Oct 15, 2013

Aristotle on Anger, Justice, and Injustice

Last weekend, I attended the Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy conference, chaired two sessions, met a number of scholars as interested and enthusiastic about the thought of antiquity as I am, and gave the paper which I'd long ago proposed, "Aristotle on Anger, Justice, and Injustice."  Or rather, I presented the paper in a summary form -- I was assigned to a panel of four speakers, and each of us got about 20 minutes to set out the main lines of our research.

It wasn't a venue particularly conducive to recording the session in my typical manner -- a flipcam which could capture video of the talk.  But I did manage to record my portion of the talk, and the relevant Q&A on my iPhone, and then (after clawing my frustrated way up the learning curve any former PC user has with Apple's products!) turned the edited recording into a podcast, which you can hear here, if this topic particularly interests you

Having never produced a podcast myself (though there are a few other podcasts of my presentations or interviews out there), it took a bit of looking around by my wife and I for a good online platform to use.  We settled on Internet Archive, created an account, and uploaded the podcast, adding links to the relevant handouts and the full version of the paper in the description (if you'd like to access all of these, here's the page).

While I've perused and downloaded materials from Internet Archive before, I'd not given any thought previously to the possibility of incorporating it within the other electronic platforms I more typically use for housing and disseminating my work.  I've got to admit that I'm quite impressed with its capacities, and should I start creating podcasts more regularly, it looks like that might be one main way to go.

Instead of attempting to discuss the paper in detail here, I'll just give the master-argument, and then some of the passages I'm particularly happy with -- admittedly way out of context.  So, here's the argument I'm advancing:

Aristotle is rather unique among ancient thinkers in that he sees a positive and even necessary role for anger, both as an emotion as a set of characteristic actions and attitudes.  He's also unusual in the attentiveness inherent in his description of anger (here's an earlier blog post about precisely that), which reveals not only how complex anger actually is, but also that it is inherently connected with conceptions and perceptions of justice and injustice.  Human social life is laden with ambiguities and differing views on these moral matters, and its understandable that anger will quite often arise as an effect of differing perspectives of people, the actions resulting from these perspectives, and from divergences of view on these ensuing actions.  Is anger just a result from this, or does it actually have a place in the workings of justice?  At least for Aristotle, it's the latter that is true.  While not unqualifiedly endorsing anger, he recognizes that anger actually serves justice -- at least when things are going more right than wrong with at least some of the people involved.

Here's a few perhaps provocative passages from the paper as it currently stands:
When we foray into the murky waters of specific situations, actual persons, i.e. the Aristotelian “particular” that resists easy intellectualizing generalization, we are bound to experience myriad encounters between agents armed with competing conceptions of what justice demands, or even looks like. This is in part due to the very polysemy at the heart of Aristotelian justice itself. But, it is also due to the fact that moral agents are almost never entirely rational and perfected in virtue, so that factors other than the analogical nature of justice itself will intervene and introduce differences between perspectives. For those who are unable to introduce some degree of emotional distance between (or bracketing of) their particular perspectives and their personalities, there is always the risk that they will interpret justice, its demands and prerogatives, in contesting and competing rather than complementary ways.
[T]he feeling and characteristic actions of anger can and should be a matter of justice in a quite different set of ways. Many of these can be brought together in the thesis that rightly felt and directed anger is something needed for justice to be done and restored, injustice resisted and remedied. In other words, anger can not only be structured by but also serve justice, as a necessary component or condition within its workings. I would like to go further than this and to suggest that, within an Aristotelian understanding of anger, justice, and injustice, anger can play another role, contributing to helping a person rightly perceive that injustice is taking or has taken place, and how they ought to respond to it. In making these claims, I do not mean to imply that anger is usually aligned in these ways with justice and against injustice. In fact, in Aristotle’s view, that is much less frequently the case than one would like. . . . . Here, I am interested in how anger goes right, not wrong, and assumes a centrality in righting the wrong.

In anger, there is thus a natural tendency to allow our sense of and sensibilities about justice and injustice to be hijacked, to perceive injustice on the part of others more often, in more places, over more issues than is really warranted. In the person who is akratic or who experiences akrasia temporarily, anger subverts rationality into its own service, drawing conclusions about the provocative actions of the other person and practically reasoning towards the end of seeking out the satisfaction timōria promises. This happens even more and goes even worse for the person vicious with respect to anger.

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