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Which anger leads us astray and which anger gets results, according to a Princeton philosopher

Reuters/ Dylan Martinez
Save your anger for bigger injustices.
By Olivia Goldhill
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Modern politics is unavoidably rage-inducing. Perhaps you’re disgusted by US president Donald Trump’s attempt to block visitors based on religion, at the referendums ripping apart the UK, or the countless human rights atrocities taking place worldwide. But what good, if any, does anger do, and how can you cultivate appropriate—and useful—anger in these times?

The renowned philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who has written extensively on the nature of emotions, believes that anger is overwhelmingly harmful. “Anger is both poisonous and popular,” she has written. “Even when people acknowledge its destructive tendencies, they still so often cling to it, seeing it as a strong emotion, connected to self-respect and manliness (or, for women, to the vindication of equality).”

Nussbaum subscribes to Aristotle’s view that anger inherently contains a desire for payback, and she believes this is a senseless demand without a truly beneficial purpose. She highlights the work of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela, and argues the success of these leaders lies, at least in part, in their refusal to indulge in angry instincts.

For less equable individuals, this stance may be difficult to emulate. When you hear of an injustice and react with anger at the situation or perpetrator, it’s dispiriting to think the emotion is an inevitably harmful response. But there is, arguably, another perspective: Gideon Rosen, a philosophy professor at Princeton University who has written on anger as a political emotion, believes that a certain kind of anger can be entirely appropriate and positive.

Rosen argues that anger can be divided according to whether the emotion is directed at a person or at a fact. Anger towards someone involves blame and typically the desire for payback that Nussbaum and Aristotle counsel avoiding. But Rosen believes it’s also possible to be truly angry about a state of affairs. For example, it makes sense to be angry that women are paid significantly less than men. “That kind of anger doesn’t involve a retributive impulse, it just wants the situation to be rectified,” Rosen says. “That desire is fully productive and fully justifiable.”

Rosen argues that it’s even possible to justify anger directed towards a person—for example, it’s reasonable to be angry at Trump for his travel bans. “In those cases where the injustice is coming from a direct order from somebody at the center of power, it’s appropriate both to be angry at the fact and at the person,” he adds. Though such anger towards a person will still involve a desire for payback, Rosen believes that this can be a straightforward hope that the perpetrator recognizes their wrongdoing, which is hardly “bloodthirsty” or “objectionable.”

But even if anger is justifiable, does the emotion offer any tangible benefits? Yes, says Rosen. For one thing, anger is a motivator. “Common sense suggests that angry people are more likely to get out onto the streets and do something,” he says. “I’ve got to think that in many cases, part of what makes political change possible is widespread recognition that something needs to change, together with the appropriate feeling.”

When a situation is truly unjust, Rosen believes that anger is the morally viable emotional reaction. He points to the philosopher Jean Hampton, who argues that anger is a way of forging solidarity with a victim.

“If someone’s been treated awfully and you take that in and feel nothing, then there’s a sense in which you haven’t fully recognized the wrong that’s been done to them,” Rosen says. “Take a parent who knows that his kids have been treated badly at school but doesn’t get angry at the fact that his kids have been treated badly. That parent is too cool. That parent is not responding in a way that fully takes in the wrong that’s been done.”

Likewise, Rosen believes that to not be angry at, say, racial injustice in the United States, is “to be disconnected from the moral reality.” We ought to be angry. “Take the newspaper any day, read the headlines, and if you feel no anger in response to what’s going on in contemporary politics and society, I think you’ve managed to talk yourself out of a genuinely warranted, justified response to the reality that you inhabit,” he adds.

Aristotle believed that to be appropriately angry, at the right things and to a moderate degree, is virtuous. There are two vices to counter this virtue: One of absence and one of excess. So just as being unreasonable and overheated through anger is a flaw, so too, argued Aristotle, is apathy.

Nussbaum also acknowledges an emotion she calls “Transition-Anger,” which focuses on outrage at an unjust situation and does not involve the desire for payback. But “anger” itself, she believes, its inextricably linked with a need for retribution and as such is an irrational guiding emotion. “If you don’t want some type of payback, your emotion is something else (grief, perhaps), but not really anger,” she writes in Aeon.

Overall, to maximize the potential use of virtuous anger, Rosen advocates focusing on facts rather than people. Anger directed at people encourages skepticism and questions about whether someone is truly blameworthy.

“If you focus on questions of individual blame, you’ll get tangled in uncertainty,” says Rosen. “Focus on whether facts are outrageous and you’re more likely to have a measured, angry response that’s sustainable upon reflection. The kind of anger you can work with to do something.”

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