My Defense of Anger and Empathy: Flanagan's, Bloom's, and Others' Responses

Last week I posted a defense of anger and empathy against recent critiques by Owen Flanagan and Paul Bloom. The post drew a range of lively responses in social media, including from Flanagan and Bloom themselves.

My main thought was just this: Empathy and anger are part of the rich complexity of our emotional lives, intrinsically valuable insofar as having rich emotional lives is intrinsically valuable.

We can, of course, also debate the consequences of empathy and anger, as Flanagan and Bloom do -- and if the consequences of one or the other are bad enough we might be better off in sum without them. But we shouldn't look only at consequences. There is also an intrinsic value in having a rich emotional life, including anger and empathy.

1. Adding Nuance.

I have presented Flanagan's and Bloom's views simply: Flanagan and Bloom argue against anger and empathy, respectively. Their detailed views are more nuanced, as one might expect. One interpretive question is whether it is fair to set aside this nuance in critiquing their views.

Well, how do they themselves summarize their views?

Flanagan argues in defense of the Stoic and Buddhist program of entirely "eliminating" or "extirpating" anger, against mainstream "containment" views which hold that anger is a virtue when it is moderate, appropriate to the situation, and properly contained (p. 160). Although this is where he puts his focus and energy, he adds a few qualifications like this: "I do not have a firm position [about the desirability of entirely extirpating anger]. I am trying to explore varieties of moral possibility that we rarely entertain, but which might be genuine possibilities for us" (p. 215).

Bloom titles his book Against Empathy. He says that "if we want to make the world a better place, then we are better off without empathy" (p. 3) and "On balance, empathy is a negative in human affairs" (p. 13). However, Bloom also allows that he wouldn't want to live in a world without empathy, anger, shame, or hate (p. 9). At several points, he accepts that empathy can be pleasurable and play a role in intimate relationships.

It's helpful to distinguish between the headline view and the nuanced view.

Here's what I think the typical reader -- including the typical academic reader -- recalls from their reading, two weeks later: one sentence. Maybe "Bloom is against empathy because it's so biased and short-sighted". Maybe "Flanagan thinks we should try to eliminate anger, like a Buddhist or Stoic sage". These are simplifications, but they come close enough to how Bloom and Flanagan summarize and introduce their positions that it's understandable if that's how readers remember their views. In writing academic work, especially academic work for a broad audience, it's crucial to keep our eye on the headline view -- the practical, memorable takeaway that is likely to be the main influence on readers' thoughts down the road.

As an author, you are responsible for both the headline view and the nuanced view. Likewise, as a critic, I believe it's fair to target the headline view as long as one also acknowledges the nuance beneath.

In their friendly replies on social media, both Bloom and Flanagan seemed to acknowledge the value of engaging first at the headline level; but they both also pushed me on the nuance.

Hey, before I go farther, let me not forget to be friendly too! I loved both these books. Of course I did. Otherwise, I wouldn't have spent my time reading them cover-to-cover and critiquing them. Bloom and Flanagan challenge my presuppositions in helpful ways, and my thinking has advanced in reacting to them.

For more on the downsides of nuance, see Kieran Healy.

2. Bloom's Response.

In this tweet, Bloom appears to be suggesting that empathy is fine as long as you don't use it to guide moral judgment. (He makes a similar claim in a couple of Facebook comments on my post.) Similarly, at the end of his book, he says he worries "that I have given the impression that I am against empathy" (p. 240). An understandable worry, given the title of his book! (I am sure he is aware of this and speaking partly tongue in cheek.) He clarifies that he is against empathy "only in the moral domain... but there is more to life than morality" (p. 240-241). Empathy, he says, can be an immense source of pleasure.

The picture seems to be that the world would be morally better without empathy, but that there can be excellent selfish reasons to want to experience empathy nonetheless.

If the picture here is that there are some decisions to which morality is irrelevant and that it's fine to be guided by empathy in those decisions, I would object as follows. Every decision is a moral decision. Every dollar you spend on yourself is a dollar that could instead be donated to a good cause. Every minute you spend is a minute you could have done something more kind or helpful than what you actually did. Every person you see, you could greet warmly or grumpily, give them a kind word or not bother. Of course, it's exhausting to think this way! But still, there is I believe no such thing as a morally innocent choice. If you purge empathy from moral decision-making you purge it from decision-making.

