Anger and Fear, Then and Now

In the 2017 Jefferson Lecture, Martha Nussbaum uses the classics to start a discussion about how we express outrage -- justified or not.

May 2, 2017
Martha C. Nussbaum

Martha C. Nussbaum started the 2017 Jefferson Lecture Monday night reviewing the transformations of Athenian democracy and justice -- and the limits placed on vengeance -- that are portrayed in Aeschylus’ Oresteia.

"Like modern democracies, the ancient Greek democracy had an anger problem," Nussbaum said, according to an advance copy of her remarks. "Read the historians, and you will see some things that are not remote: individuals litigating obsessively against people they blame for having wronged them; groups blaming other groups for their lack of power; citizens blaming prominent politicians and other elites for selling out the dearest values of the democracy; other groups blaming foreign visitors, or even women, for their own political and personal woes."

The National Endowment for the Humanities selects someone each year to give the Jefferson Lecture, and being selected is considered the top honor from the U.S. government in the humanities. Nussbaum -- Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago -- was selected for the honor just prior to the inauguration of President Trump. And while her remarks didn't include his name or mention fake news or certain political movements, the themes she raises reflected issues much discussed in the context of his election, and the growth of populist movements fueled by anger in other countries as well. (Video of the event may be found here.)

Aristotle's definition of anger, Nussbaum noted, was based not just on the fury one might feel.

"Aristotle adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a pleasant hope for payback or retribution," Nussbaum said. "So: significant damage, pertaining to one’s own values or circle of cares, and wrongfulness. Those two elements seem both true and uncontroversial, and they have been validated by modern psychological studies. Those parts of anger can go wrong in specific and local ways: we might be wrong about who did the bad thing, or how significant it was, or whether it was done wrongfully (rather than accidentally). But they are often on target."

And Nussbaum said that anger combined with a desire to do something can be positive.

“The outrage part is personally and socially valuable when our beliefs are correct: we need to recognize wrongful acts and protest them, expressing our concern for the violation of an important norm,” she said. “And there is one species of anger, I believe, that is free of the retributive wish: its entire content is, ‘How outrageous that is. Something must be done about that.’ I call this TransitionAnger, because it expresses a protest, but faces forward: it gets to work finding solutions rather than dwelling on the infliction of retrospective pain.”

But Nussbaum went on to identify ways that anger can lead individuals and society in the wrong direction.

First there are "obvious errors," she said. "Anger can be misguided, and guide us badly, if it is based on wrong information about who did what to whom, about whether the bad act was really done wrongfully (with some sort of bad intent) rather than just by accident, and also if it is based on a confused sense of importance. Aristotle mentions people who get angry when someone forgets their name, and this familiar example is a case of overestimating the importance of what the person did. (Probably also a case of getting intention wrong.) Since we’re often hasty when we are angry, these errors occur often."

Then there is the "status error," Nussbaum said. "We also go wrong, I claim, if we think relative status is hugely important and focus on that to the exclusion of other things. This error is really a case of mistaking the importance of a particular value, but since it is so common and such a major source of anger, we have to single it out and give it a separate number."

And then there is the "payback error," where "we very often go wrong when we permit deeply ingrained retributive thoughts to take over, making us think that pain wipes out pain, death murder, and so forth. In short, when we think that inflicting pain in the present fixes the past. We go wrong because that thought is a kind of irrational magical thinking, and because it distracts us from the future, which we can change, and often should."

Nussbaum urged us to be more cautious in getting angry and acting on that anger, especially in the policy world.

"All these errors are common, not least in the political life. We get hold of the wrong story about who did what, or we blame individuals and groups for a large systemic problem that they didn’t cause. We overestimate trivial wrongs and also, sometimes, underestimate important ones. We obsess about our own relative status (or that of our group). We think that payback will solve the problems created by the original offense, even though it does not," she said.

Added Nussbaum, “We impute blame, often, even when there is no blame to be apportioned. The world is full of accidents. Sometimes a disaster is just a disaster. Sometimes illness and hardship are just illness and hardship. The medical profession can’t keep us completely safe from disease and death, and the wisest and most just social policies will not prevent economic woes arising from natural disasters. But in our monarchical way we expect the world to be made for our service. It gratifies our ego, and is in a deep sense comforting, to think that any bad event is someone’s fault. The act of pinning blame and pursuing the ‘bad guy’ is deeply consoling. It makes us feel control rather than helplessness.”


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