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Ethical Episodes

World Without Anger

by Joel Marks

In my previous column about the legacy of Robert C. Solomon [in Issue 83] I offered an analysis of emotion as something that could be rational. But this was a pared-down kind of rationality, a merely logical type. The example I gave was that you might be angry because you believed that somebody had insulted you, and you naturally desired not to be insulted. But I also claimed that an emotion that was rational in this sense could still be irrational in an ethical sense. Thus, you might well be angry because somebody had insulted you, but perhaps everybody’s life would be better off if such things did not make you angry.

I would now like to continue the discussion of emotion, and of anger in particular, in the context of morality. As my recent readers know, I have undertaken an extended investigation of moral nihilism or amorality, the giving up of morality, both in theory and in actual living (including my own life). One objection to amorality is that morality is pervasive in a very deep sense. The objectors claim that not only do we frequently resort to explicitly moral notions, such as doing the right thing or the wrong thing or blaming someone or being outraged by something, but also we continually make implicit reference to morality in attitudes and actions that on the face of it appear nonmoral.

The worry, then, is that if we were to abandon morality normal life and society would become unsustainable because they would become unintelligible. Notice how this is different from, and more extreme than, the more accustomed objection to amorality, which is that human existence would become unsustainable because “everything would be permitted.” So for example, it has sometimes been argued that the notion of ‘person’ is morally imbued. On this account, a person is not just a certain kind of biological organism but is specifically an entity with inherent worth that makes it merit moral respect. This is one reason why so much controversy surrounds the issue of whether human fetuses are persons.

Without trying to settle now whether person is a moral concept, I would like to argue that morality can be found in a less-accustomed place, namely, anger. At first blush this seems plainly mistaken. We do have an explicitly moral notion of anger, which we call indignation. In fact, a strong case could be made for a conceptual linkage between anger and morality in “the other direction”; that is, a great deal of our moral repertoire, including its essential core, seems to be composed of angry responses. (I credit Jesse Prinz’s 2007 book The Emotional Construction of Morals with opening my eyes to this.) Thus, there is not only indignation but also outrage, condemnation, accusation, denunciation, offense, and so on. But the hypothesis I am entertaining now is that every type and instance of anger contains some moral component. Is that true?

Consider: what is anger? Anger does not always arise when somebody hurts or frustrates or slights you or somebody else you care about. In order for this emotion to occur, an additional element is required, it seems to me: that you believe that the person has done the deed deliberately (or at least carelessly), in other words, that there has been a particular type of intention (or else inattention) that is malign (or at least blameworthy). In a word: anger is the feeling that a wrong has been committed. But this wrong in turn implies an absolute standard of some kind, does it not? Which kind? The moral kind, I submit. Hence, all anger is a form of indignation; that is, all anger is moral anger. Hence, all anger would disappear from an amoral world.

I would sincerely like to know if my readers agree with this. Can you think of a counterexample: a case where somebody would be intelligibly angry and yet with no hint of moral implication, of implicit condemnation of an offending party for violating some universal and absolute norm? Let us philosophize about this together. I admit to being partial to the idea that anger would be eliminated by a switch to an amoral regime, but my first commitment as a philosopher is to truth. So if any of you folks believe you have come up with examples to disprove my thesis, bring ‘em on.

My claim, then, is that an amoral world would be a world without anger. And this seems to me to be a happy conclusion, for two reasons: I like the idea of a world without anger, and I believe that amorality is true. Therefore, it would not only be correct to believe that morality does not exist, but would also have a result that I like. Of course even if it were true that anger goes by the boards if (belief in) morality does, it would not follow without further argument that amorality is a good thing. Certainly there are those who are prepared to argue that anger is at least sometimes valuable, and that human life would, on balance, be worse off without it. Furthermore, even if the case could be made that the end of morality portended the end of anger, and the end of anger would be a good thing overall, amorality might bring other ills in its wake that outweighed this benefit. And finally, even if an amoral world would be a world we all preferred to a moral one, that would not show amorality to be true. I will, however, continue to argue that it is both true and something most people would favor.

© Prof. Joel Marks 2011

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven (West Haven, Connecticut) and a Bioethics Center Scholar at Yale University. He promises not to get angry if you don’t visit his website at www.TheEasyVegan.com.

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