The Upside of Anger

The moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum on productive rage versus retribution in politics.

A protester holds up a sign with Donald Trump's face and the words #Hate Monger.
A protester during a demonstration against the Trump administration in Los Angeles on Nov. 4. Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Martha C. Nussbaum, the author of the new book The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis. Nussbaum, who teaches at the University of Chicago, is a moral philosopher and the author of numerous books and articles on everything from the role of the humanities in society, to aging, to ethnic conflict in India. But a common theme of her work is exploring the role of emotion in human behavior. As she writes here, “Academics can be too detached from human realities to do good work about the texture of human life. … My own commitments and efforts have always led me to want to restore to philosophy the wide set of concerns that it had in the days of the Greeks and Romans. Concerns with the emotions and the struggle for flourishing lives in troubled times; with love and friendship; with the human lifespan; with the hope for a just world.”

Below is an edited excerpt of the show. In it, we discuss how fear came to have such a central role in modern politics, the ethical questions inherent in being uncivil to Trump officials, and whether anger has more utility than we might think.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: How do you define fear in this book?

Martha C. Nussbaum: What’s new about this book is that I really came to the conclusion that we have to think much harder, I have to think much harder, about fear as something that is very early in human life, that’s very hard to control, more so than other emotions. That lies at the bottom of a lot of things that go on in politics. Fear, I define more or less as Aristotle did, as the awareness that there are important things pertinent to your own good life that are out there, and that are threatening you, namely bad things, and that you’re not entirely in control of warding them off. Fear just is the thought, “the bad is out there, and I really can’t do a whole lot about it.” That’s what makes fear so connected to primal infantile experience.

When times get uncertain, as I think our political time is very uncertain, economically, with changes like outsourcing and automation … people then revert to that primal place of terror.

You say that anger is the offspring of fear, which may be the way that it is manifesting itself right now politically.

Anger gets fed by the powerlessness, so that when we’re feeling terrified and powerless, one thing that often happens is that we try to seize control by getting mad. Babies do this already, they start yelling and screaming, and they target people who might not have anything to do with the source of the actual problem. I think we learn in our early days to grab easy fixes to complicated problems, and that’s where anger grows out of fear, and mobilizes us to target and scapegoat some usually powerless group of people, whether it’s immigrants, or Muslims, or some domestic minority.

When I read about the various things that are happening in this country, I feel very angry. I’m wondering how productive you think that might be, and whether you are also angry, and whether you think there’s anything valuable about that anger.

I think we first have to think what anger is. All the philosophers in the Western tradition, and actually in the Indian tradition too who define anger, include the thought that somebody has done something seriously wrong to you, or someone, or something that you care about, but also that it would be good for the doer to suffer. The thought of a proportional payback is built in to the definition of anger. What they’re claiming is that there’s this strike-back mechanism in anger, that you don’t just feel bad [something] has happened, but you feel, “I’ll get this person, and I’ll give him or her, his or her comeuppance.”

You don’t always want to go out and take revenge yourself against the person. Sometimes you want the law to do it, but our dominant position in criminal justice is the idea of proportional payback. It’s called retributivism. It’s the only thing that explains the popularity of the death penalty in America. An eye for an eye and so on. Now that part I think is absolutely misguided. It never achieves what you want it to achieve, like killing the killer does not bring your child or family member back to life. Thinking about proportional payback is a way of riveting your mind to the past, rather than thinking, “Well, what is the problem, and how going forward can we actually solve the problem?” Martin Luther King Jr., whom I talk about a lot in the book, agrees that people usually feel that way. They came to his movement feeling two things, an outrage that the wrong thing had happened, but also this retributive desire to clobber the other people.

He said, once they got to the movement, their anger had to be purified, and he also used the word channelized. Meaning it’s got to lose that idea that retribution itself is going to fix things, and instead it has to keep the sense of outrage that’s good, important to protest. It has to be what I call protest without payback. In other words, we have to turn forward and think, what actually can we do to solve the problem? I think that the protest part of anger is very productive. We should keep it and accentuate it, but the payback part, to me, is just a false lure, and it’s a total distraction from fixing the problems that need to be fixed.

