Anger as a Moral Sentiment?

Brian Ball | October 6, 2016

When was the last time you were angry? Whenever it was, I’m willing to bet both that you felt a certain way – angry, obviously! – and that there was something you felt this anger about. This poses something of a puzzle for theorists of the emotions; for many other states of mind can, it seems, be characterised as either sensations or thoughts. Sensations feel a certain way: pain feels… well, painful; and there’s ‘something it’s like’ (in Thomas Nagel’s phrase) to sense the colour blue. Thoughts, on the other hand, are about something: if I believe Clinton will win the US presidential election, my belief is about Clinton’s winning; and if she intends to win, so is her intention. And because thoughts are about something, they can be rationally appropriate or inappropriate, justified or unjustified: my belief about Clinton might be unjustified if based on reading tea-leaves rather than Nate Silver’s polling; and her intention would be utterly inappropriate if she were ineligible to run. By contrast, pain is neither appropriate nor inappropriate – it just hurts! But the emotions have both characteristics: there is something it feels like to be in the grip of fear; yet that response is entirely inappropriate if there’s no danger.

David Hume (1711-1776) had a solution to our puzzle: he suggested that an emotion is a feeling caused by a thought; in particular, he claimed that pride is a feeling of pleasure caused by a belief about oneself. This seems right – even if, say, one is proud of one’s daughter; for what one is proud of, in such a case, is that one has a daughter with such-and-such accomplishments or characteristics. And on the face of it at least, it explains both why pride feels a certain way (it is a feeling) and why it can be justified or not (it inherits this feature from the belief which causes it). This may not be the whole story – but it is at least a start.

Shame appears to be the exact opposite of Humean pride – an unpleasant feeling caused by a belief about oneself. And it is one of the two ‘moral sentiments’ widely thought to play a role in ensuring conformity to social norms – the other being guilt. The idea is that others make you feel these emotions when you do something they don’t like; and because they are unpleasant, expecting them provides a disincentive against doing it again. What we have said so far, however, fails to distinguish these emotions from each other. Yet guilt involves empathy – it is an unpleasant feeling (typically) caused by a belief that one has harmed another; whereas shame appears to be (roughly) the internalisation of others’ disapproval – and this hurts whether one cares about others (for their own sake) or not.

What about the morality of anger? Some philosophers, such as Martha Nussbaum, think it is morally unjustified, ultimately because it is ineffective (though she does not consider forgiveness to be any better). Others, such as Amia Srinivasan, argue that it can be a perfectly appropriate response to e.g. injustice; and this at least in part because it can motivate action, and bring about social change. I’ll let you decide who is right.

Brian Ball

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy