Michael Cholbi Ph.D.

Ethics in Question


Our Anger Crisis: Can Philosophy Help?

Philosophy can make a difference in "anger management."

Posted Aug 03, 2016

Americans are supposed to be an optimistic, happy people.

But a quick glance at our culture would suggest that our sunny frame of my mind has been replaced by an uglier emotion: anger, particularly anger directed at our shared civic life. Almost seventy percent of Americans are at least a little angry at how life is going in the United States, and over two-thirds say they come across at least one news item each day that makes them angry. Maybe this sort of public outrage is not as unprecedented as it appears.  But when added to the unusual levels of work-related stress Americans feel, it doesn’t seem outrageous (that word again!) to conclude that we are facing a collective crisis of anger.

This rising tide of anger raises questions that fall within the philosophical, rather than the psychological or clinical, study of emotions.

No doubt much of the anger we feel is justifiable. Anger is our reaction when we believe that we (or people, causes, institutions, practices, etc. we care about) have been wronged or harmed by another. We human beings are imperfect. Others do wrong or harm us. We feel anger at our loved ones for failing us, at slights in the workplace and in day-to-day life, and at our leaders for their inability or unwillingness to address pressing social problems. When that happens, it can be difficult for us not to react with anger — and hard not to sympathize with others who are angry.

Of course, not all of our anger is justified. Sometimes we have bad reasons for being angry. We sometimes become angry because we have misunderstood others’ intentions, attributing malice, hostility, or callousness to others where none exists. Sometimes anger stems from a lack of empathy. Because we do not grasp the considerations that motivate other people’s actions, we are quick to become angry when their actions fall short of our expectations.

Anger has a strange grip on us. Philosophers have long been interested in what different emotions feel like — their phenomenology, to use the philosophers’ terminology. Anger has a puzzling phenomenology. In one sense, anger feels bad. As our tempers rise, we feel a flood of negative affect. Our hearts race. Our voices raise. We lash out. We seem to lose control over our actions and reactions. (Think of the angry person who throws something against the wall.) It’s hard to observe an angry person and think, ‘wow — that must feel great!’ Anger feels bad. On the other hand, anger is often alluring. I very much doubt that anger is literally addictive. But some people appear to seek out anger and the situations that prompt it. It is almost as if, having cultivated a sense of anger in the past, the angry person is on the hunt for slights and injustices that elicit her anger. As one commentator has put it

Anger is the lazy person’s emotion. It’s quick, it’s binary, it’s delicious. And more and more, we’re gorging on it.

Anger primes us for more anger.

How then should we respond to the presence of anger in our lives? I suspect that most will agree that we should not want a life dominated by anger. The person whose existence is shot through with anger seems unable to ‘get past it,’ to set it aside so as to enjoy the good things in life. Should we instead pursue the opposite extreme, a condition in which we manage to expunge anger altogether — and is that even possible for such an unruly emotion like anger? Is our best hope merely ‘anger management’. A different response to our anger is to adjust our expectations. If others are constantly falling short of our expectations, perhaps we are operating with unrealistically optimistic expectations about human nature. Adjust our expectations down, and we will have fewer occasions for anger.

Anger raises challenges for us as individuals. It also raises challenges for us as friends, employers, and partners. Should we encourage others’ anger? It also raise challenges for parents. What should we teach our children about anger and how to address it? (We seem to ‘teach’ boys and girls different things about how to handle anger.  And what role should anger play in our politics?

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be doing a series of posts engaging some of the key philosophical questions about anger. These questions include:

  • What is anger, and how is it differentiated from other emotions?
  • In what circumstances is anger justified?
  • When should we act on our anger, and how?
  • What is the place of anger in a morally good life?
  • How can anger contribute to creating a better and more just world?
  • What should a wise person’s attitude toward anger be?

Philosophers have written a fair bit about anger. In these posts, I’ll be offering some of my own thoughts about anger, but I’ll also discuss the views of two other philosophers.

The first is the contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who recently published a book entitled Anger and Forgiveness. Nussbaum thinks that a lot of popular thinking about anger is confused. Anger, she thinks, is neither noble nor necessary for self-respect. Nussbaum is particularly critical of how anger leads us to want payback, to cause pain to others. (Good introductions to Nussbaum’s views on anger are available here and here.)

The other philosopher I’ll discuss is the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger.

Seneca spent much of his adult life advising Roman leaders, including the Emperor Nero. In his essay De Ira (‘On Anger’), Seneca took a dim view of anger, viewing it as an uncontrollable and corrosive emotion that can only lead to clouded and hasty judgment, particularly by political leaders.

Nussbaum and Seneca are both skeptics about anger, though for importantly different reasons. Their work thus asks us to reconsider the prevalence of anger in our lives. My hope is that whether or not you face personal challenges connected to anger, you will find the philosophical questions discussed in this series of posts engaging and vital.