Here's what seems closer to right, to me -- and what I think is one of the great lessons of Bloom's book. Public policy decisions and private acts directed toward distant strangers (e.g., what charities to support) are perhaps, on average, better made in a mood of cool rationality, to the extent that is possible. But it's different for personal relationships. Bloom argues that empathy might make us "too-permissive parents and too-clingy friends" (p. 163). This is a possible risk, sure. Sometimes empathic feelings should be set aside or even suppressed. Of course, there are risks to attempting to set aside empathy in favor of cool rationality as well (see, e.g., Lifton on Nazi doctors). Let's not over-idealize either process! In some cases, it might be morally best to experience empathy and to be able to act otherwise if necessary, rather than not to feel empathy.

Furthermore, it might be partly constitutive of the syndrome of full-bodied friendship and loving-parenthood that one is prone to empathy. I am Aristotelian or Confucian enough to see the flourishing of such relationships as central to morality.

3. Flanagan's Response.

On Facebook, Flanagan also added nuance to his view, writing:

There are varieties of anger. 1. Payback anger - you hurt me, I hurt you; 2. Pain-passing -- I am hurting (not because of you) I pass pain to you. 3. Instrumental anger. I aim you to get you to do what is right (this might hurt your feelings etc. but that is not my aim; 4 Political anger. I am outraged at racist or sexist etc. practices and want them to end; 5. Impersonal anger. At the gods or heaven for awful states of affairs, the dying child. I am concerned about 1 & 2. I worry about 3-4 if and when the desire to pass pain or payback gets too much of a grip....

This is helpful -- and also not entirely Buddhist or Stoic (which of course is fine, especially since Flanagan presented his earlier arguments against anger as only something worth exploring rather than his final view).

In his thinking on this, Flanagan has partly been influenced by Myisha Cherry's and others' work on anger as a force for social change.

I appreciate the defense of anger as a path toward social justice. But I also want to defend anger's intrinsic value, not just its instrumental value; and specifically I want to defend the intrinsic value of payback anger.

The angry jerk is an ugly thing. Grumping around, feeling his time is being wasted by the incompetent fools around him, feeling he hasn't been properly respected, enraged when others' ends conflict with his own. He should settle down, maybe try some empathy! But consider, instead, the angry sweetheart.

I see the "sweetheart" as the opposite of the jerk -- someone who is spontaneously and deeply attuned to the interests, values, and attitudes of other people, full of appreciation, happy to help, quick to believe that he rather than the other might be in the wrong, quick to apologize and in extreme cases sometimes being so attuned to others' perspectives that he risks losing track of his own interests, values, and attitudes. Spongebob Squarepants, Forrest Gump, sweet subordinate sitcom mothers from the 1950s and 1960s. These people don't feel enough anger. We should, I think, cheer their anger when it finally rises. We should let them relish their anger, the sense that they have been harmed and that the wrongdoer should pay them back.

I don't want sweethearts always to be bodhisattvas toward those who wrong them. Anger manifests the self-respect that they should claim, and it's part of the emotional range of experience that they might have too little of.

4. More.

Shoot, I've already gone on longer than intended, and I haven't got to all the comments by others that I'd wanted to address! Just quickly:

Some people suggested that eliminating anger might result in opening up other different ranges of emotions, in the right kind of sage. Interesting thought! I'd also add that there's a kind of between-person richness that I'd celebrate. If sages can eliminate anger as a great personal and moral accomplishment, I think that's wonderful. My concern is more with the ideal of a blanket extirpation as general advice.

Some people pointed out that the anger of the oppressed is particularly worth cultivating -- and that there may even be whole communities of oppressed people who feel too little anger. Yes!

Others wondered about whether I would favor adding brand-new unheard-of negative emotions just to improve our emotional range. This would make a fascinating speculative fiction thought experiment.

More later, I hope. In addition to the comments section at The Splintered Mind, the public Facebook conversation was lively and fun.

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