Review: Martha Nussbaum on Anger, Apologies, and Forgiveness

Over the years, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time discussing anger, apologies, and forgiveness with therapists and survivors of child abuse and other traumas. Survivors and therapists alike are often passionate in the their belief that forgiveness is the only way to move forward from traumatic abuse. Without forgiveness, they feel, healing is impossible.

Having a typically transactional view of forgiveness, I always held that it makes no sense to forgive when there is no acknowledgment of wrongdoing on the part of the abuser. Asking a survivor to forgive unilaterally and unconditionally is bereft of meaning at best and morally repugnant at worst. Only if the abuser were to apologize and make some effort at amends, at least, could I see then extending forgiveness to the abuser, and I would consider this a charitable act on the part of the survivor.

Others have hastened to tell me that such an exchange is not necessary. They insist that unconditional forgiveness, freely given, is more meaningful and more liberating to survivors than the transactional form of forgiveness. Besides, they say, forgiveness is cleansing and is, indeed, the only way for survivors to rid themselves of the burden of intense and destructive anger.

I have always countered that it is possible to put anger aside without offering forgiveness to someone undeserving and unrepentant. Choosing a somewhat less emotional and inflammatory example, I can point out that I once had a moderately expensive lawnmower stolen from me. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it certainly made me angry. The thief was not caught and, I assume, never suffered any pangs of guilt for the crime. Over time, I was able to get on with my life, though I still remember it 30 years later. I decided to stop dwelling on it and get over it, so I tried to stop thinking about it and focus on things that could improve my life.

My interlocutors quickly countered that losing a lawnmower is nothing like the pain of having your innocence robbed (some described it as theft of a child’s “soul”). I am quick to agree, but I see it as a difference in degree, not kind, and I still cannot see how offering forgiveness to a remorseless abuser can aid healing.

My view was bolstered by the work and words of Alice Miller, the famed psychoanalyst and child advocate who died in 2010. In her 1991 book, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, Miller writes, “Forgiving has negative consequences, not only for the individual, but for society at large, because it means disguising destructive opinions and attitudes, and involves drawing a curtain across reality so that we cannot see what is taking place behind it.” Instead, she tells us, “Survivors of mistreatment need to discover their own truth if they are to free themselves of its consequences. The effort spent on the work of forgiveness leads them away from this truth.”

Martha Nussbaum’s new book, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, offers a

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By Robin Holland – Photo file provided by Robin Holland

third way of viewing anger and forgiveness. Nussbaum agrees that therapists should not force forgiveness, but she offers a more nuanced and philosophically grounded way of viewing the work of anger and the way forward from even extreme wrongs and injustices.

While many philosophers have ignored or dismissed the moral relevance of the emotions, others such as Aristotle have noted the importance of anger to a good life. While anger is a negative emotion, it has benefits for people seeking to flourish in life. Namely, anger is said to enable us to recognize injustice when it occurs and then motivate us to action to correct the wrongs inflicted on innocent parties. For Aristotle, anger occurs when someone’s status is lowered without good cause. Indeed, an attack on one’s character or social rank is likely to provoke anger and, in many cases, a wish for revenge. Nussbaum notes that revenge has few or no practical or moral benefits. Other than a temporary sense of satisfaction, payback accomplishes nothing of importance for us.

But if payback isn’t a useful result of anger, then perhaps contrition, apology, and forgiveness are necessary components of a moral and flourishing life. Most of us have grown up in a culture that stresses the importance of apologies and forgiveness for wrongs. Nussbaum traces ancient Jewish and Christian (primarily) texts dealing with the role of forgiveness. The most familiar form is transactional—if someone reduces the status of someone else, the perpetrator shows remorse and asks forgiveness. When the wronged party bestows forgiveness, the proper ranking of the parties is restored, and justice, it seems, is served.

Of course, contrition and apologies are not always forthcoming. Sometimes the perpetrator is simply stubborn and sometimes the perpetrator is no longer alive. This is often the case for survivors of child abuse. In the absence of an apology many therapists, as noted above, advise survivors to offer unconditional forgiveness. This kind of forgiveness is said to release the victim from the shackles of anger and enable a flourishing life to happen. Of course, contrarians such as Alice Miller claim this type of forgiveness traps survivors in a life-long lie that destroys them emotionally.

Nussbaum recognizes these challenges and takes a different approach. She offers several examples of people who move forward without offering forgiveness but in a more positive way than Alice Miller would likely think possible. In the example of the Prodigal Son, the son returns to his father to be greeted with open arms. Although the son has behaved quite badly, his father thinks only of the future with his son and not the past (his other son is not quite so ready to embrace his wayward brother). It is the focus on the future that makes all the difference for Nussbaum.

In an even more painful and poignant example, she describes a father from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, whose daughter becomes an addict and kills several people. The father finds his daughter and realizes he is helpless to change what she has done or her future prospects. He does all that he can do. He loves her and stays with her. Nussbaum says, “There is no apology, and there’s really no question of forgiveness on the agenda, whether conditional or unconditional. There’s just painful unconditional love.”

When anger is useful, Nussbaum says it is useful as a transition from a wrong to a focus on a better future. In the transition, someone would say in anger, “That’s outrageous! Something must be done to prevent this in the future!” Nussbaum applies this model in three realms: the intimate, the middle (public), and the political (social) realm. Simply because of my interest and background, I found her discussion of the intimate realm the most interesting and compelling.

In the middle, or public, realm, I think most of us realize our anger at strangers is rarely helpful. Minor wrongs (e.g., someone cutting in line at the grocery store) are best forgotten as quickly as possible. More serious wrongs are a matter for law enforcement and the court system. Being consumed with anger is only a form of self-torture.

In the political realm, though, anger is said to be a great motivator toward justice, and surely anger has propelled many social movements to success. Again, though, Nussbaum warns that it is easy to get caught up in concern for revenge or payback rather than creating a better world. After great harms, we need to focus on truth and reconciliation, not punishment. Indeed, the most successful social movements have focused on the future and not redressing wrongs.

Nussbaum sees Nelson Mandela as an exemplary role model for looking to the future rather than the past in response to injustice. She says, “Mandela frames the entire question in forward-looking pragmatic terms, as a question of getting the other party to do what you want. He then shows that this task is much more feasible if you can get the other party to work with you rather than against you. Progress is impeded by the other party’s defensiveness and self-protection.”

For years, I have had difficulty clearly delineating exactly what I found problematic with our accepted model of anger and forgiveness. Nussbaum has provided a welcome bit of clarity for a universal yet surprisingly complex human problem. Realistically, we will not be able to let go of useless anger and focus only on transitional anger, but at least we have a better target. When we do succeed it will be because we rely on another human emotion—love.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
This entry was posted in ethics, Feminism, Grief, Philosophy, Psychotherapy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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