Thursday, March 16, 2017

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.

[image source]


Scott Bakker said...

Fascinating stuff, Eric. This question happens to be central to a number of my novels, now. The problem, as I see it, is that the full range of positive and negative emotions is intrinsically valuable, even as transformations in our cognitive ecology are changing them into extrinsic liabilities. So take the pro-anger as an instrument of social change, argument. If it turns out that the transparency afforded by the web means that 'angry activism' accelerates reactionary recruitment, then we could be entering an age where the political usefulness of progressive public outrage is at an end. If it turns out that the intrinsic value of negative emotions remains constant (because biologically fixed) but the extrinsic liabilities continue to pile up, then perhaps we can surmise the growing appeal of virtual 'venting' venues... like Breitbart News Network.

This is a classic 'crash space' debate.

howie berman said...

Hi Eric:

Not to add a wrinkle, but anger and empathy are different if not bigger issues for us than for traditional cultures. We have more overt freedom than people and traditional cultures, whose autonomy arose in different ways, perhaps in outbursts.
In traditional cultures to a larger degree, your emotions were dictated by situation and authority and what was not settled could be settled, by a Rabbi or whomever.
Today, I do not have to tithe and I do not have to drop a quarter in the homeless dudes coffer.
I'm sure you're sensitive to this issue even if Bloom et al might not have addressed it directly in their books

Eric Campbell said...

I see that Flanagan's list does not include anger intended (almost never consciously) to signal commitment to norms, beliefs, etc. for reputational purposes. Or, relatedly, self-signaling for broadly willpower-related purposes. Does either author mention this as a potential problem with some forms of anger? I'm not saying it's definitely a problem or that people should't do it in general. But it's a very important question, and I find it strange for naturalistic commentators on the subject not to wrestle with one of, if not the leading view about not only the evolutionary origin, but contemporary value of expressions of moralized anger (especially as it connects to calls for punishment). I mean there's tons of stuff on the subject. I haven't read either book, so maybe they talk about it (or at least mention it), but the fact that it hasn't been mentioned in either thread, including in Flanagan's list above, cries out for explanation. This might not be the explanation, but I do think that thinking much about the deep and ubiquitous role of (self-and other-) signaling in ethics can be unsettling. It can even get people angry. All the more reason to talk about it, as far as I'm concerned. Why are we not? I'm really asking.

Eric Campbell said...

From the NYTimes today: "A United Nations commission said in a report on Wednesday that Israel practices apartheid against Palestinians, a politically explosive assertion that led to furious denunciations by Israel and the United States."

Which of Flanagan's alternatives would this fall under? You might think Instrumental anger, except there are two problems. The first is that he defined this as anger directed at getting someone to do what's right. But of course that should, especially in the context of criticizing anger, read "getting someone to do what *I think* is right." The second more interesting problem is that what we think is right is often a function of what we are motivated to think is right. And some of the most important such motivations are to be understood in terms of signaling (others are in terms of "self-interest" not based on reputation). In short: if the social strategizing mechanisms determine that expressions of fury are warranted, then such expressions are likely to occur, in which case the "self" normally interprets those expressions as both caused and warranted by perceptions of, let's say the relevant moral truths (e.g., it is wrong and morally blameworthy to say that Israel practices apartheid). But the process is shot through with manipulation and deception at all levels. Not all anger is like this, but lots of it is. Anyone know of any good discussions of this process or its normative implications? If you don't like my example, there are countless others that will work for you.

Cris Bennett said...

I buy the intrinsic value argument to an extent. But not so much because life's rich tapestry is all the better when shot through with empathetic strands, but because the raw stuff has potential to be cultivated into something finer and more useful. The arguments of commentators like Bloom have an air of unreality about them to me because they seem to assume moral emotions and capacities are fixed. This just flat-out ignores a couple of millennia's worth of discussions and practice of ethical cultivation in an vast sweep of traditions (Confucianism, the Stoics, Aristotle, Buddhism, Hume/Smith etc etc).

The raw empathy of a 5 year old is not the same as that of an adult who has cultivated and refined it (and balanced it with other faculties) for 50 years. Perhaps Bloom has just not put in the effort. But consequently claiming that empathy is not useful for moral judgement because its origins are unrefined is like saying motor skills are useless for surgery because I'm a klutz.

Callan S. said...

It sounds like he's not against empathy, he just doesn't want it to ever get its hands on the steering wheel.

I think he's failing to identify that any commitments to a criminal justice system he has (doesn't have to be the one that currently exists in his country) is empathy having its hands on the steering wheel. And perhaps intellect having its hands on the steering wheel at the same time.

It's worth considering that maybe (just maybe) to him it feels like it's just some chess like tactical exercise - but he has no feeling about why he's playing the game to begin with. He's enacting empathy without feeling it.