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Saturday, January 25, 2020

This is a response to an article by Agnes Callard, to which Eric Schliesser called my attention (via Facebook). The article has also been published in print along with various responses, which I have not seen. So it may be that sentiments like my own have already been expressed there.

Callard describes a recent debate, of which I am vaguely aware, between two parties. The first party argues that anger, understood as righteous indignation, is “an essential and valuable part of one’s moral repertoire” (this being, I would add, something like an economic proof that the housing market will never crash: a drapery of argument over one of the most pervasive and dangerous trends in our culture). The second party claims, on the perhaps needlessly exotic authority of Stoicism and Buddhism, that “we would have a morally better world if we could eradicate anger entirely.” Callard attacks what she says is a common assumption of both sides: namely, that anger is irrational when it proceeds to the point of unrelenting grudge-bearing and vengefulness. Against this, she offers an “Argument for Grudges” and an “Argument for Revenge.”

If, as I have been assured, this article is to be considered as a work of public philosophy, then the first and perhaps sufficient objection to it is Hume’s:

[T]ho’ the philosophical Truth of any Proposition by no Means depends on its Tendency to promote the Interest of Society; yet a Man has but a bad Grace, who delivers a Theory, however true, which, he must confess, leads to a Practice, dangerous and pernicious. Why rake into those Corners of Nature, which spread a Nuisance all around? Why dig up the Pestilence from the Pit, in which it is bury’d? The Ingenuity of your Researches may be admir’d; but your Systems will be detested: And Mankind will agree, if they can not refute them, to sink them, at least, in eternal Silence and Oblivion: Truths, which are pernicious to Society, if any such there be, will yield to Errors, which are salutary and advantageous. (Second Enquiry, §9, part II)

Whoever discovers a new rationalization for vengeance and grudge-bearing had best keep it to themselves.

Let us, however, look into Callard’s arguments. The core of the argument for grudges is as follows. Suppose I stole something from you, have since apologized, made restitution, and promised never to do so again.

Apologies, restitution, and all the rest do nothing to cancel or alter the fact that I stole, nor the fact that I ought not to have stolen. Those facts were your reasons to be angry. Since they are not changed by my forms of redress — apology, compensation, what have you — then you still have, after the deployment of these amends, the very same reasons to be angry.

And this is the argument for endless revenge:

My theft indicates that I see the world in value-terms opposed to yours. Your “bad” is my “good.” If you are to hold me accountable for this, instead of letting me off the hook, you will make this (accidental, adventitious) opposition a principle and rule for our interactions.

From these two arguments together she derives the paradoxical conclusion that “the morally correct way to respond to immorality is to do things — cling to anger, exact vengeance — that are in some way immoral.” She points to anticipations of this conclusion by Nietzsche, who says that “our present approach to morality” is based on “ressentiment — a form of anger — felt by those previously oppressed and enslaved,” and by Girard, who points to institutions of human and animal sacrifice as evidence that “violence and the opposition to violence are one.” (She also discusses Foucault, about whom I have at present nothing to say.)

Now, it should not be surprising that contradictions result if you (1) try to conceive feeling a passion sub specie aeternitatis and (2) think the supreme principle of the will as conforming itself, like an empirical concept, to an adventitious rule, and hence as existing in time. You might as well argue that, if I have ever seen a certain tree, then, since nothing that happens subsequently can cancel or alter the “reasons,” so to speak, that I had for seeing it, I should always see it, and then further add that from then on I must make it a principle of my will to get that tree to perceive me, and in fact to perceive me as a tree.

By saying this I don’t exactly mean to dismiss these arguments. There is something to be said for thinking through the paradoxes engendered by (1), and then Nietzsche is indeed a good place to look. But this might require some actual interpretation of Nietzsche. To begin with, one might ask about the relationship between the wrath of Achilles, the ressentiment of the slave, and the unzeitgemässe anger of Schopenhauer, which Nietzsche, albeit at an earlier period, once proposed as an alternative to Cartesian doubt: “Thus, to speak unconcealedly: it is necessary that we for once become really angry, so that things might become better [dass wir einmal recht böse werden, damit es besser wird]” (“Schopenhauer as Educator”). It might, likewise, be worth thinking through the paradoxes engendered by (2), and then atonement is certainly the concept we would require. But here again there is no surprise: we have heard before that Stoicism differs from Christianity — and, one might add, from Judaism — in lacking a doctrine of atonement! (What Buddhism may say about this, I do not know.) Here the first question to be addressed would be why Christianity makes atonement (accomplished, once for all, in a single act of infinite violence) into a ground of forgiveness, whereas Judaism makes forgiveness into a condition of atonement.

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