Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice

Martha C. Nussbaum

Book cover

Again, I found Nussbaum to be both extremely incisive and eminently readable. This book builds out one particular strand of a position on the emotions in general that she laid out in Upheavals of Thought, which is the book I actually wanted to read but wasn’t available at our library. In this work, she turns a critical eye on the roles of both anger and forgiveness in our society. Her argument on anger is probably the more familiar–essentially, that it is almost always unproductive, and should be replaced by a more forward-looking orientation that she calls “Transition Anger,” which focuses on how to reduce harms in the future. This is similar to a generic Stoic position, and indeed Nussbaum cites Seneca extensively. Perhaps more interesting is Nussbaum’s take on forgiveness. She is critical of both conditional and even unconditional forgiveness, seeing them both as rooted in the inherently problematic precondition of resentment and, in the case of conditional forgiveness, taking on an unhelpful transactional approach. (I think she is aligned with Nietzsche here, who she mentions, but I am not familiar enough with his attitude to be sure.) In its place, she counsels an ethic of unconditional love and generosity (which does not entail any sort of apology/forgiveness ritual).

Interestingly, just as I was reading this book, a piece was published in the NY Times by my former writing professor, Cris Beam (“I Did A Terrible Thing. How Can I Apologize?” 6/30/18), recounting her attempt to atone for ending a relationship in a particularly hurtful way. The article touches on many of the themes that Nussbaum raises, and although Beam retains the “apology/forgiveness” framework, I think she ends up in a place not that different from Nussbaum. Both writers talk at some length about the Jewish forgiveness ritual of teshuvah, which I hadn’t known much about before.

Nussbaum certainly means for her book to have an impact on people’s behavior. She walks through applications of her basic ideas in intimate relationships, stranger interactions, and public policy, and includes some (often very funny) examples from her own life, in a charming Senecan style. She talks at some length about the examples of King, Gandhi, and Mandela (and the philosophical writings of the former two) in illustrating the effectiveness of “Transition Anger” and unconditional love and generosity. She also has some interesting discussion of the cultural status of anger in various cultures.

People who know me will be aware that I don’t get angry very easily. But what may be less apparent is that when I do get angry, it can be very difficult for me to “shake” the feeling. Here, I think there is an important aspect of anger that Nussbaum doesn’t address adequately. In her telling, the key distinguishing characteristic of anger, as opposed to other negative emotions, is the desire for things to go badly for the person on whom it is focused, or for them to suffer a status reduction. In contrast, the content of the preferable emotion of “Transition Anger”, in her formulation, is “How outrageous–something should be done about this.” On a narrow reading of this, I feel like most of what I experience as anger is in fact Transition Anger. And yet, I still feel that it is an unproductive force in my life! For me, the key problematic characteristic of anger is its obsessive quality–the inability to forget the (perceived) slight or injury, and the feeling of “something should be done!” without any accompanying intent to actually do something.

I think that one big thing missing in Nussbaum’s account is some enumeration of tactics. It is easy enough (for me) to rationally assent to most of her analysis, and perhaps even to remember it when I am feeling angry about something. But although this might help, I can well imagine this failing to do away with an obsessive feeling of anger entirely. What would Nussbaum counsel us to do when we feel anger? Certainly part of her answer would be to remind ourselves of paragons of non-anger such as King–although this might seem a tad grandiose for everyday slights. I’ve personally found helpful the blog of David Cain (“Raptitude”), including for example the essay “How To Be A Good Stranger.” The strategy that he outlines there, of responding to a feeling of anger or annoyance by resolving to adopt the opposite attitude, is one that I have remembered and found effective on more than one occasion.

Related to the above, I also think Nussbaum gives insufficient attention to the importance of ritual in helping us to lead good lives. The “transactional” apology/conditional-forgiveness ritual may indeed have a component of down-ranking, as Nussbaum argues, but it also plays an important role as a signpost reminding us to move on. (If we start to feel angry again about the event, we can remind ourselves that we already forgave the person.) For religious people, such as King, prayer and confession can also serve as triggers and reminders of non-anger or even unconditional forgiveness. But, assuming we assent to Nussbaum’s analysis, and aspire to an ethic of unconditional love and generosity, eschewing the notions of apology and forgiveness, are there any tools available to help us along the way–particularly for those of us who are not religious? Unconditional love and generosity is certainly an exacting standard and one that we are likely to fall short of, even if we aspire to it. In my experience there are definitely things that can play this role–warm physical contact, eating a meal together, or doing something nice for the other person, for example–but this is an ad hoc personal list. I think, to the extent that we assent to Nussbaum’s analysis, it would make sense to develop an array of reinforcing rituals to take the place of those she proposes to discard.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars