergence on these two views, it seems hard to make a decision about anger's normative value in the moral sphere—the retribution view argues for anger's irrationality and moral questionability, while the communication view explains any retributive action as dramatically advancing the aim of communication (Shoemaker: 2018, 75). Making this endeavor more difficult, it seems that, at least intuitively, moral anger can have more than just one motivation across all possible cases. Consider the difference in goals and action tendencies to a partner betraying you. Perhaps this ends the relationship neatly, or you feel ill will toward them for years, or you attempt to reconcile. Further, consider the range of anger-induced motivations in different vignettes: being cut off in traffic generally yields a different response than learning of systemic injustice or listening to a politician you disagree with. Are Shoemaker and Nussbuam's views dynamic enough to capture the range of moral anger's goals? I do not think so; I now turn to the pluralist view of moral anger as a wider lens to examine moral anger through.
The pluralist view
Rather than restricting anger to motivating one desire and normatively evaluating it as wholesale good or bad, Silva (2021) proposes a pluralist view of anger that posits that there are multiple possible goals of anger, including retribution and communication. She holds that, psychologically, anger exhibits "behavioral pluripotency" (2021, 6), meaning that it can give rise to many action tendencies. Empirical data show that self-reported, high intensity anger can correlate with desiring constructive actions that address the situation (Silva and Tausch et al.: 2021, 6), as well as motivating punitive action (Silva and Halperin: 2021, 6). Empirically, it seems that anger gives rise to many action tendencies. These action tendencies are modulated by moderators, variables embedded in the context of a situation that impact anger's, or any emotion's, observed desires (Silva: 2021, 6). Crucial moderators for anger may be the rigidity of a situation, or how much we can change things (Silva: 2021, 6), and the appropriateness of anger in the case where you are the target of anger (Silva: 2021, 8).
So the pluralist view states that anger can have many goals, thus motivating many action tendencies. We are concerned with two in particular, retribution and communication. Given that, generally, emotions are complex, and anger can rise at a very wide range of elicitors, it's plausible to say that anger has many possible goals. Chief among them, argues Silva, is the desire for recognition and acknowledgment from the offender (2021, 10). Silva and Shoemaker are closely aligned in this vein: Shoemaker's communication and Silva's recognition are virtually identical goals, aiming for acknowledgement. Where Silva subtly disagrees with Shoemaker is in the pluripotency of anger's action tendencies. While Shoemaker thinks anger's only action tendency is communication, and perhaps retribution as a byproduct, Silva does not discount the possibility of pure retribution as an action tendency of anger.
The pluralist view of anger only provides a descriptive picture of moral anger; we now must decide what the normative implications of this view are. Indeed, anger can motivate communicative and non-punitive behavior, as seen empirically. Anger can also cause general harm, between individuals and in intergroup contexts. We may lash out in intimate relationships when we feel anger, and much political discourse seems to be an unproductive back and forth where neither side wishes to understand the other. There seems to be something else at play with anger when it yields productivity. To decide anger's normative value, we must know what makes anger optimal for forming moral judgments, and I argue that that is compassion.
Is moral anger valuable?
Given that moral anger's pluralism generates an inconsistency in its goals and action tendencies, I do not think we can make a definitive normative judgment on its value in morality based on these descriptive qualities alone. We must examine different case studies of moral anger, such as King, and think of why they worked. King's approach to his moral anger is the standard that we should strive to: by practicing compassion, he was steadfast in the face of systemic injustice without submitting to retribution and excessive displays of anger. This does not mean he let go of his anger; rather, he utilized it as a beacon that structural change was necessary to achieve moral progress. Compassion and agape love towards all others in a moral community means that one must practice compassion toward themselves—using moral anger as a force for moral good. Conversely, when we allow anger to swallow us whole, we easily fall into unproductive vortices in which anger begets anger.
In this way, I claim that moral anger is a rational response to offenses, upon yourself or others. It is rational in that it flags a situation that may necessitate change. This does not mean that any expression of anger is permissible; as I argued above, compassion is key in modulating moral anger. Nussbaum would almost certainly object to my claim: her view takes moral anger to be a rational response to status injury, but morally impermissible to act upon in any case. That narcissism is implicit in status injuries is at the core of Nussbaum's position against moral anger, and acting out of narcissism is morally questionable. I would agree with this: narcissism-driven acts are likely rarely of good moral standing, so our disagreement lies in the perception of status injuries.
In response to Nussbaum's hypothetical objection, I would argue that status injuries are not inherently narcissistic in character under the assumption that everyone is deserving of compassion, including yourself. Imagine that you are interrupted or ignored at a work meeting, or in a conversation with friends. Nussbaum would read the anger you may feel at this moment as a result of a status injury. You feel as if the person who disregarded what you had to say sees you as inferior, and you wish to restore the social balance between you two. Supposedly this is a narcissistic aim, but I would argue that this anger demonstrates a desire for mutual respect that extends between all members of a community. By speaking over you, the individual communicates the sentiment that your thoughts are not worthy of being listened to, that they do not respect you. Nussbaum's focus on narcissism in status injuries ignores this expectation of communal respect for others.
It is clear that, in my view of moral anger and compassion working together as a force for moral good, that anger about status injuries, or any wrongdoing, is not necessarily narcissistic. If we all operate with the understanding that everyone is deserving of respect, of course a slight merits anger; this is in congruence with our understanding of compassion.
Our discussion thus far has covered the features of compassion as it serves moral anger, as well as a prototypical example of the optimal synchrony between compassion and moral anger; Nussbaum's retribution view of moral anger, in which anger only serves to motivate retribution and as such we should move away from it in morality; Shoemaker's (and Silva's, in part) communication, where anger conversely aims to communicate and reconcile rather than inflame; and Silva's pluralist view, where moral anger can motivate many possible goals and action tendencies, chief among them recognition. In navigating between Shoemaker's and Nussbaum's views, we examined and adopted the pluralist view as a more pragmatic picture of moral anger. With this descriptive understanding of the mechanics of moral anger, I apply my understanding of compassion to moral anger and argue that moral anger is most valuable in conjunction with compassion.
It is true that moral anger has the potential to cause great harm when unbounded or when it veers into hatred. However, when directed at systems of injustice rather than at individuals, anger can drive moral progress. Anger can also promote interpersonal reconciliation when it is used to signal that something needs to change. When we keep compassion and love in mind for others, our anger can be a force for change for the better without becoming inflammatory. Thus, anger is a valuable moral emotion when it works with compassion to acknowledge and rectify past harms.
Cherry, M. (2019). Love, Anger, and Racial Injustice. In Adrienne Martin (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Love in Philosophy. New York: Routledge.
Nussbaum, M. (2015). Transitional Anger. Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 1(1), 41-56. doi:10.1017/apa.2014.19
Shoemaker, D. (2018). You oughta know: Defending angry blame. In M. Cherry & O. Flanagan (Eds.), The moral psychology of anger (pp. 67–88). Rowman & Littlefield.
Silva, L. (2022). Anger and its desires. European Journal of Philosophy 29 (4):1115-1135. doi:10.1111/ejop.12628