The Philosophers’ Anger

By Howard J. CurzerNovember 2, 2017

The Philosophers’ Anger

Anger and Forgiveness by Martha C. Nussbaum

MARTHA NUSSBAUM IS incredibly prolific. In addition to the Nussbaum who teaches and makes presentations at conferences, 12 Nussbaum-clones must be hiding in her basement, pounding away at various articles and books. You smile, but which is more plausible: my 13-Nussbaum hypothesis or the hypothesis that a single person has written 25 books and more than 500 articles on ancient Greek philosophy and literature, the capabilities approach, the emotions, ethics, and political philosophy, and so on?

Although Anger and Forgiveness is a long, sometimes dense book, Nussbaum’s thesis is simply stated: anger is a response to being harmed, and involves a wish to do harm to the wrongdoer in return. Anger pushes people down the road of payback and the road of status; it seeks to make the wrongdoer suffer to right the wrong, and to reduce the wrongdoer’s status.

Both roads lead to swamps. The road of payback depends upon magical thinking: punishing the wrongdoer will not make the broken vase whole again or restore the murder victim to life. By contrast, the road of status makes sense: those who try to victimize others lose standing when they fail to get away with it. But, following the Stoics, Nussbaum maintains that while status seems valuable, it is actually worthless. The road of payback is wrong about facts, and the road of status, about values.

Nussbaum acknowledges that anger can have positive uses. It can alert victims and bystanders that a wrongdoing has occurred, deter other similar acts, motivate an appropriate response to wrongdoing, protect the self-respect and dignity of victims, take wrongdoers seriously as responsible agents rather than people who could not help doing what they did, and motivate a struggle against injustice. But she maintains that these are relatively rare results of anger, and not as helpful as one might think. Since anger takes us down one or both of the two wrongheaded roads mentioned above, it is to be avoided.

Some philosophers, as well as some strands within Judaism and Christianity, have maintained that forgiveness should not be granted to wrongdoers without apology, while others have urged forgiveness with or without apology. Nussbaum maintains that unconditional forgiveness is better than offering forgiveness only in exchange for an apology, a practice she calls transactional forgiveness. But both versions take victims down the roads of payback and status. Nussbaum recommends a third alternative: skip the business of forgiveness altogether. Concentrate on moving forward with compassion, and improving things rather than looking backward to past wrongdoing. She calls this third option unconditional love.

In the remainder of the book, Nussbaum argues that anger and forgiveness should be rejected in favor of love in three realms of human life. She begins by giving a nuanced description of numerous ways in which anger undermines intimate relationships. Here Nussbaum shines. She lists four essential features of intimate relationships: they are pivotal to people’s sense of flourishing, involve great vulnerability because they involve trust, go to the heart of who we are, and are formed with people we like. Then she shows how these features make intimate relationships particularly vulnerable to the corrosive effects of anger, and how forgiveness rituals within intimate relationships degenerate into cycles of dominance and subordination.

Nussbaum’s discussion of the middle realm (interpersonal, but non-intimate, apolitical relationships) consists of anecdotes of her own frustrating encounters with others, and her successes and failures to deploy her alternative to anger and forgiveness. The stories of her dealing with childish academics offer comic relief from the seriousness of the rest of the book; they also reveal her pet peeves and self-improvement strategies. In this chapter, Nussbaum’s view hardens. Near the beginning, she allows that “anger has a limited use as an attention-getter, and therefore a potential deterrent […] [and] as a signal (to oneself, and at times to others) of a problem, and as a source of motivation to address it — albeit often unreliably.” By the end of the chapter, she says that it is implausible that the anger of victims deters, and that it is loss and suffering rather than anger that raises awareness and motivates positive steps.

Finally, Nussbaum’s discussion of everyday justice in the political realm focuses on the penal system. She relates the views of various thinkers on punishment, and situates her own alternative to punishment. When she turns to revolutionary justice in the political realm, Nussbaum maintains that unconditional love can reform even very repressive societies. In support of this claim, she presents the thinking and activism of Gandhi, King, and especially Mandela.

Some might object to Nussbaum’s proposal on the grounds that it is impossibly high-minded. Maybe Vulcans and Stoics can forgo anger and even forgiveness in favor of rational decision-making about the future and love of other people, but this is simply impossible for the overwhelming majority of people. It is not a useful prescription for ordinary human beings.

Aristotle offers a different objection. He does not say that forgoing forgiveness is too difficult. He does not deny that we could do it; he doubts, however, that we should do it. He maintains that, like most emotions, anger is appropriately felt in moderation. The anger of a victim ought to lie in a mean. Like Goldilocks’s preferred porridge, anger should be not too hot, or too cold, but just right; it ought to be proportional to the wrongdoing which prompts it. In particular, the victims ought to get angry when wronged, and their anger ought to motivate retaliation.

While Aristotle acknowledges that anger can go wrong in various ways, he maintains that these failure modes are peripheral: anger’s positive uses are central and helpful. He’s got a point. Everything can go wrong. Generous acts can be used to bolster the giver’s ego, or to lower that of the recipient, or to divide and conquer the giver’s foes. Nevertheless, no one (not even Ayn Randians) argues that we ought to jettison generosity. How, then, do we decide whether to damn and dump anger and forgiveness, or just work on minimizing their misuses?

Aristotle is a scientist himself, and he takes the judgments of scientists and craftsmen seriously. Whether transactional forgiveness, unconditional forgiveness, or unconditional love works best is an empirical question, so Aristotle would consult the experts. If you want to know whether a particular form of therapy works, ask therapists rather than philosophers. Now therapists report that forgiveness helps people rid themselves of anger and enables them to move on. But Nussbaum rejects the authority of therapists by impugning their motives. She wonders: “[I]s the forgiveness emphasis even instrumentally useful? Of course the therapists say so, but they would: it is their trade […] There is a lucrative profession of anger therapy, and so those therapist convince people that forgiveness […] is valuable.”

