Oct 6, 2010

Ethics of Anger

About a week ago, one the local Cumberland County Library branches emailed me to ask whether I might be willing to give some sort of talk an evening in January, something dealing with Philosophy, perhaps, the librarian suggested, a talk about Ethics.  Always ready to squeeze another gig between already plotted engagements, even more to scribe in fresh ink on a virgin calendar (at least virtually), I immediately agreed.  Engaging a group of non-academics, people unaffiliated with the university, but intellectually active, curious, questioning, is both challenging and rewarding.  I have come to take a double view of philosophical topics.
On the one hand, there are matters of the mind which possess their own intrinsic worth and beauty, and this often renders them complex and not immediately accessible (often inexplicable, even unintelligible to my philosophical colleagues).  There is no popularizing these, no "bringing philosophy down from the heavens to earth" for such matters.  The mind and the heart must make the step by step difficult climb to reach them, must puzzle the concepts open, unfold the ideas portion by portion, before uncovering the prize.

On the other hand, there are many other matters philosophy and philosophers grapple with that ordinary plain people who have something on the ball ought to be able not only to understand without any disciplinary preparation or training, but also to enjoy, to delight in thinking about and understanding.  Aristotle begins one of his most difficult works, the Metaphysics, observing that "all human beings by nature desire knowing" (or "to know" or "knowledge", depending on how you want to translate it).  If to us academics, this seems a starting point rendered patently untrue by our experience, how much of that is due to that natural inborn human desire being stymied instead of encouraged in its development by those who are to introduce learners to a subject, to lead them deeper and deeper within, to bring them to vistas from which they can look out, their perspectives ever after altered?

I wrote back that I would mull over possible topics.  I always have four or five different irons in the fire at any given time.  Which of those would admit adaptation for a more popular lecture and discussion?  I started on the list.  Then my partner phoned and grabbing the opportunity to sound her about my proposed subjects, I started reading down the list. She stopped me after the second one.  The first one was all that was needed, it would easily draw and keep interest.  And I had not only been experiencing it, studying it, dialoguing with the great philosophers, theologians, saints and psychologists about it, I'd already written a few pieces and started on a book about it.  Just pitch the first one, she said.  It's all you need.  But it needs a sexier title.  I've got it:

The Ethics of Anger

What can that mean?  Isn't getting angry almost always bad (perhaps we make an exception for those political causes we feel righteous about)?    The world, and our prisons, and the magazines, blogs, newscasts, and radio shows of those whose sentiments and assumptions we disagree with and deplore  -- all of these are full of anger, angry words, angry people.  So ethics and anger just don't mix, right? Getting angry is wrong.  Or if (since we live in a culture where we are commanded not to judge other people's opinions and feelings - just as emphatically and ubiquitously as inconsistently), we are not to say getting angry is bad, surely acting on and expressing anger is bad, is wrong, is evil.  Look at all of the rage, the hatred, the slow-smoldering resentment, the pickiness and passive-aggressiveness, the fruits and shapes of anger.  Surely you can't be saying that is good, can you?

What I have sketched just now is one of several typically muddled and misguided attitudes towards anger, a stance which those who are in its grips frequently apply inconsistently -- all too often betraying the presence of the anger they wholeheartedly and wholesaledly condemn.

The failures of those sorts of responses lie in not making important distinctions in an at least adequate manner, and in not acknowledging insights of other people, not just philosophers, but also theologians and psychologists, as well as ordinary plain people (whose views Aristotle made pains to consider and use as starting points for investigation)

There is a good reason Daniel Goleman's bestseller Emotional Intelligence:  Why it can Matter More Than IQ begins with a passage from Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics (and titles his introduction "Aristotle's Challenge":  
Anyone can become angry - that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way - this is not easy.
You see, there is a longstanding tradition of thought on anger in which Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and some of our contemporary psychologists can be placed.  Unlike other traditions of thought on anger which regard any manifestation of it as bad, this tradition looks at anger -- that is, actually looks at it, pays attention to it rather than pushing it away -- as good or bad depending on the determinate circumstances, the persons involved and their condition, and so on.  This is a much more discriminating stance to take. 

There also an acknowledgment running through this tradition that properly managed or directed anger serves some moral purpose. Aristotle, among others, realized that anger as an emotional response is intimately intertwined with one's perceptions of justice and injustice, right and wrong, goods at stake, evils imposed or to be avoided.  Aquinas realized that anger is required in order to attain, pursue, or protect the difficult good.

Both of these thinkers were also very keen to stress the slipperiness of anger, its tendency to wear channels of habits into our responses, and to congeal or transform into other affective states.  Ultimately anger can flow into states more than just anger, other affective responses like hate, like uncontrollable, even murderous rage, like the perpetual condition of prickly irritability

 It's possible to take a principled position condemning anger,of course, though it does take considerable attention to maintain consistency in one's practice. In the talk I'll give, some of those able to pull that off will come up.  One of these is John Cassian, best known for recording the conversations he had with monastic desert Fathers, and whose position on anger was that it was always blameworthy and dangerous, except for when we are angry with ourselves over our vices.  The Stoics -- I'll use Epictetus as a typical example -- condemned anger as well, as they did (at least most of them) all of the passions or emotions.  In these cases, however, what we have are careful analyses of human nature, not knee-jerk reactions against a troublesome emotion.