Nov 3, 2014

Aristotle on Anger, Virtue and Vice.

I was recently invited up to Green Mountain College, just across the border in Vermont, to provide a faculty development workshop and also to give a talk about Aristotle, anger, and virtue ethics.  The latter talk was intended primarily for undergraduate students taking an Ethics course in the Environmental Liberal Arts core program at Green Mountain, and it provided me with a useful occasion to do a bit more thinking about some of the topics corralled together in a book I'm writing, focused specifically on Aristotle and his theory of anger.

As I remarked early on in the talk -- which you can hear here, or watch here -- one of the most distinctive features of Aristotle's approach to anger is that, unlike so many other ancient, medieval, and modern thinkers, he doesn't consider anger uniformly or even generally bad.  In fact, he comes right out in saying that there are times when we ought to get angry -- to feel the emotion and to act upon it.  It's not just a question of whether it's psychologically good for us to express our anger sometimes, nor is it simply an issue of prudently maintaining boundaries or responding to bullying -- for Aristotle, anger is at its very core a moral issue, a matter of character.

It would be surprising to find that his occasional outlines -- he never did write a treatise about anger, or even devote an entire book of one of his works to examining it -- managed to encompass every possible mistaken or misshapen perspective upon the emotion, every possible configuration that can eventually assume the shape and structure of what we call a vice.  There are some lacunae and lapses, even when we read him charitably and extend his outlines further than he explicitly took them.

But still, Aristotle does provide us with excellent guidelines illuminating an awful lot of the ground of our everyday experience about where we go wrong with respect to anger -- even  in 21st century modernity, more than two millennia after he taught and wrote.

As often is the case, the passage(s) we might think to read to find most of what he has to say about virtue and vice bearing on anger -- part of Nicomachean Ethics book 4 (supplemented by corresponding discussion in the The Eudemian Ethics, book 3) don't actually supply us the full picture of his views.  You want to also read through the Rhetoric, other portions of the two Ethics, and even some sections of the Politics -- but I'm going to leave those aside here (and perhaps write more about what they contribute in a later post).  In fact, here, I'm just going to concentrate on thinking about what virtuous anger would be.

Virtuous Anger:  What Does It Look Like?

One of the contributions to philosophy, indeed to moral theory, Aristotle is most famous for is his conception of virtues as means or middle positions situated between two or more vices -- vices of excess and vices of deficiency.  I've often facetiously likened this to the different items encountered by Goldilocks in the fairy tale -- some things are too hot, some too cold (i.e. the opposite, not hot enough), some. . .  just right.  That has to be a starting point, but only a starting point -- otherwise Aristotle would fall prey to the criticisms of later thinkers like Hobbes who derided that conception of virtue as a "mere mediocrity of passions" is his masterwork, Leviathan

For Aristotle, finding the mean involves much more than just staking out some intermediate position.  Interestingly, one of the passages in which he cautions us about the trickiness of determining the mean in particular circumstances, specifically mentions anger as an example:
[A]ny one can get angry - that is easy - or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble. 
Daniel Goleman, in fact, began his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence with this very quote -- minus the bit about spending money, if I remember rightly.

Aristotle does think that we ought to get angry in some circumstances.  For example, when someone is maliciously, wrongfully, and deliberately insulting, injuring -- even threatening -- ourselves, or those with whom we are connected in important ways, e.g. our friends and family, those who are under our care or protection, those with whom we identify.  There are times when failing to become angry -- whether by not perceiving the attack or threat, by pretending not to notice it, or simply not caring about it -- is the wrong response.

What's key for Aristotle, though are all of these "rights."  And, when you think about it, they really do function like sort of governors, or limitations upon the feeling of anger, upon its expression, upon not just affect but also thinking or imagination -- and even more upon action, how anger gets embodied in what we choose (or find ourselves) to say, do, and choose.  If anger is to be virtuous, it will not only remain within limits provided by reason (logos), but be governed by right reason (orthos logos) -- specifics about which I'll go into a bit more below.  Why is this important to understanding virtuous anger?  Because by its very nature, anger has a tendency to sweep away limits, or to only irrationally acknowledge and follow them.

All Those Rights:  Anger Responses in Situations

Figuring out the "rights" that specify to us what virtuous anger looks like can readily be grasped by looking at the other side or sides -- the "wrongs" we can associate with it, or put in another way, the modes in which our anger tends to go astray, to miss the mark, to become if not simply vicious at least something more in line with vice than virtue.

So, what are these distinguishable criteria?
  • getting or being angry in the Right Manner (in Aristotle's Greek, hos dei)
  • getting angry at the Right Time (hote)
  • being angry to the Right Amount
  • getting angry with the Right Persons (hois, pros hous)
  • getting angry about the Right Matters (eph' hois)
  • getting angry for the Right Motive (hou heneka)
  • remaining angry for the Right Length of Time (hoson khronon)
In determinate situations, where we're not just thinking in general, but getting down to concrete particulars, some of these criteria are apt to bleed into each other, or to go unnoticed by comparison to others.

