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Thinking Our Anger

Thinking Our Anger“ was originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of Formulations formerly the Free Nation Foundation now published by the Libertarian Nation Foundation, written by Roderick T. Long. This talk was delivered at the Auburn Philosophical Society’s Roundtable on Hate, 5 October 2001, convened in response to the September 11 attacks a month earlier.

The events of September 11th have occasioned a wide variety of responses, ranging from calls to turn the other cheek, to calls to nuke half the Middle East—and every imaginable shade of opinion in between. At a time when emotions run high, how should we go about deciding on a morally appropriate response? Should we allow ourselves to be guided by our anger, or should we put our anger aside and make an unemotional decision?

D. H. Lawrence once wrote:

“My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. What do I care about knowledge? All I want is to answer to my blood, direct, without fribbling intervention of mind or moral, or what not.” (Quoted in Brand Blanshard, Reason and Analysis (La Salle: Open Court, 1962), p. 47.)

At the other extreme, the Roman philosopher Seneca argued that we should never make a decision on the basis of anger—or any other emotion, for that matter. In his treatise On Anger, Seneca maintained that if anger leads us to make the decision we would have made anyway on the basis of cool reason, then anger is superfluous; and if anger leads us to make a different decision from the one we would have made on the basis of cool reason, then anger is pernicious.

This disagreement between Lawrence and Seneca conceals an underlying agreement: both writers are assuming an opposition between reason and emotion. The idea of such a bifurcation is challenged by Aristotle. For Aristotle, emotions are part of reason; the rational part of the soul is further divided into the intellectual or commanding part, and the emotional or responsive part. Both parts are rational; and both parts are needed to give us a proper sensitivity to the moral nuances of the situations that confront us. Hence the wise person will be both intellectually rational and emotionally rational. Emotional people whose intellectual side is weak tend to be reluctant to accept reasonable constraints on their behavior; they are too aggressive and self-assertive for civilized society—too “Celtic,” Aristotle thinks. They answer directly to their blood, without fribbling intervention of mind or moral, and much hewing and smiting ensues. But intellectual people whose emotional side is weak are often too willing to accept unreasonable constraints on their behavior; they lack the thumos, the spirited self-assertiveness, to stand up for themselves, and so are likely to sacrifice nobility for expediency, ending up as the passive subjects of a dictatorship like the ancient Persian Empire. According to Aristotle, feeling less anger than the situation calls for is as much a failure of moral perception as feeling more. Only a full development of both the intellectual and the emotional aspects of our reason can yield an integrated personality fit for freedom and social cooperation. (Aristotle notoriously tries to turn all this into a justification for enslaving Celts and Persians; but let us graciously focus our attention on the Maestro’s smart moments, not his dumb ones.)

To see what Aristotle is getting at (in his smart moments), recall the scene in the movie Witness where some Amish farmers, among whom Harrison Ford’s character is hiding out, are being harassed and humiliated by local bullies. The bullies are well aware that the Amish, being pacifists, will not use violence even in self-defense; as one Amish farmer explains to Harrison Ford, “it is our way”—to which Ford responds, “well, it’s not my way,” steps out of the wagon, and gives the bullies a taste of their own medicine, to the immense satisfaction of the audience.

This scene appeals to our emotions; it inclines us toward a rejection of pacifism. Seneca would object that scenes like this are manipulative and dangerous, insofar as they work on our emotional responses rather than offering us a rational argument. But Aristotle might well disagree. No one, he insists, becomes wise or virtuous through rational arguments alone; people’s emotional and affective responses need to be trained and habituated as well. Scenes like the one in Witness may serve to educate our sentiments and hone our capacity for moral judgment, by making salient the ethically relevant features of the situation and prompting a salutary exercise of thumos.

If Aristotle is right, then Seneca is wrong; emotional responses can facilitate our moral perceptions rather than either displacing or merely echoing them. But that does not mean that Lawrence is right; Aristotle is not advising us to place blind trust in our gut reactions. Emotions can be mistaken, just as intellect can; as Aristotle puts it, emotions are often like overeager servants, rushing off to carry out our orders without first making sure they’ve grasped them properly.

The terrorist attacks of September 11th have made us angry, and rightly so. Our anger gives form to our moral perception, putting us in cognitive contact with two ethical facts: the wrongness of the attack, and the rightness of retaliating against it. To that extent, our anger sharpens our vision rather than obscuring it. However, anger too can be an overeager servant, prompting us to act in ways that may not square with the very facts of reason to which our anger is being responsive. Feeling our anger is easy, but we have a responsibility to think our anger as well.

Our anger embodies a judgment that what the terrorists did on September 11th was wrong. But what was it that they did? They rained down death from the skies upon innocent civilians in order to express a grievance against our government. If, in the anger of our military response, we are heedless of the lives of innocent civilians in Afghanistan or elsewhere, then, in the name of our anger, we will have infringed the very principle that our anger is supposed to be expressing: we will be the ones raining down death from the skies upon innocent civilians in order to express a grievance against their government. Those who answer directly to their blood often end up having a lot of blood to answer for.

