Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at University of Chicago, came to Boston College to deliver a lecture on democracy and the liberal arts on Wednesday. The lecture, titled “Fear, Anger, Democracy: Our Need for the Liberal Arts,” focused on the roots of anger in humans and the danger it poses for society.
Nussbaum used the liberal arts as a means to understand anger, opening with an example from a Greek tragedy. In the play, according to Nussbaum, the furies—the beastly and violent Greek goddesses of vengeance—agree to hold themselves to the new legal standards of Athenian democracy. Democracy had recently been established to end the cycle of blood vengeance, and punishment was now settled by law. Yet the furies maintain their “dark and vindictive nature.”
Nussbaum used this anecdote to make the argument that “unbridled retribution” is not complementary to democracy. Only when the furies are able to change their character are they capable of becoming full participants in Athenian society. The furies exemplify retributive anger, she said, and they represent something barely human.
“A democratic legal order can’t just put a cage around retribution,” she said. “It must fundamentally transform it, from something hardly human—obsessive, bloodthirsty—to something fully human, accepting of reasons, something that protects life rather than threatens it.”
Nussbaum then pivoted to the modern era, examining retributive anger ingrained in the culture of today. Retributive anger leads to blame, she said, such as frivolous lawsuits or the marginalization of minorities.
Nussbaum brought up numerous examples of Greek and Roman thoughts on anger, such as the destruction caused by Achilles’ rage toward the Achaeans. She said that the Greeks and Romans believed anger to be a plague on society rather than a sign of masculinity, and they waged a “cultural war” against anger and its roots.
“I believe that the Greeks and Romans are right, that anger is a poison to democratic politics, and it’s all the worse when it’s fueled by a lurking fear and sense of helplessness,” Nussbaum said.
But Nussbaum added that this is a radical idea. Anger is a popular emotion today, according to Nussbaum, and social progress is often seen as achievable only through anger. Yet she pointed out that three of the most successful recent social movements were achieved non-violently—the movements led by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.
Nussbaum turned to the beginnings of anger in human life, looking at emotion in infants. This anger is caused by anxiety, blame, jealousy, and desires for retribution, she said. The infant’s anger is based on an eye-for-an-eye standard, a need to hurt those they believe have wronged them.
Nussbaum said that anger is often accompanied by retribution. Only one kind of anger, she said, is not necessarily paired with desire for vengeance. She called this transitional anger, and she likened it to the anger parents feels for their children.
“Loving parents typically have the outrage part of anger instead of the payback part where their children are concerned because they love them and want them to do well,” she said.
“Retributive wishes, however, are indeed a part of human nature, fostered by some parts of the nature of religions and by many societal cultures. … Pain for pain is an easy idea, but it’s a false lure, creating more pain instead of rectifying the problem.”
She added that the desire for vengeful retribution is actually more harmful, leading lives astray and creating unnecessary collateral damage.
Nussbaum then looked at the criminal justice system. Punishment is often accompanied by pain, she said, but punishment should not be used for retributive purposes. She believes punishment should be forward-looking, in the hopes of creating a better future, rather than inflict pain solely as vengeance for the crimes of the past.
“We might see punishment in the retributive spirit as payback for what has already happened … but it does great social harm, leading to a gruesome, pile-on revisory strategy of mass incarceration, as if that somehow compensated for or will improve the damages of kind,” she said.
Instead, Nussbaum proposed that punishment be implemented in the same manner as parents punish their children, looking to improve the future rather than punish for the past.
Nussbaum added that anger results from fear and blame. Humanity’s desire to provide simple answers to complex questions, she said, leads to wrongful blame, accompanied by fear and then anger. As an example, she cited the Salem witch trials, in which defenseless women in Salem were wrongfully executed as a result of societal anxiety.
But Nussbaum did not propose abandoning anger. The emotion comes from fear, she said, and fear often comes from love. To abandon fear would be to abandon the emotions that define humanity, according to Nussbaum.
Nussbaum said that society should look to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement for inspiration. Nussbaum said that King believed that the movement required working for a better society with white Americans, as the freedoms of both races are inextricably tied together. King’s anger for the injustices black Americans faced did not desire to punish white people, but rather sought to reverse the injustices that have occurred.
“Democratic citizens should face with courage the problems, and yes, the outrageous injustices that we encounter in political and social life,” Nussbaum said. “Lashing out with anger and fear does not solve the problem. Instead, it leads, as it did in both Athens and Rome, to a spiral of retributive violence.”
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