That practical course seems sensible. But while I don’t know how you feel as someone who talks about how emotions play a larger role in human behavior, I find myself almost distrusting people who are not angry right now.

I think somebody who doesn’t have a sense of outrage, who doesn’t want to name injustices and confront them, that would worry me, sure. I think a lot of Americans are lazy and passive. If they don’t want revenge or retribution, I think that’s good, because it means they’re determined to move forward rather than to look backward. Look, think about a marriage, a lot of people feel that retributive desire that I’m going to just get that betraying ex, and they’ll do it through litigation or whatever, or they might even just hope that that person’s life goes very badly in the future. That retributive desire actually doesn’t fix the problem in the past. It does not restore your lost dignity, and it sure impedes going forward with your own life. I guess what I like to see in people is exactly what King tried so hard to produce in his followers.
Determined, courageous resistance, outraged naming of the injustices.

The idea that we’re going to just make Republicans suffer? I think a lot of my students do feel that way. They want to just not talk to anyone on the other side. They think they’re monsters, and if they could blow them all up, they might want to do that. That actually doesn’t solve the problems in our society, which I think have to be addressed by constructive, cooperative work. Here’s where I am with King, that we want to reach out to the people on the other side, and try to work with them, while not losing hold of our sense of outrage and wrong.

What have you made of the protests against Trump officials over the past month or so?

Well, I think it’s probably not a good idea, because what we really want to do is to preserve a climate of civility, put an end to this terrible polarization, and find a way to work in a bipartisan way. To me, one of the most courageous acts in recent months was the fact that John Kasich and John Hickenlooper, a Republican and a Democrat, got together, and they worked to defeat that horrible Senate health care bill, and they did defeat it. It takes great courage in this political atmosphere to work across the aisle, so to speak.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like the way our conversation is going, is I bring up these things, and then you respond by laying out a more practical course to achieve political ends, to get a health care bill defeated, or to have a government that functions better.
I’m not arguing that those things aren’t important, and in fact political change is what we need in this country right now. But it also seems to me maybe a little bit, that you’re denying, or not wanting to think about this in a certain way, which is: These people who work in the Trump administration are going along with separating kids from their parents at the border. There’s some value in society for us as human beings to show our disgust with that. Not just to show our disgust by voting in November of 2020, though there’s certainly value in that. But also to show our disgust by saying, “You know what? Kids are being taken from their parents, and you are not welcome at this restaurant.” I’m not certain there isn’t value in that, despite everything you’re saying.

I think it’s better to accentuate the issue, because you’re really talking about a very, very important issue, that is the treatment of the children. The protests that we’ve had in Chicago against the detention of kids have been wonderful. They’ve been right on target, they’ve said, “This is wrong, this is bad.” I think to focus on the issue is much better than focusing on one individual who may or may not have any power at all. Moreover, I actually think it’s always better to focus on the deed, rather than the doer. You hold open the possibility that this person actually might have some underlayer of goodness, and they might actually change.

If you think about Nelson Mandela, he really was very careful about separating the deed from the doer. Of course, no one could possibly think that he didn’t believe and repeatedly say and spend 27 years in prison for the idea that apartheid is morally evil, so that was clear. To target a particular individual who might or might not be open to change, he didn’t go in for that. First of all, he thought a lot of these people could actually change, and they did. A lot of the South African police, for example, ended up being great backers of Mandela. He changed the rugby team and so on, so I think this attitude, which preserves a sense of possibility, of constructive work together. Our hands are open to you, you don’t want to join us, too bad for you. We would actually like to welcome you to the table, if you can get behind us and say, “This is a really, really important issue of justice.”

Mandela was also the head of a political movement for many years that used violence to achieve its ends.

Oh, I’m not a pacifist, I think violence is sometimes justified.

