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Philosopher Speaks on Anger’s Fatal Flaws

By Ethan Brady

The Office of the Provost hosted a lecture by philosopher Dr. Martha Nussbaum on Thursday, March 17, in Wilson Hall. The lecture, titled “Anger and Revolutionary Justice: Ideas for Liberal Learning,” was open to all students, faculty and staff. About 175 people were in attendance.

“Anger, with all its ugliness, is still a very popular emotion,” Dr. Nussbaum said. “Many people think it’s impossible to care for justice without anger at injustice. Many also believe that it is impossible for individuals to vindicate their own self-respect adequately without anger.”

But she said that anger is “fatally flawed,” along with notions of the need for payback and revenge as key components of a legal system.

She used ancient Athens as an example. She recounted how the goddess Athena introduced legal institutions to replace and terminate the seemingly endless cycle of blood vengeance, setting up a court of law that established procedures of reasoned argument, the weighing of evidence and a jury selected by lot from the entire citizen body of Athens. From that moment on, blood disputes were settled by law rather than by the Furies, the ancient goddesses of revenge.

Dr. Nussbaum noted that Athena then offered to accept the Furies into the citizenry, allowing them to become human — that is, to “adopt benevolence.” And they must listen to the voice of persuasion. She called the Furies’ transformation “a profound inner reorientation.” Symbolically, she said, the Furies transformed physically from beasts into women. Each citizen should give generously to each in a mindset of common love.

“Political justice does not simply put a cage around resentment,” Nussbaum said. “It must fundamentally transform it from something barely human — obsessive, bloodthirsty — to something fully human — accepting of reasons, calm, deliberate and measured, something that protects life rather than threatens it.”

She called it “no surprise” that all the prominent Greco-Roman philosophers from Plato to Seneca were strong opponents of retributive anger in criminal law.

She also acknowledged the common belief that successful challenges against great injustices need the spirit of anger to make progress — so that anger “is in the heart” of revolutionary transformation.

In almost all cases, though, the idea of retributive justice is nonsensical according to Nussbaum. “The idea of payback just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Whatever the wrong was — say, a murder or a rape — inflicting pain on the wrongdoer doesn’t actually help restore the thing that was lost.”

One unique instance when anger makes sense, Nussbaum said, is when the victim sees the wrong entirely in terms of relative status: she does not focus on the murder or rape, but only on the way she is downgraded in status by the wrong. In that case, humiliating the perpetrator could be effective by lifting the victim’s own relative status. But the American justice system is about much more than relative status, though many people care about it, even obsessively.

A rational person — or a movement or government — will realize that anger is normatively problematic in these two ways, and will undergo a transition to constructive forward-thinking ideas of social welfare, Nussbaum said. The rational person will deal with the wrongful act in ways that make sense in terms of social welfare as a whole.

In terms of criminal justice, this means the “pile-on-the-pain strategy” does not work, she added. Instead of focusing on painful punishment, society should look for ways to deal with the social problem of crime itself. That may include punishing the wrongdoer, but it also may consider measures like improving education or social welfare — as philosophers from Plato to Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, have long insisted.

“That’s my normative picture in a nutshell,” she quipped. “But it’s radical, and it evokes strong opposition. For anger, with all its admitted ugliness, is a very popular emotion — especially these days, I guess.”

Then, Dr. Nussbaum focused on revolutionary justice, giving reasons to support the philosophies of non-anger advanced by famous activists Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

She presented Dr. King’s speech “I Have a Dream” as an example of the promise of transformed anger for revolutionary or transitional justice. At first, she said, King addresses the obvious anger that results from Blacks being denied their civil rights, and the failing of America’s promise.

“But he refuses to demonize white Americans or call for vengeance. Instead, he envisions a world where all people are free, together. He takes anger and shapes it into hope and a call for constructive social action.”

And King asked his followers to separate the deed from the doer, Nussbaum added. Deeds can be denounced, but people deserve sympathy and respect, she said.

“It’s more than a call for peace and love,” Nussbaum said. “It’s a way to get closer to justice.”

She claimed that a responsible leader “has to be a pragmatist,” and that anger is ‘incompatible’ with forward-looking pragmatism. “It just gets in the way,” she said.

Dr. Nussbaum also reflected on the importance of a liberal arts education for thinking critically about our society and our social and political interactions. “Listening to the voice of persuasion is the antidote for anger, which has something brutish and unreasonable about it. In a liberal education, there is much room for the capacity of critical argument, for peaceful interaction and philosophical debate in getting some distance from the destructive passions of anger and payback.”

She said that President Laurie Patton’s inaugural address, delivered on Oct. 11, 2015, on the campus quad, is “a wonderful speech that says much the same thing.”

“The capacity to argue and to be resilient in argument is something that we all need as a society if we are to meet problems in a productive way rather than just slinging abuse.”

She lauded the liberal arts education for its teaching of history, literature, languages and the arts.

“All of these are part of a citizenship that will enable one to move beyond the oppositional mindset the ‘us-versus-them’ mindset, and to see what it might be like to inhabit the world through a variety of different positions. I hope that in a country increasingly enchanted by anger that we view Middlebury and other liberal arts colleges as bastions of an alternative approach to citizenship and to life.”

“While I hesitate to conclude with a slogan that surely betrays my name,” she said before pausing, “it really does seem time to ‘give peace a chance.’”

The lecture concluded with a question-and-answer session between Nussbaum and several students.

The Eve Adler Department of Classics and the Department of Philosophy sponsored the event. A live stream of the lecture went on the College’s website and in a seminar room at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies.

The lecture was excerpted from a chapter in her upcoming book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, which will be published by Oxford University Press.

Dr. Nussbaum is a graduate of Harvard University and serves as the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She also holds appointments in classics, divinity and political science, is a member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and  is a board member of the Human Rights Program.

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