Our Anger Crisis: Anger Elevates Us By Pulling Others Down?

Is anger a just way of restoring equality between victim and wrongdoers?

Posted Aug 22, 2016

Fourth in a series of posts on what philosophy can contribute to understanding and addressing anger (part III here)

Let’s quickly review the last two posts in this series: Martha Nussbaum believes that anger is a problematic reaction, one we should want to eradicate if we can. In the last post, we considered her argument that insofar as anger leads us to want payback against those who have wronged us, anger is incoherent: Vengeance upon those who wrong us won’t bring back whatever losses their actions caused. I proposed that while believing that payback can return to us what we lost is misguided, anger may not be as pointless as Nussbaum suggests. Anger — and the payback it leads us to seek  — may instead reflect a desire that those who treat us unjustly not be permitted to benefit from their injustice.

Geralt, via pixabay
Source: Geralt, via pixabay

Now let’s turn to the other possible motivation or aim of anger that Nussbaum discusses, which she terms the road of status. Here the point of anger is not to try to regain what a wrongdoer did to us by exacting payback. Rather, the road of status sees anger as a way of placing the wrongdoer and his victim on an equal playing field.

When a person is treated unjustly, an implicit message behind this mistreatment is that the victim is not as morally significant as the wrongdoer. Those who wrong us seem to say, “you don’t matter as much as I do — after all, look at the terrible things I’m willing to do you (and probably would not want to suffer myself).” On this picture, victims of personal injustice are not so much harmed as humiliated or degraded, placed on a lower rank of the social hierarchy. When, out of anger, we wish harm upon those who have wronged us, we hope that person is similarly humiliated or degraded. Having brought us down the rank of the social hierarchy, the wrongdoer is then brought down in rank so that we now stand, at least symbolically, on the same moral footing. Anger, as Nussbaum understands the road of status, can work to restore equal status between two individuals whose equality was disrupted by one of them mistreating the other.

converts all injuries into problems of relative position, thus making the world revolve around the desire of vulnerable selves for domination and control. Because this wish is at the heart of infantile narcissism, I think of this as a narcissistic error

Hoping that those who have treated us unjustly come to harm so that we will stand on equal terms with them is a symptom of self-absorption, according to Nussbaum. We should be far less concerned with where we rank in the community than with pursuing justice.

In my estimation, Nussbaum is probably correct that hoping that those who wrong us come to harm so that they no longer symbolically ‘outrank’ us is not a healthy response to wrongdoing. In fact, I think Nussbaum may even be a bit too charitable to this position.

For one, as Nussbaum describes the desire at issue, it’s a desire to lower a wrongdoer because a wrongdoer (at least symbolically) lowered you. In treating you unjustly, a wrongdoer broadcasts a false message about your relative status — that you don’t count as his moral equal. Nussbaum seems to suppose that in hurting the wrongdoer, you knock the wrongdoer down a peg or two and so broadcast the true message that you are moral equals. But I find this thought puzzling. Nussbaum makes it seem as if the victim of injustice should feel shame and should thus desire to bring a wrongdoer ‘down’ to her level. Yet in truth, the wrongdoer, not his victim, ought to feel shame. Perhaps a better response to one’s anger, then, is to try to counteract the prospect of shame by ‘elevating’ oneself up rather than bringing the wrongdoer down. Instead of seeking payback, we might assert our equality through actions that display our worth. Maybe the goal should be to celebrate or validate victims of injustice instead of harming perpetrators of injustice.

A second worry I have about Nussbaum’s critique of the road of status is similar to a worry I raised about her reason for rejecting the road of payback, namely, her claim that the desire to harm those who wrong us must be motivated by a desire to degrade or denigrate a wrongdoer so as to assert our equality. As Nussbaum sees it, this desire is morally problematic because it is narcissistic. But I doubt that this desire is what motivates anger, or is the most morally defensible motive behind anger. I suggested in the previous post that anger and the desire for ‘payback’ may in fact rest on a more morally respectable desire, namely, that others not benefit from their wrongdoing. Very roughly, those who wrong us should suffer neither because their suffering will restore the goods they took from us nor because that places the wrongdoer and his victim(s) back on equal moral footing. Rather, they should suffer because it is unfair that they benefit from their injustice. But, against Nussbaum, this desire doesn’t seem to be narcissistic, rooted in a childish fantasies of domination and control.

Nussbaum struggles (it seems to me) to find a morally defensible way of understanding anger and the desire for retribution it motivates that also accounts for how personal anger usually is. But rooting the angry desire for retribution in the desire that those who engage in wrongdoing not benefit from it makes this desire both morally legitimate and profoundly personal. As a member of a community of presumed moral equals, I can both have a principled commitment that others not benefit from their wrongdoing as well as a deeply personal sense that their benefitting from it is particularly offensive to me. And this desire does not seem to reflect any illusion that the world is inherently just or subject to any one person’s control, or that one is entitled to special concern.

Once again, I suspect Nussbaum draws plausible conclusions from her analysis of anger, its motives, and its aims — but I’m less convinced that her analysis is spot on.

In the next post, we’ll consider some other critical points Nussbaum makes about anger, in particular, that anger is not necessary to protect our dignity and self-respect.