OK, so I’m just saying …

It’s retribution that I’m opposing. Mandela’s violence was very carefully crafted to be strategic rather than retributive. He says that he spent a good deal of his 27 years in prison working toward eradicating his own retributive anger, because he felt it very deeply. It was no good, it wasn’t good for the country, because actually getting together is what you ultimately have to do. If your mind is focused on destroying, then that’s not going to happen.

Sure, I was just pointing out that those ends were obviously good, but it was not just “embrace your enemy.”

I think I agree with him, you should use nonviolence as long as you can, and if there’s a moment where you’re convinced after many, many years that nonviolence has failed, well then I have no objection in that particular circumstance to a limited strategic use of violence against property and so on. Actually, Martin Luther King Jr. was not totally opposed to violence in self-defense. He just thought strategically it wasn’t a good idea for his movement.

In the book, you write, “On the left we find similar themes, in the hatred of elites, bankers, and big business, even occasionally of capitalism itself. In the desire not only to make good things of life available to all, but in the frequent desire to spoil or remove delight for those privileged ones.” I think certainly in some philosophical sense that we should want everyone to thrive, and that there’s no value that comes from making other people less happy, even if we don’t like them, or even if they’re a mean capitalist, or whatever it is. I also think that in the world we live in, where there’s a limited number of resources, and we know that things like inequality in and of themselves, not just absolute wealth, have an effect on people’s psychological health, and their sense of their place in the world, I think it becomes more complicated.

Well, first of all we need to try to figure out the issue. Long ago, of course, John Rawls was the idol of left-wing academics, and his view was that a certain degree of inequality actually produced incentives to achievement, and was therefore good for all. In his left-wing just society, inequality was tolerated just in case it raised the living standard of the least well-off.

I actually think there’s some truth to that, that societies that have tried too relentlessly to equalize everything through state ownership and so on, have not been especially successful. On the other hand, we have to try to figure out how much is too much, and what are we going to do about that? The right place to focus is tax policy, so we need a fair tax policy. First, we need the economic facts to be correct. I think one of the most unfortunate aspects of the current administration is they’re not interested in the views of experts. They’re not interested in what economists say, they have their own view about the economy, which is not based on science.

Anyway, we have to take the problem apart. To just say, “Bankers are bad,” that’s just like what happened to Alexander Hamilton at the founding. “Oh, the big banker, let’s get him.” That’s just not very helpful. We need to really listen to economists, and we need to figure out what advice they’re giving us. Then craft a tax policy that is just, that does the right amount of redistribution, that’s compatible with enough incentives for growth.

I agree with all that, I just think that to say to a poor person in a village somewhere in India, “You shouldn’t resent the rich banker in New York who you should just want to do as well as”—I’m not saying that practically speaking that person should spend their life filled with resentment. I don’t think that’s helpful. But I also think as advice to someone who’s struggling, given the insane levels of inequality in the world right now, and the amount of wealth owned by the top 10,000 people, I feel like that’s a little insufficient.

Well, look, I mean I teach a course every year, or every two years on global inequality, and I’m very worried about that. Let me tell you, I’ve spent a lot of time reading the literature on what we can do about global inequality. One thing that’s clear is that experts do not agree. We really need to keep working on this, but the emerging consensus is that you’re not going to solve this problem by simple monetary transfers from one nation to another.

Angus Deaton, the left-wing, just to make it clear, economist from Princeton who won the Nobel Prize [a few] years ago, has shown very clearly that simply giving a lot of cash foreign aid is actually counterproductive. It undermines the political will in a nation to create the institutions that will in fact create a durable and sustainable health infrastructure, and a durable education infrastructure, and so on. He does this through very detailed empirical studies of the different Indian states that have different histories in this regard.

Now one of the most important things that I think a nation can do to alleviate inequality is to have a decent social safety net prominently including universal health care. To me, that’s about the first thing that we should do. That we should work across the aisle, and that’s why I liked what Hickenlooper and Kasich are doing, and frankly Hickenlooper is my No. 1 choice for the Democrats in the next presidential election, because he’s got that issue front and center. He’s a master of that issue, and to me that’s the No. 1 issue.