Aristotle is also a fan of common sense, so he checks to see what ordinary people think. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he reports:

Inirascibility [lack of anger] […] is blamed. For those who are not angry at the things they should be are thought to be fools, and so are those who are not angry in the right way, at the right time, or with the right persons; for such a man is thought not to feel things nor to be pained by them, and since he does not get angry, he is thought unlikely to defend himself.

Since people who don’t get angry are thought not to be pained by wrongdoing, they are signaling that wrongdoing does not matter. And since they are thought unlikely to defend themselves, they are signaling that they can be wronged with impunity. Inirascibility is a “kick me” sign. Conversely, anger deters wrongdoing by signaling that angry people care about being wronged, and will defend themselves.

Aristotle would think that Nussbaum has misrepresented the road of payback: its goal is not to right past wrongs magically, but to deter future wrongdoing. Payback deters by signaling that one is not going to put up with victimization; that one has self-respect; that wrongdoers will be held responsible and punished for their actions.

Aristotle might also maintain that Nussbaum has also misrepresented the road of status. For him status — or, to use less pejorative words, “honor” or “respect” — is a necessary condition of a good life. It is easy to dismiss the importance of respect when one is well respected, but consider life without much respect. Suppose you are often treated as a child, fool, loser, or wimp. You are laughed at and mansplained, at risk of assault and robbery. Those leading such lives know that each time you allow such treatment to pass, you lose a bit more ground; the next insult or injury becomes a bit more likely. Nussbaum urges you to challenge such things dispassionately, but Aristotle says that won’t work. To retain respect, you need to get angry and if that is not enough, retaliate with a harsh word, slap, punch, lawsuit, or call to the police. Do whatever it takes to maintain self-respect and the respect of others.

Nussbaum offers a nuanced account of the ways anger and forgiveness can go wrong in intimate, middle, and political realms. She supplements her account with stories drawn from life and literature. Her picture focuses on the harm that anger does, and she is dead right about that harm.

However, Nussbaum does not give equal time to the positive side of anger. For example, she points out how anger after a leaving a bad relationship can impede a woman from effectively getting on with her life. But often it is anger that empowers people to take the difficult, yet necessary step of breaking up in the first place, and helps them get on with their life by blocking a return to the bad relationship.

Similarly, in the political realm, Nussbaum offers an accurate account of only part of the story. A narrative dear not only to her, but also to many others is that Indian independence, civil rights for black Americans in the United States, and the end of apartheid in South Africa were achieved primarily through nonviolent protests led by figures who, for the most part, renounced anger and even the need for forgiveness. However, focusing exclusively on Gandhi, King, and Mandela backgrounds the fact that each of their campaigns took place alongside ample manifestations of anger and violence. For example, in the decade leading up to apartheid’s end in 1994 there was plenty of both. As Leonard Thompson shows in A History of South Africa,

[In 1984, the government of South Africa] reported 58 incidents of sabotage against state departments, petrol depots, power installations, and railroad lines, and 26 attacks on police. The year 1985 was still more disturbed […] The number of recorded insurgency attacks rose to 136, the recorded death toll in political violence to 879. There were also 390 strikes involving 240,000 workers. The protests continued into 1986. By that time, the formal machinery of local government had broken down in parts of the black townships.

Township residents often clashed with police and soldiers, who were present in strength. There was also a spate of sabotage in South Africa, most of it attributed to the ANC. Between June 1986 and September 1988, more than 100 explosions caused 31 deaths and 565 injuries in streets, restaurants, cinemas, shopping centers, and sports complexes in the major cities.

In 1989 […] 1,403 people died of political violence in South Africa. There were 3,699 political killings in 1990; 2,706 in 1991; 3,347 in 1992; 3,794 and 1993; and 2,476 in 1994.

Imagine a suspect being interrogated by a “bad cop,” who angrily threatens and punches, and a “good cop,” who sweetly offers consideration and concessions. When the suspect agrees to cooperate, one should not credit only the “good cop.” It is reasonable to infer that fear of the bad one played an important role. Similarly, I suggest that attributing the success of Gandhi, King, and Mandela solely, or even primarily, to their non-angry, nonviolent approach is naïve. None of them would have gotten far without the anger and violence of others. That anger and violence pushed the authorities to cut deals with Gandhi, King, and Mandela.

Nussbaum makes a strong case for abandoning anger and forgiveness. She urges victims to turn their attention away from payback and status concerns, and toward the task of making things better, a path she calls “universal love.” Aristotle and I disagree with this recommendation. Now, dear reader, you have a choice to make. You may smile indulgently, think, “Infinite are the arguments of philosophers,” and move on. Or you may read Nussbaum’s fine book, and take a stand.


Howard J. Curzer is a professor of Philosophy at Texas Tech University. His publications include a book entitled Aristotle and the Virtues and articles on ancient philosophy and contemporary ethics.

LARB Contributor

Howard J. Curzer is a professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University. His publications include Aristotle and the Virtues (Oxford, 2012), Virtue Ethics for the Real World (Routledge, 2023), Difficult Virtues (Routledge, forthcoming), and various articles on ancient philosophy, contemporary virtue ethics, the Confucian tradition, moral development, research ethics, biomedical ethics, the ethics of care, and the Hebrew Bible. He is a recipient of grants from the NSF and the NEH.


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