I hate anger. Of all the emotions, it’s my least favorite. I’d rather feel sad or guilty than angry. Of course, as a human being, I do feel angry from time to time, but I’m not prone to it. I think most people who know me know that I’m calm most of the time. That natural calmness is probably a big part of the reason I hate anger so much. Of all the emotions, it’s probably the most passionate. Anger just has a way of sweeping everything away to the point of the angry person losing agency. When love or grief takes over, two of the other most passionate emotions, agency is retained and can even feel stronger. I know who I really am when I love and I feel a change in myself when I grieve. But with anger, I am lost. It is this lack of agency that makes anger ethically tricky.
I say that anger is ethically tricky, but I do not think that it is wrong. It is a brute fact. Commanding someone to not be angry would be about as effective as commanding someone to not be hungry. In fact, I often think that I could use a little more anger. But, to get at why, we need to know what anger is. As I said, everyone has felt angry, but what are we feeling? Unlike fear, it is not a response to something potential. It is about something actual or at least something perceived to be actual. No one gets angry at a person that might cheat. We get angry at a person who does cheat or who we believe is trying to cheat. It seems to be violations that make us angry. Anything from violating a social norm to violating a person’s body can be cause for anger. There are all kinds of reasons we dislike things, but a feeling of violation seems to be necessary for anger. That would make anger a defensive emotion. We feel anger over perceived violations as a way of protecting ourselves, either from the current violation or future violations.
This also helps explain why different people get angry over different things and to different degrees. What counts as a violation is different for different people and in different situations. Insults are a good example. They often cause anger, but it is easy to see how the people and situations matter. Siblings can call each other names with no anger resulting, but say those same things to someone at work and the anger will be swift and obvious. If an opponent in a tennis match says you’re too weak to hold the racket with one hand, you’ll probably get mad. If your coach says the same thing, you will not as she is just trying to help.
Anger can be anything from mild annoyance to blind rage. It all depends on the severity of the violation that causes it. Forgetting to say, “Thank you,” is going to be considered a minor violation by most people most of the time. So, the resulting anger will be closer to the mild annoyance end of the spectrum. Being robbed at gun point is going to be considered a major violation by most people most of the time. So, the resulting anger will be closer to fury. At least that’s what it should be. Not to sound too Aristotelian, the key to being angry ethically is to be angry at the right things and in the right proportions.
But, if anger makes a person lose agency, how do we control it? How do we make sure to be angry at the right things and in the right proportions? This seems to be related to outlook and temperament. When I say that I could use more anger, I think it is because I always try to look at things from different perspectives. That tends to diffuse anger. If a server gives me poor service, rather than getting angry, I imagine that he was being monopolized by another customer. If a cashier overcharges me, I assume there was a problem with the bar code and it was an honest mistake. The fact that I never assume the waiter is lazy or the cashier was trying to rip me off means I lose a valuable bit of self defense. It is easier for people to take advantage of me than it should be. I’m not saying that I should always get angry, but sometimes, I should assume that my own point of view is the best one. This way, I can hold people accountable for the real violations.
People who have the opposite problem, who get angry too easily, seem to have trouble seeing things from opposing viewpoints. It seems to come from a kind of selfishness. Their own point of view is their default standard. If someone is late to a meeting, it is a violation of an agreement and that is it. The angry person’s perspective won’t acknowledge traffic jams or car trouble and broken cell phones. Without the natural inclination to look at things a different way, everything becomes black and white. Either you are on time or you are late. Either you are polite or you are rude. Without the middle ground, occasions for anger, violations, are seen everywhere. But, anger, when directed at an innocent, is itself a violation. So it creates a viscous cycle.
The best approach is a little self reflection. We need to look at ourselves first. If we are easily angered, it makes sense to make an effort to see things from other perspectives. If we are rarely angered, we should prioritize our own point of view. This balance will help create a just environment where fewer unjust things are done and when unjust things do happen, the perpetrators are more likely to be held accountable.