Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Ethics of Anger

Apparently there are to be some angry demonstrations against those who supported California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage, and similar measures across the country. (See: Los Angeles Times, Angrier Response to Proposition 9 Steps Up.)

Last night, while I was writing my most recent post against 'under God' and 'In God We Trust', a voice popped into my head and asked, "Why do you atheists seem so angry?"

These issues occur in a background that seems to suggest that there is something wrong with being angry – that an angry person is, by that fact alone, an immoral person.

This is not the case.

The immoral person is the person who responds to injustice and unjustified harm inflicted on others with passive indifference – the person who can view wrongs done to others with a scientific detachment that says, "That is interesting," but is not moved to do anything about it. This attitude towards injustice accomplishes nothing – it allows the injustice to live a long life free from interference. In order to fight injustice, one must be motivated to do so. One of those motivation sis appropriate anger.

It is not the case that "whatever makes me angry is wrong," as if the only thing that a person needs to do is measure their emotional response to determine the difference between good or evil. The real measurement is, "Whatever deserves my anger is wrong."

The slave owner before the civil war may have felt genuine anger at those abolitionists who wanted to take away their slaves. However, abolitionists did not deserve their anger because the abolitionists, in this case, were correct. The slave owners were the wrong-doers in this case. They were the ones deserving of anger because of the unjustified harm they inflicted on others.

This, then, takes us back to the question of how we determine what deserves anger. Here, I will simply fold my answer into the theory that runs throughout this blog. That which deserves anger is the same thing as that which deserves condemnation, in desire-utilitarian terms. We should be angry at those people who exhibit malleable desires that tend to thwart other desires, and those who lack desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Anger, like condemnation are moral tools to be used to inhibit bad desires and promote good desires.

Those people – and, in particular those institutions – that backed Proposition 8 clearly have desires that tend to thwart the desires of others. Furthermore, these are malleable desires – desires that can be molded through social pressure (such as expressions of anger and condemnation). Anger, in this case, is the deserved response from those who have been harmed, those who care about those who have been harmed, and those who care about justice and morality in general.

The same is true of the most vocal defenders of having 'under God' in the Pledge and 'In God We Trust' as the national motto. Given that these practices function to teach bigotry to young children – teach them to regard others as 'not one of us' and thus not deserving of equal respect, people who support these practices desire that which is harmful to others. Again, these are malleable desires – desires susceptible to social conditioning. Anger and condemnation are appropriate in this case to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Having said this, there are limits to the ways in which anger can be legitimately expressed. Morally justified anger must, at some point, come into conflict with the aversion to do harm to person or property – an aversion to commit violence. In this conflict, the aversion to doing violence should win out, at least in an open and democratic society.

Those who protest the injustice of others with violence to property or to people deserve even greater anger. The targets of these protests at least had the decency to confine their wrong-doing to the political process rather than by using private violence. Their opponents also need to recognize the need to confine their actions to political processes and not to respond with violence.

Things are different where the target group is being rounded up and headed off to a concentration camp for systematic extermination. Things are different where the target group is held as slaves with no right to speak or to vote or to hold public office. In these cases, anger and condemnation can be legitimately expressed in a more violent manner. However, we do not live in such a society. In our society, expressions of anger and condemnation are morally limited to words and private actions.

The case of the Pledge and the National Motto come close to this line. Their function – and indeed the feature that makes them so strongly loved by some – is their ability to put up a wall that keeps atheists out of public office and positions of public trust. Theists love these institutions because they are the same as putting a sign that says, "This spot reserved for those who trust in God, or support a nation under God" on all elected government positions. It is not a fool-proof filters, but a filter that removes 99.9% of all atheists and free thinkers from political office can hardly be considered ineffective.

Yet, we live in a society where I can point this fact out openly in a public blog without fear of arrest, and in the knowledge that society will actively condemn and seek to punish those who would engage in private violence. There is no enforced law barring atheists from public office, only a socially engineered, government backed program of teaching anti-atheist bigotry to young children. So, in this society, even in discussing a policy whose position is to keep atheists out of government, it is still the case that words and private actions are the only legitimate response.

However, this restriction on expressions of anger to words and private actions is not the same as a restriction on all anger.

I would recommend that that morally concerned protesters be ready to act as witnesses against any members of any protest who decide to resort to violence – vandalism, assault, hurling rocks and other projectiles. I would recommend that such people broadcast as far as their position in the protest can carry that they will help to identify and convict any protest member who does not obey the prohibition on violence, be ready to take down names (if known) and descriptions, use their cell phones and other cameras to help identify wrong-doers, and keep these protests limited to words and private actions.

However, angry words are not prohibited. Words of condemnation targeting those who are so happy to inflict harm on others are not prohibited.

Of course, the guilty are going to try to turn public opinion on those who condemn them. The best defense (against accusations of wrongdoing) is to accuse the accusers. To the degree that the guilty can make anger itself seem to be a moral crime, to that degree they can engage in their morality without fearing an appropriate and deserved response to their actions. "Anger is always wrong" is a political tactic, useful to those who do wrong, because it disarms those who would fight their injustice.

The unjust certainly have a desire to disarm those who seek justice – to blunt their effectiveness with a false sense of guilt and shame. In fact it is the unjust who deserve to feel guilt and shame. In these cases, it is not those who are angry who are the unjust, but those who are the target of their anger.


Anonymous said...


I'm gay and an atheist. I've been in three of these "angry" demonstrations. Sure there is some anger, some sorrow and many other emotions, but there's also a feeling of liberation, akin to the moment when you come to the realization that you need neither the god nor the dogma.

anticant said...

See my post "Atheist Thought for the Day" in Anticant's Arena. This sums up pretty well why non-believers get angry with the faithful.