Uprooting the Flame
In this paper, I will argue that, following the advice of the Buddhists and Stoics, we should extirpate anger from ourselves for the betterment of ourselves, and to a greater extent, our society. First, I will describe the Aristeolian “containment” view of anger. Then I will present an argument that anger is a categorically negative emotion. Next, I will consider a common objection, of which I think is the strongest pro-anger argument, that anger is actually good because it is a necessary moral emotion, especially in responding to instances of injustice. Finally, I will show why this is not a satisfactory explanation by arguing for grief, rather than anger, as a way to motivate against injustice.
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In this essay, I will argue that, following the advice of the Buddhists and Stoics, we should extirpate anger from ourselves for the betterment of ourselves, and to a greater extent, our society. First, I will describe the Aristeolian “containment” view of anger. Then I will present an argument that anger is a categorically negative emotion. Next, I will consider a common objection, of which I think is the strongest pro-anger argument, that anger is actually good because it is a necessary moral emotion, especially in responding to instances of injustice. Finally, I will show why this is not a satisfactory explanation by arguing for grief, rather than anger, as a way to motivate against injustice.
Aristotle thought that anger was a virtue, and like any Aristotlean virtue, it was bad in excess, but also in deficiency as well. Hence, a Golden Mean of Anger must be met somewhere in the middle. This means that feeling anger, and to a greater extent, expressing anger, has some kind of acceptable amount. Containing one’s anger usually manifests itself in the ways of moderation, or regulation. We must control what one feels, and also not allow it to penetrate our mind and body, for it to cause us to act on it. This means that to have anger spill over you or control you, is to have it in excess, which turns it into a vice. However, in the same vein, having no anger, going on and not having reactions towards things that happen to you, is also seen as a vice in this Aristotelian view. This is the dominant view of anger within WEIRD (Western Industrialized Rich and Democratic) countries, and is prominent in Judeo-Christian religion as well.
Anger is a categorically negative emotion because it is harmful in small doses, has the potential to escalate (especially under containment), and is fundamentally harm-seeking. In the English language (and perhaps in other languages as well, but I cannot speak to that) anger is often represented with metaphors of flame. This already provides an insight to how aware people are of the destructive nature of anger. It is that which consumes a person, it clouds the judgements, and causes people to inflict harm on others around them. Anger is a fundamentally harm-seeking emotion, which is what makes it such a negative emotion for not only the person experiencing it, but for those around them as well. It is certainly tempting to look on to the “lighter” side of anger, such as annoyance or frustration. However, in the Bodhicaryāvatāra, it is noted that even the smallest feeling of discontent can easily serve as the seed which grows into full-on anger and/or hatred. This is not a slippery slope, but instead a small spark, of which can accumulate over time and turn into a fire of uncontrollable and destructive anger, which is only aimed at causing harm. It is the very idea of containment, of repression, that creates the environment that such a spark of anger is allowed to grow. Within a person their chamber of anger is not a locked box that is able to hold unlimited amounts of anger, but rather a pressure cooker waiting to blow. Additionally, the negative effects of frustration need not blossom into full-on anger to cause harm. It is the boss who berates their employees out of frustration of their performance, or annoyance at the time it took them to get into work that day. Thus, anger is a categorically negative emotion, and hence unnecessary for people.
Arguing that the extirpation of anger is impossible would certainly be a knockdown argument, but as such, the level of proof required for this claim is much higher, of which I do not think arguments from genetics (naturalness) or evolution (anger as an adaptation) provide. Instead, I think that the strongest arguments against the extirpation of anger are normative ones. That even if anger could be eliminated, it would be bad to do so. Of these arguments, I think that the strongest argument is that anger is a necessary, or at the very least, important, moral emotion. One way this is argued is that anger is a natural byproduct of the recognition of injustice in the world. If I was to see someone being mistreated by another person, I would rightfully get angry, or so the story goes. To go even further, if I saw a horrific act being committed, and I did not get angry, then there would be something importantly missing from my humanity. However, I do not think that losing anger, an unwholesome passion, would make someone less of a person, if anything, it might make them a more loving one. Anger is not what makes someone a person, it is just one emotion in a wider palette of things that people can feel. Anger, especially in response to perceived moral transgressions, may very well be an evolutionary adaptation, but that has no bearing on whether it is still useful today.
I argue that if the containment view of anger restricts the expression of anger to cut down on its negative attributes, and instead wants only to use it in a motivational capacity, it seems like anger could be extirpated if another emotion is found to motivate in the same ways (at least in the important ones). I suggest that emotional responses to injustice should not be grounded in anger, but instead in grief. The five stages of grief (or the Kübler-Ross model) are a descriptive psychological model detailing the various stages that a person goes through when grieving. The stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. I mention this model not to argue its efficacy, but only to show that this idea is not uncalled for. Anger need not be a part of this stage system, grief is non-linear, one could go through these stages out of order, skip some entirely, or repeat certain stages. Grief is a motivator insofar as when we feel it we want to alleviate the suffering of others. It may not capture all the facets of anger’s motivational abilities, such as personal slight, however, that may be a positive, rather than a negative. Grief doesn’t really allow for personal retribution, but it would always allow you to move on the account to others, similar to song (community anger at a transgression at the societal norm level) from the Ifaluk tribe. In this way, we can extirpate anger, but still be able to motivate ourselves to care about injustice. This allows us to approach these issues from a different angle, a more restorative one even.
Anger might not even be a rational emotion to hold. For moral blame (or praise to the same extent) presuppose a kind of agency in order for moral responsibility to be possible. In G. Strawson’s reconstruction of the Basic Argument, he talks about how In order to be morally responsible for one’s actions, one would have to be causa sui (the cause of oneself), or at least certain mental qualities. This concept firmly grates upon the idea of “ultimate control,” for a person may have control over their emotions, but it is not ultimate in any way, shape, or form. This is because while we may be able to control some of our emotional responses and thoughts, those are really in response to previous mental states, which may regress as far as our genetic makeup, which we also cannot/do not control. Grief as a response to injustice requires no such idea in moral responsibility because it does not hold anyone as a target of it, unlike anger. We should give up the idea of moral responsibility, and instead meet things with a knowing compassion. I think that we focus on ourselves, try to change and modulate ourselves, but not to be too harsh on ourselves.
In this paper I demonstrated that anger is a negative emotion that is better off removed because it is harmful in small amounts, has the potential to escalate (especially under containment), and is fundamentally harm-seeking. I also argued that anger as a motivating factor for eliminating injustice or other things is an unsatisfactory argument, because grief can similarly motivate people for the same things, but in a more wholesome way. Additionally, I considered the possibility that without moral responsibility, anger is an irrational emotion to have, and once extirpated, would allow for more compassion and better self-improvement.