welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Anger and Forgiveness by Martha Nussbaum

Trevor Pateman looks at problems with anger and forgiveness.

This book by one of America’s leading philosophers originated in Martha Nussbaum’s 2014 John Locke lectures at Oxford University. It’s very wide-ranging, starting in Ancient Greece and ending in the liberation struggles and civil rights movements of twentieth century India, USA, and South Africa. It stays throughout with a few key concepts – anger, forgiveness, gratitude, punishment, justice.

Nussbaum characterises her overall ethical and political vision as essentially ‘welfarist’, indebted both to utilitarians (specifically J.S. Mill) and liberals (specifically John Rawls). From this very general position she tries to discourage any idea we might have of anger as being a virtue of some kind. She’s also very critical of conditional forgiveness. If there is to be punishment, it should not be as backward-looking retribution or payback, but as forward-looking deterrent.

Nussbaum partitions her discussion in terms of areas of social life: the intimate relationships of family and close friendship; the non-personal relationships of daily life, where we meet other people as waiters, travellers on the same plane, drivers on the same road; the more enduring but non-intimate relationships we have with people such as work colleagues; the world of criminal justice, where the courts act for those who have been wronged and against those who have wronged them; and the more historic worlds of revolutionary justice, where fundamental social re-orientation is at issue. She focusses on the civil rights struggles in America, the campaign for Indian independence, and the re-organisation of South Africa achieved by the ANC and Nelson Mandela. The discussion is packed with examples and is readable throughout.

I had one general disquiet that emerged when I read the Chapter 5, on the Middle Realm of non-intimate everyday relationships. Here Nussbaum discusses cases where people have angered us by their inconsiderate behaviour or worse, and we feel the need to seek apology or in some other way basically stick up for ourselves, our dignity, or our status. She canvasses various approaches, and these fall into the category of strategic action rather than communicative action (they’re Jürgen Habermas’s terms, but others make the same distinction). In strategic action, we do not aim to say what we think or express what we feel, but rather, aim to get someone else to improve their behaviour by saying or doing whatever seems most likely to work, even if that involves telling lies. So, for example, in order to discourage a stranger on a plane giving unwanted help getting her cabin bag into the overhead locker, Nussbaum says (falsely), “I’m terribly sorry. That suitcase contains fragile items, and I’d rather handle it myself so that, if anything should happen, I would know that I’m responsible and not you” (p.148). Quite a speech, but this is a pure example of strategic rather than communicative action. In the present instance, communicative action might involve saying, “No thank you. I prefer to do it myself” – which is a polite way of saying “I don’t want your help.”

We act in this kind of strategic way all the time in our non-intimate everyday relations, but its ethical dubiousness emerges the moment we switch the context to that of intimate relationships, since we rely on people close to us to say what they think and express what they feel, not least because intimate relationships become deserts if people don’t do so. So, suppose a wife knows her husband hates wearing a suit and tie but wants him to dress up for an occasion which might be important for his career or their social standing. She hits on the strategy of saying, “Why don’t you wear a suit and tie this evening? It makes you look so handsome.” The strategy may work, but it involves dishonesty about her intentions and that’s high-risk in an intimate relationship, and over time can be very damaging to it.

anger silhouette

Nussbaum herself edges towards a discussion of this problem when she writes admiringly in Chapter 7 of the ways in which Nelson Mandela brought important white groups onside in the transition to majority rule in South Africa. She realises that the ways in which Mandela won over the Springboks (pp.234-37), for example, could be seen as strategic – the work of a man who had read up on winning friends and influencing people – or as the expression of his personality. (This leads her to point out that Mandela was a real sports fan, not a fake one.) But it’s arguable that in Chapter 5 she’s quite happy with pure strategic action which is possibly insincere or untruthful, in non-intimate everyday relationships. This is more consistent with her overall welfarist position than any prying into people’s souls to test their sincerity. The problem I find with her very strong expression of forward-oriented welfarist views is that though they are meant to be both politically progressive and consistent with a liberal pluralism of the kind articulated by John Rawls, they have a general paternalistic (or maternalistic) feel, so that people may to some degree be manipulated or infantilised by them. The exchange over the suit and tie I sketched could be construed this way too. Also, when writing about difficult colleagues (pp.154-160), Nussbaum characterises one as a “selfish genius two year-old” (p.159) and others as suffering from “infantile narcissism” (p.160) and who have to be handled accordingly – that is, handled strategically as patients rather than communicatively as agents. Sometimes this will work, but at other times it will cause offence and invite anger when the ruse is seen through. In intimate relationships, if you give the other cause to think you are treating them as a patient not an agent, you’re in deep trouble. Likewise, treat the Springboks patronisingly as patients and you will be told to get lost.

Although I have this small area of doubt, this is a very impressive, wide-ranging, much reflected-upon work of moral and political philosophy, with much of which I am in cheerful agreement.

© Trevor Pateman 2018

Trevor Pateman studied with Richard Wollheim and Roland Barthes. Their influence can still be found in his books Materials and Medium: an Aesthetics (2016), and Prose Improvements (2017), on prose fiction and creative writing.

Anger & Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, by Martha C. Nussbaum, OUP USA, 2016, 336pp, $24.95/£16.99, ISBN 978-0199335879

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X