Agnes Callard deconstructs arguments about the “dark side” of anger as a social emotion. While she agrees with critics that anger can motivate grudge-holding and punishment, she shifts the conversation by suggesting these are moral features of anger, not bugs. Some philosophers suggest anger’s perseverance and link to vengeance mean anger should be dismissed as a moral guide, unless it can be somehow “purified.” Callard suggests this may not be possible, or even morally desirable.
We agree with much of Callard’s argument, which echoes ongoing debates in psychology about the dark sides of emotions such as outrage. Outrage—anger at moral transgressions—has been criticized for seeming to foster viral mob behavior online. Yet as Callard notes, anger can provide useful information about the world. Many scholars in affective science would agree that emotions can be rational guides. Indeed, we have argued against the tendency to vilify emotions such as outrage and empathy, because such interpretations overlook important social functions of these emotions. Focusing on anger’s “impurities” may be the wrong approach. Instead, we might ask, why do people choose to engage with their anger or not?
Callard’s first point is about grudges. Anger is thought to be problematic because it motivates unending grudges, even after attempts to repair the relationship, but Callard questions whether this is irrational: “once you have a reason to be angry, you have a reason to be angry forever.” She acknowledges that one might decide to “set one’s anger aside”—a process that may occur through emotion regulation. Anger can be a rational response to the environment while still allowing that someone’s perspective on the reason for the anger, and their judgment of how important that transgression is to the relationship, might change.
Indeed, research on emotion regulation finds that people can change their emotions by altering how they think about the world. New information might change how people think about transgressions and perpetrators, which can in turn reduce anger. It may or may not be rational to update a prior belief about the world, and this will likely vary by context. This shifts the conversation from whether anger has invariable consequences to why and how people choose to engage with their emotions in different ways. People vary in their motives to regulate their feelings, anger included. There are many ways to deal with anger; people could choose to maintain it, amplify it, or diminish it, and whether these are rational strategies depends on a person’s goals, which may or may not include the goal of acknowledging the original harm done by the perpetrator.
Sustaining anger indefinitely may carry its own costs. Anger, like any emotion, might be exhausting to experience. Others have brought up the prospect of “outrage fatigue,” or the dilution of anger by experiencing it for too long. This feels particularly relevant to the argument put forth by Callard. If one is entitled to feel anger infinitely, does that put one at greater risk for outrage fatigue and therefore make one more likely to let anger dissipate or fail to exert moral action? If an actor’s anger becomes fatiguing, and they fail to assert a demand for justice, do they feel immoral for allowing the transgression to go unpunished? And does anger even become tiring at all? To us, these are fascinating psychological questions that warrant more study.
This brings us to Callard’s second point about revenge. She suggests that when someone has wronged you, it changes your fundamental relationship with that person. One of the more compelling features of this argument is the idea that being wronged carries psychological costs for the self; it forces you to “remodel your psychological landscape” to focus on managing the other person. In our own work, we have examined emotions such as outrage and empathy from a motivated emotion regulation perspective—understanding how people relate to their emotions in different ways depending on the perceived costs and benefits of these emotions. The cost of remodeling a moral relationship has been less well studied, particularly for decisions about maintaining or reducing anger. According to one theory of moral judgment, much of morality is about regulating relationships, deciding what kind of relationship model you have with another person and whether they’ve violated its implicit norms. We agree with Callard that moral transgressions may alter the relationship model you have with someone, and that this could introduce its own costs; however, we suggest that more work be done to understand how people might choose to flexibly apply different relationship models to deal with transgressors.
We also agree with Callard that it is important not to overlook the functions of anger. By treating moralistic punishment as a key feature of anger, not a problem, Callard’s argument is consistent with a body of research on the role of anger in motivating moralizing behaviors (e.g., costly punishment) and collective action (e.g., volunteering or protesting). Even if people disagree about the right types of punishment or the right ways to vote, there may be more consensus in the notion that it is important for people to want to maintain moral order and express civic voice. The link between outrage (and, by extension, anger) and collective action might be important to consider, particularly for groups at a structural disadvantage. Callard rightly notes that anger could be disruptive and that attempts to delegitimize anger could even undermine its moral function.
Indeed, Callard addresses the disproportionate impact that oppression—and anger experienced over oppression—has on minoritized group members. “Victims of injustice,” she writes, “are not as innocent as we would like to believe. Either these victims are morally compromised by the vengeful and grudge-bearing character of their anger, or they are morally compromised by acquiescence.” We appreciate Callard’s argument here. An additional consideration that we have previously discussed in the context of outrage concerns which groups are allowed to experience anger. Although members of minority groups are justified in being angry about their oppression, members of the majority group sometimes vilify them for that anger—as if the mere experience of anger is fundamentally immoral and violent.
The choice presented by Callard at the end of her essay is an important one. Do you mute your anger and risk seeming to acquiescence to the transgression, or do you respond with anger and risk engaging in behaviors that might be problematic in their own right? These choices may become especially complex when others challenge whether you are allowed to express anger in the first place. To move the debate forward, we suggest there be more scientific study and ethical discussion about the motivations, beliefs, and values that inform how people act on their anger.