University News

Philosopher explores different types of anger

Drawing from Greek myth and political reform movements, Nussbaum reflects on justice

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Exploring the traditional association of anger with revenge, Martha Nussbaum, University of Chicago Law School professor and former Brown professor, cited the “Transition” anger utilized by political reformers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi as its more productive counterpart during a lecture Monday afternoon.

Nussbaum’s lecture, entitled “Injustice and the Dubious Value of Anger,” was sponsored by the program for Ethical Inquiry and is part of a weeklong series of lectures and workshops.

“It’s really always a great treat to be back at Brown,” said Nussbaum, who taught philosophy, classics and comparative literature at the University from 1984 to 1995, to an enthusiastic audience in Salomon 001.

Nussbaum, considered one of the country’s foremost philosophers, currently holds appointments in the University of Chicago’s philosophy and political science departments, as well as at the law and divinity schools, said Bernard Reginster, professor and chair of Brown’s Department of Philosophy.

Nussbaum began her lecture recounting a story from the Ancient Greek Oresteia about the introduction of a justice system. She described two transformations that take place. In the first transformation, the goddess Athena introduces a justice system to replace the “seemingly endless cycle of blood vengeance,” Nussbaum said. Athena takes power out of the hands of the vindictive Furies but subsequently offers them a place of honor in the city.

In accepting the place of honor, the “repulsive and horrifying” Furies must undergo a transformation of their own to be part of a working legal system, Nussbaum said. “You could not put wild dogs in a cage and come out with justice.”

The second transformation is “crucial to the success of the first one,” Nussbaum added.

The transformation of the Furies introduced a key idea in Nussbaum’s lecture: Retributive anger is “fatally flawed from a normative viewpoint.”

Nussbaum then explained Aristotle’s definition of anger, which involves damage wrongfully done to a person or someone the person cares about as well as a “pleasant hope for payback.” This hope for retribution can be very subtle, she added.

“When wrong is done we somehow think that the universe will be off-kilter unless there is some sort of rectification,” Nussbaum said, noting the desire for payback is “deeply human but fatally flawed.”

Nussbaum used King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as an example of what she calls constructive “Transition” anger.

This Transition anger “does not focus on status, nor does it even briefly want the suffering of the offender. … It focuses on social welfare from the start, saying, ‘Something should be done about that,’” Nussbaum explained.

Nussbaum also referenced Gandhi’s and Nelson Mandela’s movements as examples of the effectiveness of non-retributive anger.

“Anger is a prominent part of most people’s lives,” Nussbaum said. “It lacks the virtues often claimed for it.” She concluded her talk with “a slogan that surely betrays my age. … ‘Give peace a chance.’”

Nearly an hour was allotted for audience questions from faculty members, undergraduates and graduate students.

Yongming Han GS, a student in the philosophy department, said the talk was “great” and “relevant to daily life.” He attended because he is interested in “whether there’s a place for anger in morality,” he said.

Many of the students who attended the lecture are involved with the philosophy  department. Matt De La Cruz ’17, a philosophy concentrator, said he went to hear Nussbaum’s lecture because he enjoyed an essay of hers that he read for one of his classes last semester.

Oscar Dupuy D’Angeac ’17 had lingering doubts about the feasibility of regulating anger in the way Nussbaum endorsed. “It’s difficult to get rid of our human nature,” he said, adding that Nussbaum’s examples were all derived from revolutionary situations. “Maybe anger towards individuals has a place in maintaining the status quo,” he said.