How, in These Times, Can We Reconcile ‘Anger and Forgiveness’?

There's a lot of anger in the ugly, infuriatingly stupid, and implacable discourses of our political culture, to say nothing of the distorting, amplifying, and accelerating effects new media has for our anger. Perhaps it's time to revisit Martha Nussbaum's Anger and Forgiveness.

Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice
Martha Nussbaum
Oxford University Press
November 2019 (reprint)

We are an angry people. Our anger is acute and volatile, wide-ranging but penetrating, fickle but focused. It arises in intimate realms between individuals, in groups at social and political levels, and is a routine feature of ordinary interactions amongst colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers. It is woven into criminal justice and law and other customs and institutions. It can be private, shameful, incendiary, or righteous. It may even be hardwired in us by evolution.

In Anger and Forgiveness, Professor Martha Nussbaum concedes these points and argues that, despite them, we should endeavor to overcome anger because it is illogical or morally problematic. She draws on a long tradition of philosophical inquiry for a definition of anger, and Aristotle’s is a good starting point: “a desire accompanied by pain for an imagined retribution on account of an imagined slighting inflicted by people who have no legitimate reason to slight oneself or one’s own.”

The work of rehabituating our responses to personal slights and to injustice and letting retributive thoughts go is hard, she admits, but we should do it. We should want to cultivate “a patient and forebearing disposition to see and seek the good rather than to harp obsessively on the bad.”

In the Western tradition there are certain paths through which anger finds expression and part of her task is mapping them out. Not surprisingly, quite a lot of them are found to be inadequate. The trouble with anger, in Nussbaum’s framework, is partly that it is usually saddled with payback fantasies at every level of expression. Contained in the idea of payback is a desire for the perceived wrongdoer to suffer, thereby allowing for the perceived victim to restore something that has been lost or damaged, to restore or establish a sense of control over a difficult situation, to restore a balance, or to arrive at “closure”.

But such goals are incoherent because suffering does not bring back what’s been lost or damaged. And they are morally problematic because while lowering the status of the wrongdoer by suffering or by humiliation might affect their down-ranking relative to one’s own, this is the sort of behavior that should probably be discouraged in oneself and others.

Nussbaum’s preferred alternative to anger so defined is what she calls Transition Anger. This is a forward-thinking mentality that acknowledges that, yes, most people sometimes feel angry, but at the same time, or at least shortly thereafter, most people will also perceive the irrationality or morally problematic nature of anger and then hopefully transition away from it towards more productive thoughts oriented towards personal and social welfare. And it’s that shift that is difficult.

For one example, she cites Michael Jordan’s response when asked by an interviewer if he would prefer for the man who murdered his father to be executed: “Why? That wouldn’t bring him back.” Jordan has transitioned away from anger and is presumably on a different forward-thinking path where his own personal welfare has won out over payback and retribution.

This is anger’s dynamic, the main pulse of Nussbaum’s argument, and there is a historian’s logic to her approach. Anger and Forgiveness is not a narrative that accounts for how and why expressions of anger change over time, but her route through the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Stoics, elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and through contours of a more modern advent, we are treated to an analysis that reveals how the complexion of anger is changed depending on the cultural context in which it is expressed.

Throughout, her style of analysis requires patience because she so thoroughly follows through on covering the dimension of an idea, but it is also rewarding for the very same reason. Nearly every passage is (or contributes to) a piece of reasoning that throws light on some part of the whole of her argument.

One of the book’s richest discussions examines crime, wrongful acts, and the rule of law. What assumptions underpin victim impact statements at trial, for example, and what is their instrumental function? “We should be all in favor of narration if it helps and does no harm,” she writes. “But we must remember that victims have been raised on narratives of payback, and, more recently, have been led to expect that they will not achieve closure without a narrative that (typically) denounces the defendant and attempts to secure a harsher sentence.” We notice, with Nussbaum, the ease with which we may, as individuals and as a society, slide into habits of anger, even when it might seem most justified. But a wise society should not build criminal law policy on vindictive passions.

Having called attention to the virtues of this work, I’m compelled to say also where it exhibits gaps. Forgiveness comprises the second part of the book’s title and it is probably fair to say that, for Nussbaum, as a palliative for anger’s effects it is suspect. The least helpful type of forgiveness is Transactional Forgiveness, where through confrontation, confession, and apology the wronged party is triumphant, released from anger, vindicated, and free to bestow grace on the guilty party. She characterizes this “canonical” form of forgiveness in a variety of unflattering ways – as inquisitorial, disciplinary, a type of payback through other means.

Between this type of forgiveness, at one pole, and the unconditional love exhibited by the father in the parable of the prodigal son, for example, at the other pole, there is a significant type of forgiveness overlooked by Nussbaum that should warrant an appearance in this argument. We could call it “everyday forgiveness”, and like the others it is derived from Christianity. It is diffuse, deep in the fabric of everyday life, and factors into ethics as well as into political philosophy.

Evidence for the effectiveness and harmonizing effects of everyday forgiveness is apparent in the fact of the continued existence of open, diverse, peaceful, liberal democratic societies. A peaceful society of strangers is possible because everyday forgiveness is routine enough to evade notice, where anger, disagreements, slights, resentments, feuds, and tensions slide because we implicitly agree to voluntarily favor negotiation and conciliation over violence and retribution. Each of us forgives because each of us, in our turn, will need to be forgiven. This is Hegel’s social and ethical notion of forgiveness, a spirit of reconciliation and renunciation, and an achievement of Christianity that hums along quietly as a feature of most Western civil societies.

So it’s dire, but how dire? “Let’s not be the way the world is right now,” she writes in the conclusion. Anger and Forgiveness invites the reader to wonder whether our anger, in time and free from the kind of mollifying discipline she prescribes, will contribute to splitting the seams of all the fragile social contracts that make up civil society. Probably some symptom of that is apparent in the ugly, infuriatingly stupid, and implacable discourses of our political culture, to say nothing of the distorting, amplifying, and accelerating effects new media has for our anger. Nussbaum does not even get around to addressing such phenomena, but her point still stands.