Friday, January 26, 2007

What's Anger Got to Do With It?

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief. It is a response to Of Anger, Hatred, and Love.


I can appreciate that you are trying to introduce a new subtopic in our discussion that might help to illuminate the difference between the moral obligations we might have under your deistic hypothesis (or even Christianity specifically) versus any non-deistic or non-theistic alternative I might offer. As you know, just last night I wrote that the propositions under consideration were insufficient to provide this illumination. I had already seen your later post by the time I finished writing, but I was not prepared to respond to it yet, for reasons that I will now attempt to make clear.

As I read your post, I was a bit surprised to see you propose anger as a key topic that might open the way to greater understanding. Anger is primarily an emotional response to various kinds of provocation, and while I agree that (some) emotions are relevant to discussions of ethics and morality, I think this is primarily by way of the emotional states that are provoked by one's actions and whether we desire those states or not. Your focus on anger, on the other hand, appears to be aimed at how we express our anger or what we do in response to feelings of anger.

Since anger can be provoked and expressed in a variety of ways, and since anger can result from false beliefs as well as true ones, it seems like a pretty slippery concept to be an anchor for this discussion.

Now, you do propose a different definition of anger to use for purposes of this discussion: "the desire to punish those we believe did (or will) mistreat those we love" -- including, but not limited to, ourselves." This definition is a little better suited as a basis for discussion, but I dislike adopting specialized definitions that differ significantly from normal usage because we consciously have to substitute an unusual meaning for the word whenever we encounter it, and this creates "friction" that inhibits understanding as well as the possibility of (unintentional) equivocation.

In this case, I am confused by the conflation of "anger" (even in your limited sense) with "our moral obligation towards those who mistreat others". Certainly we often feel angry when somebody mistreats us or somebody else, and we might discuss whether we "ought" to feel anger in such circumstances. But it seems to me that the more central issue is how we should treat those that mistreat us or others, and how we deal with feelings of anger is just one part of the larger issue. This larger issue is dealt with (in various ways, with various degrees of success) by various "atheistic" systems of ethics. While the subject of anger specifically may not be addressed, I am not sure that it warrants specific treatment. This is not denial so much as comparative irrelevance.

Your focus, on the other hand, really does seem to be on anger -- except when it's not. Your sections on denial and dispassion focus almost entirely on anger and very little on the target of that anger and our related ethical obligations. The section on hatred, on the one hand, and forgiveness and love on the other, focus more on other mental states that might follow anger, with secondary consideration to how that plays out in action.

But there is another level at which I find your approach confusing. In your conclusion you say:

As far as I know, Christianity is the only moral system that commands us to love and forgive our enemies...

and then,

That said, I firmly believe that (III) is the option best able to satisfy our UU metric of "maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering."

There is something of a contradiction here. UU is (or defines) a moral system, and it does not depend on or equate to Christianity. If (III) were the option best able to satisfy the UU metric, then UU would demand (III). The best you could say (if this is even true) is that Christianity was the first to recognize or promote (III). If so, it was a valuable contribution of Christianity, but not otherwise significant. (Let me be careful to state that I am not sufficiently familiar with the various religious and philosophical movements to state that Christianity was in fact the first or only moral system to command forgiveness and love towards our enemies.)

On the other hand, I am not so convinced as you that (III) is the best possible alternative, or that there are only four alternatives. But that depends on how much you are focusing on "anger" versus "moral obligation towards those who mistreat others", and whether you are viewing (III) as sufficient or only necessary.

You wanted to know how I would deal with anger, hatred and enemies, if I do at all. Please do not be angry, but I will defer my answer to those questions until a later post. ;-)


1 comment:

Dr. Ernie said...

Dear Alan,
Well, I *was* angry, but I decided to forgive you. :-) Read me next post to see if I succeed...