Thinking Our Anger

by Roderick Long

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.

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  1. It was not “anger” that led to the Neo Con folly in the Middle East. A response of anger regarding the 9/11 attacks (actually part of a whole series of attacks) would have been to kill Osama Bin Laden (never the number one priority of going into Afghanistan – although some people, including ME, foolishly asumed that it was) and his friend and ally Mullah Omar of the Taliban – a man still very much alive.

    The “Neo Conservatives” (mostly ex socialists and social democrats who moved, over the years, to a support of the mixed economy Western democracies – and wished to spread the system to the rest of the World) may have used anger to win over people who had not been committed to their cause (it should be remembered that George Walker Bush engaged in both the Republican primary contests of 2008 and the general election as someone LESS interventionist in overseas policy than either John McCain or Albert Gore Jr), but they were not themselves particularly angry.

    On the contrary – they jumped upon the attacks as evidence that their “democracy” agenda for the Middle East was needed. Time to “drain the swamp”, to liberate the good majority of locals from the “tiny minority” of bad people (who imposed their badness by ruthless force – which could only be countered by force from outside…..).

    It is not considered acceptable to question whether democracy has been a good political system for the United Kingdom and the United States – but it used to be considered acceptable to question whether it was a good system for the Islamic countries of the Middle East. Perhaps traditional monarchies (although not a House, such as the House of Saud, allied to the most extreme form of Sunni Islam – and perhaps not a monarch, such as the Emperor of Persia, who tried to “out Progressive the Progressives” with his own absurd “White Revolution”) were a better alternative? With the traditional restraint of tribal elders (limiting the monarchies) – rather than the direct vote of the “masses” (always ready to be led to savage blood letting by religious or political rabble rousers).

    However, since at least the 1960s practical experiance has more and more been denounced as “racist” (Islam is a religion, not a race, but this does not seem to matter – one gets called a “racist” anyway). And the universal utility of democracy has become an article of faith – a new religion in a Western world where faith in God (at least among the elites) was collapsing.

    9/11 destroyed the last wall of resistance to this doctrine – liberal democracy must be spread to the middle east. The U.S. Army (with its loyal allies – normally making up a couple of percent of the force, mainly for P.R. purposes) would do the job – just as it had done with Japan, Germany and Italy after World War II.

    The fact that young men (mostly Southern) do not choose to follow the Eagles to “spread democracy”, and the fact that the leading Neocon thinkers had no military experience (and no practical knowledge of Islamic societies) was all swept away as not relevant.

    The “anti war” movement was just as (if not more) starry eyed about the local populations as the Neocons were.

    That is why even when I finally worked out that the Afghan war was about “nation building” I could not join the antiwar movement (that and the fact it was dominated by the same sort of collectivist vermin “Code Pink” and so on, who dominated the pro Communist movement during the Vietnam war). Nor did I feel comfortable supporting the “anti war” movement even regarding the Iraq war – because almost everything they said was false (indeed even more false than that utter nonsense the Neocons were comming out with).


    At great expense in blood and treasure – democracy has indeed been spread to Afghaistan and Iraq. American soldiers (the “Rednecks” who do most of the real fighting) have done everything asked of them (inspite of, quite rightly, mostly having no real interest in the “nation building” mission) – even under the handicap of a vast web of regulations imposed to “reduce civilian casualities” and seemingly designed to make VICTORY (that forbidden word) as hard as possible to achieve.

    I do not think that most people will now scream “racist” at me for pointing out that democracy has been a FAILURE in Afghanistan and Iraq (just as it is proving to be in Tunesia, Egypt, and……), but it was impossible to make the case that democracy would fail in Iraq and Afghanistan in advance without having “racist” screamed in one’s face.

    And, I repeat, the “anti war” movement were even MORE starry eyed about the locals than the Neocons were. It was a war “for oil” or “for corporate profits” or ……….. and the locals were lovely fluffy bunny rabbits horribily murdered by evil American “imperalist”, “colonialism”……. (in reality when locals are murdered, and they are quite capable of screaming about the deaths of people who actually still alive [“you killed my child – give me MONEY” if the child is actually dead the person accused of killing them is very unlikely to be the person who really did it] it is usually because they have MURDERED EACH OTHER, which they are still doing, every day). And when they vote, a minority of locals will indeed vote for nice liberal people (just as the Necons hoped), but the MAJORITY of locals will……..

    Any expession of practical knowledge of what local cultures (i.e. the local people) were and are actually like, was strictly forbidden.

    Even more forbidden by the “anti war” movement than it was by the Necons.

    In reality the Middle East is hopeless (always has been) Western forces should not go anywhere near it (other than to kill specific individuals who have planned attacks in the West) – but not for the reasons the “antiwar” movement state (that the locals are lovely – the victims of Western “anger” and so on), but for the just about the opposite reasons.

  2. Two notes.
    1) On the baby human shield. I mostly agree, but there is a more important variable. The difference is that the culprit DELIBERATELY brings the baby into the situation. This is the “human shield” tactic. This is very different from killing innocent civilians that just happen to live in the same area.


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