In last week’s post, I presented Prof. Martha Nussbaum’s critique of anger as a force for justice. In her book Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, Nussbaum rejects anger as a motivational force, as a practical force and as a moral force in trying to create justice where an injustice has been done. (For a recent articulation of the opposite argument(s), see this recent piece in the NY Times Sunday Review)

There is a circumscribed set of instances in which she sees potential good coming from anger. As I wrote last week, sometimes anger can be useful as a signal – to one’s self and to others – about what is and isn’t morally acceptable. It also sometimes can serve to motivate people to do something about injustice. Finally, sometimes it might be useful as a deterrent to future instances of wrongdoing.

However, even if this is true, Nussbaum argues that, ultimately, there is something better than anger. The beginning of it she calls “Transitional-Anger.”


What is Transitional-Anger?

“Regular” anger, all too often, is either irrational or propels one beyond self-control and the ability to think, and problem-solve, a situation rationally. It is, all too often, infected with the desire for payback: just as he made me suffer, he should suffer, which Nussbaum terms a moral failure.

Such anger also suffers, morally speaking, in that whatever moral judgments it sparks are tainted by the “agent’s own view of what matters for life, rather than some detached or impersonal table of values.” (16)

Finally, there is the critical element of human dignity. If I am angry because I feel that this person, in wronging me, diminished my human dignity, then how can my diminishing of her dignity be seen as a moral act? Human dignity is not, as Nussbaum writes, “a zero-sum game…” (27) Moreover, diminishing her dignity will not restore mine.

Transition-Anger, on the other hand, is “genuinely rational and normatively appropriate . . . whose entire content is: ‘How outrageous. Something should be done about that.’” (6) In contrast with the wish for payback it is forward-looking and asks the question: how can I make the world better as a result of this incident? How can my anger provide the fuel I need to do something constructive?

An Example: The Rape of Rebecca

Nussbaum provides an illustration showing the pitfalls of anger-based responses other than Transition-Anger. She explores in detail different potential responses. I’ll keep my restatement of it to a carefully limited summary.

Angela and Rebecca are close friends on a college campus where both are students. A male who is unknown to both – he’s called O, for offender – rapes Rebecca. As Nussbaum describes it, following this “Angela has true beliefs about what has occurred, about how seriously damaging it is, and about the wrongful intentions involved: O is mentally competent, understood the wrongfulness of his act, etc. (23)

Nussbaum then explores four hypothetical avenues that Angela might take, all reflective of real reactions and choices that we know people will follow/choose. Having done that, she describes the road that she thinks claims the moral high ground.

Angela, initially, probably will feel anger towards O. This is normal. She might wish him pain and suffering, believing (magically) that this will “set things right, somehow counterbalancing or even annulling the offense. (27)

But if she’s really focused on Rebecca, she’ll turn towards future-directed attitudes and activities. If she really wants to help her friend (and other women), she’ll focus on helping Rebecca to heal and continue living, setting up support groups, publicizing the problem of campus rape, and urging the authorities to do more to prevent such events.

She’ll have Transitioned from her anger to constructive, forward-looking attitudes and behaviors.

One of those projects might involve O’s punishment. However, focused as she is on making the world a better place for rape victims, she views the punishment differently than she would if her anger were to dominate. Instead of seeing his punishment as a “payback” or “retribution,” she chooses to focus on the potential good that might come from his punishment: “specific deterrence [of O], incapacitation, general deterrence (including deterrence through public expression of important values), and, possibly, instead or in addition, the reform of O.

Further, she might also pursue building a better society through the strengthening of our educational institutions with a particular focus on dignity and respect – and the uses of power that maintain or destroy them – and the reduction of poverty that contributes to crime, rape included. (27)

What The Transition Affords Us

Transition, then, moves us from anger to compassionate hope; from the hurt and destruction that anger wants to cause to a place of constructive contribution; from the impotence of victim-hood to the power of self-assertion and movement forward.

{For a beautiful illustration of this principle at the hands of one of its best practitioners, Nussbaum points to Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. You might want to read it with these ideas in mind.}

Transitioning away from our anger enables us to keep our focus on what we really want, Nussbaum points out: truth; justice; brotherhood; cooperation; accountability; reconciliation; the welfare of the community.

Some Last Words

Of course, again, I have given you only a cursory summary of her presentation. Likewise, there are topics that Nussbaum addresses amongst these – for example, “The Anger of God” and “Anger and Gender” – which are equally important and interesting.

This Shabbat morning, we’ll gather to sing, celebrate Shabbat and learn together. We’ll have a chance to discuss Prof. Nussbaum’s ideas as I’ve presented them in these first two posts. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts and responses.

Don’t forget our new Shabbat morning format:

9:00     Coffee and…
9:30     Prayer and learning
11:30    Kiddush and Shabbat shalom