Still, this is a pretty comprehensive enumeration of modes of getting things right, and correspondingly of modes of getting these matters wrong.  We can ask of any given person in any given situation where that person comes in, becomes, or remains angry -- as well as about his or her expression, action, attitude, even choice -- is that person rightly ordered or oriented in these respects?  We can also ask how much or how well they are. 

Right Manner bears particularly upon action, upon choice (to the degree that it enters in) -- it has to do with a kind of style or character to the expression and acting out of anger (or, by contrast, to its suppression, concealment, even release or forgiveness.  It also has to do with rationality, as we'll discuss in the next section.  I think that we can make a case that Right Motive also figures in here as well.  This is a criterion a bit different than just Right Matters, encompassing, extending to wider considerations -- reflective of what it is that a person values, and how they square off values against each other when they have to choose between them.

Right Time, Right Persons, and Right Matters -- these are interesting to consider aren't they?  We're all familiar with the experience of anger spilling over from one person to another, of an already-angry person being all too prone to flare into anger at another person, one unconnected with the original occasion for anger. And, we're also all too experienced with people getting angry over things they shouldn't get angry about -- and sometimes not getting angry about things they should get angry about.  But, Right Time -- is there a proper time or occasion to feel angry, and thus also times when it's not the right thing to get angry?  Do some occasions call for putting anger aside, for letting things slide?

Right Amount and Right Length of Time -- these are also ways we all too often go wrong with our feelings, with our habitual responses, and with our actions stemming from this emotion, this mood that comes over us.  You might say that as opposed to the three we just discussed, which have to do with the What, these other two are a matter of Proportion.  How angry ought we to be? Aristotle clearly thinks there's a too much and a too little -- and that different sorts of matters, persons, times, will condition the amount of anger we ought to feel.  Likewise, how long should we hold on to our anger?  Is there something like an "expiration date" for anger -- a "do not use after this date," a length of time after which one's original affect has curdled and needs to be tossed out?  Aristotle certainly seems to think so.

What Role Does Reason Play In Virtuous Anger?

This is a key question that often gets left out when we're presenting Virtue Ethics, or trying to apply that approach in real situations -- but it is at the same time an important one, and one about which Aristotle provides us with some clear guidance.  Here, I'd like to just point out three ways practical rationality (or reason, or mind) -- a higher part of ourselves becomes interconnected with anger that is virtuous -- or even on the way to being virtuous.

At the core of all of the virtues -- one of the essential features of virtue as such, as Aristotle conceives of it -- is that a person having a virtue involves that person acting and feeling in ways that are determined by right reason.  What does that mean?  Well, part of that is that their feelings and actions are aligned with the mean, and as we've seen above, for anger, that's not just a matter of amount, but of object, intention, proportionality -- there's quite a bit involved in that.  How do we figure out those sorts of things?  how do we apply those criteria?  That's precisely where reason does come in -- the mean is determined by reason, and that requires a developed rationality that's not only able to give general, theoretical answers, but to extend itself down into the level of particulars, the order of the concrete in which we do act, experience, judge, feel, and decide.

Decision is an important term to use here -- and that brings me to the second point.  We possess the characters that we have generated -- some of which, admittedly, we're perhaps not responsible for (if e.g. we had lousy upbringing, culture, environment) -- and by "character," we ought to understand interconnected fabrics of habits, patterns of feeling, choice, valuing, and action.  Now, another term that Aristotle uses which provides a kind of bridge between the level of choices made in particular situations and the level of character as such -- and that mushy, messy middle ground between them -- is prohairesis.  We typically translate it as "choice," sometimes even "deliberate choice" or "moral choice," but we could just as well render it as the closely cognate "preference" (if you'd like to read more about that, I've got a book chapter here for you).

Aristotle stresses that in human beings, there's an interconnection between thought, judgement, reasoning -- in short the cognitive -- and desire, feeling, valuing -- that is, the affective.  We can distinguish these in terms of faculties, but in real, lived experience, at the level where we do act and choose, not to mention in the gradually developed manifolds of habituations that result from (and also steer, enable, make difficult, etc.)  such choices and actions, the realms of thought and affectivity are not really separate for a genuine Aristotelian.  That's why he calls this juncture -- prohairesis -- "affective intellect or intellectual affectivity" (one of the many ways we can translate those pregnant terms!).  So, what does that mean for anger, particularly virtuous anger?  In this most tumultuous of the passions of the human soul, when it is virtuous anger, there's going to be a robust involvement of rationality working upon and into that affect.

The third point I'd like to briefly hit upon is that Aristotle -- and as is his wont, offhandedly! -- mentions that there's really two ways one can have a virtuous disposition with respect to anger.  In one, the person does actually feel anger.  He or she just manages it rightly, turns it to its proper uses, keeps it within certain limits -- those which reason, when it's operating well, reveals as needed and beneficial. 

He also, however, suggests that it would be possible to act as a person ought to -- like a person who is angry at the right time, with the right people, etc. -- but not because he or she is actually experiencing anger.  Instead, such a person -- in this respect closer to a Stoic sage than an Aristotelian virtuous person -- would simply be following the dictates of reason.  The implication there, of course, is quite non-Stoic:  even without feeling the emotion a fully rational person would see that acting along the lines of virtuous anger is what practical reason requires.