This is part two in a three part philosophical reflection on anger: on whether you should accept it in your life and how you can change things. In our first reflection we discussed the philosopher Martha Nussbaum's criticism of anger in her recent book. We noted that while anger is psychologically normal, when it comes to creating a good life we should strive to overcome it. Many people assume that forgiveness is the alternative, but surprisingly Nussbaum disagrees. Today we look at her reasons for disagreeing, before moving onto the third instalment where I offer a picture of what it looks like to live beyond anger.
Nussbaum sees in forgiveness a kind of certain logic. A person moves from 1)sorrow, for example following a betrayal, to 2)anger, and then 3)to forgoing their legitimate right to be angry through the activity known as forgiving. Hence, Nussbaum argues, the concept of forgiveness contains the notion that anger is morally sound and sensible. Forgiveness bears within it the idea that status and payback are reasonable. This makes forgiveness incoherent or bad for the same reasons that anger is.
According to Nussbaum, the idea of forgiveness is rooted in anger, which as we have seen is focused on status or payback. Forgiveness, she claims, is still about wanting the other to be lowered or get their just desserts, except that in this case the wrongdoer has recognised their fault and is remorseful. A transaction therefore happens, where the wrongdoer offers remorse, and the wronged person responds by shifting from anger to forgiveness. The wrong-doer is still lowered as in status anger, except that in this case they lower themselves through contrition. This is a modified form of status and payback anger.
Some people will disagree and say that an ethic of forgiveness is not transactional in that way, that it is really about unconditional forgiveness. Nussbaum answers that unconditional forgiveness bears the same structure, values, and so faults as transactional forgiveness. It differs only by letting go of the requirement that the wrongdoer feel remorse. It is not a transaction, but it is predicated on the right to be angry, on the rightness of anger. And so it is flawed too.
Nussbaum then discusses a form of forgiveness which, she argues, is really not forgiveness at all, even though it often goes by that name. This, she thinks, is what we should strive for. She says this action is not really forgiveness because it rejects the legitimacy of anger. It is more expressive of "an ethic of transition." What she means by an ethic of transition is different to forgiveness, because it changes the emotional pattern for betrayal to anger to forgiveness, to from betrayal to asserting true value, to healing, reforming, rebuilding. When people call this forgiveness, Nussbaum thinks they are really referring to "unconditional love and generosity." Unconditional love and generosity acknowledges clearly the wrong done and the harm it has caused, but it responds with value-creation, with rebuilding. Anger only does more damage to what matters, whereas love and generosity is focused on increasing what matters. It is a forward looking emotion that takes wrongdoing seriously, gives grief its due, but focuses on healing and improvement. It is consistent with taking measures to limit further wrongdoing, including by force, but it will do such things in a spirit of regret and compassion rather than hate.
So how do we overcome anger? That is the topic of the next reflection.