Prof. Martha Nussbaum book examines the trouble with anger and forgiveness

Americans are living in a culture of outrage, one fueled by the belief that anger and retribution are central to achieving justice, political change and power.

The problem, says Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics, is that anger doesn’t truly deliver any of those things. And our focus on payback—whether it is expressed as political vitriol, the mass incarceration of low-level drug offenders or the increased use of victim impact statements during sentencing—can keep us from making constructive gains as a society.

These are some of the insights of Nussbaum’s newest book, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford University Press), which argues that anger is fundamentally flawed, rooted in weakness and ultimately harmful—and that even forgiveness in some forms is worthy of skepticism. Nussbaum will discuss the book with Jonathan Masur, the John P. Wilson Professor of Law, at 6 p.m. May 31 at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore.

The book, based on the John Locke Lectures she delivered two years ago at Oxford University, represents an evolution in how the world-renowned philosopher regards the popular emotions that have become fixtures in politics, criminal justice and other aspects of American life. It’s a shift that acknowledges their complicated entanglement with fairness.

“In earlier work, I said that anger was actually constructive because it involves a demand for justice,” Nussbaum said, recalling her 2004 book Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law (Princeton University Press) and a 2012 Indian newspaper column in which she called on survivors of a 2002 massacre in Gujarat to express resentment rather than forgiveness. (Several of the perpetrators had been recently convicted, but systemic change and apology were still needed, and Nussbaum viewed outrage as a path to justice and truth.)

But later, as she unpacked the complexities of anger and forgiveness—thinking critically about centuries of philosophical and religious tradition and studying the writings and practices of modern revolutionaries Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mohandas Gandhi—she found herself focusing on retributive desires and the ways in which they can impede social progress.

“I remember sitting here in my office and thinking about how I wanted to address the fact that anger always involves conceptually a wish for some sort of payback. That’s the crucial thing. I hadn’t faced that yet; I’d talked about the demand for justice, but that’s different from the demand for payback,” she said. “I ended up thinking that Aristotle and the whole Western philosophical tradition were correct to say that anger always involves a demand for payback.”

And it was that thread of vengeful desire, woven through anger and often assumed to possess restorative power, that troubled Nussbaum, whose book considers anger in personal relationships, in casual interactions, in the workplace and in politics.

“That desire is mired in this sort of magical thinking that isn’t coherent and doesn’t give us guidance for the future,” she said. “Most people think that if you have a proportional payback that somehow balances out the offense. But of course it doesn’t. It doesn’t bring back the person who is dead, and the Greek philosophers very early recognized that.”

Strength and weakness

The ancient Greeks and Romans also viewed anger as inherently weak—an insight that runs contrary to modern-day American norms that elevate anger. Nussbaum argues that although anger might be effective in certain narrow situations in which it corrects a person’s relative status, it is essentially a way to avoid the real work of creating a better future.

“Our politics is a politics of insult and rage—when [a candidate] talks about facts or constructive ideas, that looks weak to people,” she said. “We need to reorient our political assessment of people as strong or weak, good leaders or not good leaders, in a very fundamental way. We should be looking toward the one who has good ideas that might actually work in the future.”

Our politics is a politics of insult and rage—when [a candidate] talks about facts or constructive ideas, that looks weak to people. We need to reorient our political assessment of people ... toward the one who has good ideas that might actually work in the future.Prof. Martha Nussbaum

Forward-thinking movements led by King, Gandhi and Mandela—who were each deeply committed to non-angry resistance and successful in mobilizing followers and inspiring change—highlighted the power of generosity. When they did experience or express anger, it was a borderline variety that Nussbaum calls “Transition-Anger,” in which one feels a sense of outrage but doesn’t want the offender to suffer.

“Mohandas Gandhi, utterly repudiating anger, and apparently successful in not feeling it, showed the world that non-anger was a posture not of weakness and servility but of strength and dignity,” Nussbaum wrote.

The problem in contemporary America is that “we don’t really think we have to do that work,” Nussbaum said. “American society really dignifies and valorizes anger in ways that not all societies do.” Pursuing retribution, she noted, is easier than tackling systemic change, grappling with racial bias, or working cooperatively to understand and promote social welfare policies.

She points to the imprisonment of non-violent drug offenders, which skyrocketed under mandatory sentencing guidelines during the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s but has come under sharp criticism in recent years as costly, ineffective and disproportionately devastating to minority communities.

“The mass incarceration movement has been so much of a failure that even people who are deeply retributive in their hearts feel the pull of utilitarian thinking and see what a waste it is to spend $50,000 imprisoning someone, which is how much a single convict costs per year in most states,” Nussbaum said. “If we really wanted to deal with the problem of crime in a welfare-oriented spirit, we would start with pre-K nutrition, education, medical care and work with families. All these things, when they happen early, make it much less likely that somebody is going to commit a crime. We should be preventing crime.”

Nussbaum also takes a skeptical view of some classic forms of forgiveness, arguing that these forms are normatively problematic because they’re essentially transactional; they require initial anger or resentment that can be waived in exchange for contrition. She favors a more generous approach—or at least one that attempts to move in that direction.

She was particularly moved by the families of some of the nine people killed during the South Carolina church shooting in June 2015. During accused killer Dylann Roof’s bail hearing, the judge invited the families to offer victim impact statements—expressions that are often filled with resentment. But all who spoke rejected anger, and most offered forgiveness in an attempt to push past the anger.

“What was so striking to me was that obviously they had been working hard on this issue,” Nussbaum said. “Although presumably the judge had called on them to say something vindictive, they said they wanted [Roof] to recognize the error of his ways, and they said they wanted to ultimately forgive him. But one woman said, ‘You know, I feel very, very angry, but I know that I haven’t progressed enough—I know I’m a work in progress.’”

That was an idea King encouraged his followers to embrace, and one Nussbaum hoped would resonate with others.

“We can all embrace this idea that we’re a work in progress,” she said. And ultimately, she hopes readers will recognize that it is work worth pursuing.

“I hope they will see that there are not only well-argued but historically powerful and successful alternatives to politics of anger and payback,” she said. “And I hope they will see that that’s a strong attitude—not a weak attitude.”