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Dan Kervick

Hi Eric,

I read Srinivasan's piece when Brandon Fitelson shared it yesterday, and was moved to make some notes on my own, Buddhist-inspired views about anger. It appears I have an even dimmer view of anger than Nussbaum's new, revised view, and want to oppose the intensely politicized and moralized framework for looking at the emotions that both Srinivasan and Nussbaum appear to share.

I hope you don't mind me sharing these ideas. Sorry for the aphoristic nature of these thoughts, but it's the best I could do at present. Here they are:

Anger is a predominantly painful state of mind. It is a painful burden on one’s body and an unpleasantly disorienting defilement of one’s thought processes. Nevertheless, its first flushes have pleasant aspects, as do other states of arousal.

The sudden discharge of anger can be pleasant, as is the discharge from of all sorts of highly aroused and stressful states. But that pleasant discharge is typically followed by despondency, lethargy, disappointment and feelings of self-reproach or self-disapproval.

Prolonged, persistent anger is an extremely unhappy state of mind.

Anger builds walls of opposition and aversion in the landscape of one’s personal and social relationships, and the presence of these obstructions is often experienced as painfully frustrating.

Anger can be motivating, but tends to be motivating in a primitive and unfocused way. The motivational consequences of anger are more likely to be foolish and self-thwarting than constructive. Anger can also sometimes be paralyzing, rather than motivating, and block beneficial and fruitful action.

Techniques are available for the diminution of, and release or liberation from, anger. To the extent one is interested in living a happy life, it is wise to make use of these techniques and work on the cultivation over time of an anger-free state of mind.

Psychic liberation from anger is not the same thing as the repression of anger. Repression is also painful and burdensome, has various harmful side effects, and can fail in unpredictable ways, and so its genuine rationalizing effects come at a painful cost.

One can clearly understand the harms caused by badly organized, exploitative or sadistic social institutions and behavioral patterns, and be concerned about those harms, and take steps to alleviate those harms, without being angry over them.

Some episodes of anger, or outward displays of anger, are motivated by signaling considerations. It is one way in which people in community display their level of commitment to one another, or attempt to deter and influence actual or potential enemies. So people sometimes endeavor to convince others they are more angry than they actually are, or attempt to arouse in themselves actual experiences of anger they wouldn’t otherwise experience.

Anger can be auto-stimulated by indulging in various anger-prompting activities – such as viewing “outrage porn” or battlefield berserking. People engage in stimulatory activities aimed at arousing actual anger so they can secure the esteem of others who expect them to be angry or demand they be angry, or impress potential enemies with their wrath, or so they can experience the ephemeral pleasant aspects of anger.

Anger can be harmfully addictive. People can become attached to predominantly painful and ultimately debilitating arousal-discharge cycles of anger – in the same way they can become addicted to drug, alcohol or porn-induced arousal-discharge cycles.

Contra Nussbaum: Anger is a hatred/aversion spike. Although it sometimes leads to a desire for vengeance or some other change in the external human world, it need not. Anger also does not necessarily involve a moral or normative appraisal of the object of the anger, although such further socially conditioned mental states can be causally involved with an anger episode. In some case the hatred itself is diffuse and unfocused and the mind struggles to provide itself with a suitable object.

The efforts to overcome anger and replace it with more wholesome and pleasant states are challenging, and they are more challenging for some than others. People seem to differ due to both nature and nurture with respect to their dispositions toward anger.

It is necessary to achieve some significant measure of mental peace and bliss in order to understand the best states of existence of which we are capable, and only then are we likely to be effective in guiding our actions toward the best ends for ourselves and others. So while anger might be motivational, people living lives clouded by irascibility and aversion are more likely to aim at illusory and inferior goals for both themselves and others.

The socio-political framework for assessing our emotional lives – a framework both Nussbaum and Srinivasan seem to share - is a dangerously limited, and potentially highly oppressive one. Turning one’s emotional life over to considerations regarding the perceived needs of The Republic or The Revolution or something similar is a kind of self-maiming. Keeping oneself in painful, miserable states of mind, and distant from happiness and the highest experiences, because one feels the political community might need one’s anger, is a sad way to live. And it probably more often than not involves fantastic illusions of grandiosity, personal importance and long term effectiveness. Unfortunately, many painful and self-destructive behaviors are perceived by their experiencers as heroically self-mortifying.

Human social life is complex and unpredictable, and personal or cooperative political activity driven forward by storms of anger most often eventuates in outcomes that their agents did not foresee, and are probably not much better than the pre-existing states.

The moralistic framework for assessing emotions is also dangerous. The outlook that there are binding obligations, prohibitions and permissions proceeding from some mysterious trans-social source is a metaphysical superstition, likely a projection of aspects of hierarchical human social life onto the larger cosmos and the human relationship to it. The oppressive cultural proliferation of these superstitions is part of a system of control possessing some utility, but hopefully is a system that can be supplanted by something better. The anxious and guilty view that one’s own states of mind must be rectified by achieving “justification” with respect to these divine or impersonal deontic standards is a sad outcome of this superstitious intellectual oppression.

People sometimes injure other people. If the injury someone does to you also makes you angry, they have then injured you twice.

Anger hurts. So asking about some episode of anger one is experiencing, "Is my anger justified?" seems as strange as asking, "Is this headache justified?"

The world would be an immensely more pleasant place to live in if there were a radical diminution of anger across the board. A very large number of avoidable human evils are traceable to wrath.


Dear Dan:

Right you are- many expect salvation writ large or illegibly scribbled, from their public world- politics included.
Anger, even when righteous and justified, really fosters ego attachments-
the political philosophy sometime daunts me- but Buddha had it right- in our real life everyday lives, justice is a good but hardly a therapy

LK McPherson

Did the Buddha offer any guidance about engaging with, or at least acknowledging, the thoughtful, incisive perspective of those with whom one disagrees? The question is sincere.

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Here's a link to my past blogging (and discussions involving me) at: New APPS.


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