A number of television and online commentators have said that civilians in enemy nations are not truly innocent, because those civilians could and should have overthrown their governments if they disapproved of them. In saying this, these commentators take themselves to be expressing a hard-line position against the terrorists. But in fact they are endorsing the terrorists’ position. For their argument commits them to saying that I am responsible for any war crimes committed by my government, since if I really disapproved of my government I could and should have overthrown it. (I’m awfully curious to know how, but they never seem to give details.) But this is precisely the terrorists’ position: that any American is a legitimate target for the violent expression of grievances against the American government. When a viewpoint motivated by moral outrage against a terrorist attack ends up endorsing the very principle behind that attack, it’s clear that anger has been acting as an overeager servant and needs further instruction.

Some commentators distinguish between, on the one hand, the direct and deliberate targeting of civilians, of the sort that characterized the Allied bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima or the recent attack on the World Trade Center, and on the other hand, what goes by the military euphemism of “collateral damage”—that is, the unintended (though not necessarily unforeseen) civilian deaths that result as a byproduct from an attack on a military or otherwise hostile target, as occurred in President Reagan’s bombing of Libya, President Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan, and our current President’s ongoing bombing campaign against Iraq. It is often maintained that while direct targeting of civilians is immoral, collateral damage is not.

We know that the direct targeting of civilians is immoral, because we know that the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was immoral. We dare not reject the former judgment without undermining our right to uphold the latter. But why might collateral damage be more justifiable? Well, the argument goes something like this. Suppose Eric straps a baby to his chest and then starts shooting at me. I can’t shoot him back without hitting the innocent baby. Yet although it’s too bad about the baby, it seems plausible to say that I still have the right to defend myself against Eric, and if the baby gets killed, the blame should lie not with me but with Eric, for bringing the baby into the situation in the first place. By the same token, it is argued, innocent deaths that result as a byproduct from attacks on hostile targets should be blamed on the hostile targets, not on the attackers.

But the moral legitimacy of collateral damage in the Eric case seems to depend importantly on four factors: first, the relatively small extent of the collateral damage (just the one baby); second, the high probability that shooting at Eric will actually stop him; third, the great extent of the contribution (total, as described) that stopping Eric will make to ending the threat; and fourth, the absence of any alternative way of stopping Eric that would be less dangerous for the baby. The case for collateral damage grows weaker as we alter any of these four variables. If Eric is shielded not just by one baby but by a whole city of babies; or if there’s some doubt as to whether Eric is actually even in the city; or if Eric is just one cog in a military machine, his individual contribution to the total threat being fairly small; or if there are ways of taking Eric out without bombing the city—to the extent that any or all of these are true, the case for the legitimacy of collateral damage is correspondingly weakened. As these variables move away from the Eric paradigm, the moral difference between collateral damage and direct targeting of civilians becomes more tenuous—as does the case for treating the two as morally different. Since in most real-world cases of collateral damage in warfare, most or all of these variables are shifted pretty far away from the Eric paradigm, I conclude that a general military policy of comfort with collateral damage is without justification. Such a policy may be motivated by our anger, but it contradicts the very lesson our anger can teach us, if we listen to the voice of our anger with a more subtle ear.

Our topic tonight is hate. Yet so far I’ve spoken about anger rather than hate. One might suppose that what I’ve said about one will apply mutatis mutandis to the other; but I think there is an important difference. Anger is often justified; but hate, I think, is never justified, at least against a person.

Where does the difference lie? Well, we can be angry with a person and still wish that person well; after all, we are often angry with those we love, and we do not stop loving them while we are angry with them. But we cannot hate a person and still wish that person well. I think this makes hate morally problematic in a way that anger is not. For I accept Aristotle’s conception of happiness as a life of virtuous rational activity. Surely we should wish our enemies to be more virtuous and more rational; after all, if they were more virtuous and more rational, they wouldn’t have hijacked two airplanes and sent them crashing into the World Trade Center. Any move, by anybody, in the direction of greater virtue and greater rationality should always be met with approval. But if Aristotle is right about happiness, then to wish for our enemies to be more virtuous and more rational is ipso facto to wish for them to be happier.

I think this must be what such moral teachers as Socrates, Jesus, and the Buddha mean when they advise us to wish our enemies well. Obviously we should not wish success to our enemies’ projects; for those projects are evil, and they could not cease to be evil without ceasing to be the projects they are. Hence hatred for those projects is quite in order. But people can always cease to be evil without ceasing to be. If they refuse to cease being evil, we may find it necessary, in self-defense, to make them cease to be; but we should always prefer that our enemies cease being evil. But what is that, but to prefer that our enemies become better people—that they live better, more worthwhile, less destructive, hate-filled lives? And if that is what we ought to prefer, then we ought to wish our enemies well. And while that is compatible with being angry at them, and with killing them if necessary, it is not compatible with hating them.