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Start at the end: “We can’t be good in a bad world.” Agnes Callard’s main claim is that the right moral response to injustice is a kind of anger that involves committing wrongs, sometimes very serious wrongs. Only in a world very different from our own, where people don’t do bad things, could we avoid such “moral corruption.” This conclusion is particularly surprising because, while taking herself to be arguing against a purified notion of morality, Callard seems to posit a moral standard none of us can hope to meet. How did Callard end up doubling down on moral purity?
To answer this question, we need to go back and follow the argument. Callard starts off by arguing that an apparent philosophical controversy about anger conceals a shared fantasy. Some philosophers believe the world would be better without anger, while others believe a certain form of anger is part of an appropriate moral response to wrongdoing. In fact, Callard argues, both camps reject two crucial characteristics of anger, namely, the tendency to bear a grudge despite the wrongdoer’s attempts at restitution and the tendency to exact revenge. Philosophers have been striving to purify anger from these nasty tendencies by describing them as pathological and unreasonable. But Callard insists these philosophers’ aim is unrealistic and their verdict is oblivious to the valid reasoning that supports the grudge-bearing and vengeful tendencies of anger.
Callard therefore offers arguments to the conclusion that bearing grudges and exacting revenge are rational and justified. First, she argues that since the wrong that is the reason for anger cannot be undone no matter what compensation is offered or how profusely and sincerely the wrongdoer apologizes, the reason for anger will remain. This conclusion justifies clinging to one’s anger despite attempts at restitution. Second, Callard argues that revenge is how we hold each other responsible for wrongdoing: the wrong done to us is made into a general principle that is imposed on the wrongdoer. We teach the wrongdoer a lesson, she says, by making his bad our good. The first argument suggests that the moral sensibility of anger is a grudge-bearing sensibility, and the second suggests that anger is a mechanism for moral accountability through vengeance. We cannot cleanse anger from these tendencies without eliminating its primary moral functions.
Callard does not take the two arguments to be decisive, but she maintains they are simple, intuitive, and compelling. How could so many good philosophers fail to recognize them? The reason these arguments have been overlooked, Callard says, is that “we do not want to acknowledge the possibility that morally righteous anger provides rational grounds for limitless violence.”
I think Callard is right that we resist the idea that limitless violence is rational and moral, but I also think we have good reason to resist it: it is outrageous. Given the implausibility of the conclusion, the arguments that lead to it better be decisive or else we should doubt the arguments’ validity (that the conclusions follow from the premises) or soundness (that the premises are true). I will come back to this point because I believe Callard’s argument for bearing grudges is not valid and her argument for revenge is not sound. But before I say more about these arguments, I want to continue tracing Callard’s line of thought in order to explain how she ends up with a morally purified view of morality.
Callard says the arguments she presents lead to the conclusion that “the morally correct way to respond to immorality is to do things—cling to anger, exact vengeance—that are in some way immoral.” What does Callard mean by this? If grudge-bearing, vengeful anger is a morally appropriate response, then in what sense is it immoral? And if anger is immoral then in what sense is it morally righteous? Callard has an answer: “just because the moral corruption of anger is our best option doesn’t mean it is not corruption.” Given the fact of wrongdoing, some amount of grudge-bearing, vengeful anger is our best moral option. But our best moral option still involves moral corruption (“violence,” “bloodlust”), so moral goodness in response to wrongdoing is impossible for us and, consequently, we can’t be morally good in this bad world.
I believe this purified view of morality is misguided. Saying that a good person must be a person who never encounters moral wrongdoing is like saying that a healthy person must be a person who never falls ill. Such a healthy, good person could not live among us humans. We—human beings—develop physical and moral resilience by encountering disease and wrongdoing, not by avoiding them. For us, being healthy involves managing our physical vulnerability well and being good involves managing our moral vulnerability well. And, just as a healthy response to sickness can defeat the disease without amplifying or spreading it, a moral response to wrongdoing can address the wrong without replicating it. Human health is conditioned on the inevitability of disease; human goodness is conditioned on the inevitability of wrongdoing.
To be sure, Callard is right that grudge-bearing, vengeful anger is morally corrupt, but I believe she is wrong that it is a morally correct response to wrongdoing. In fact, we are often very angry indeed (and for good reason) without being inclined to bear grudges or exact revenge. Consider again the argument for bearing grudges. The wrong that is the reason for anger will never be undone, Callard says, so the reason for anger remains forever. But the wrong and its status as a reason for anger are two different things. While the wrong will remain, it might cease to be a reason for anger. The significance of past events can change in light of subsequent occurrences: my friend has apologized for betraying my trust, she sincerely regrets it, and we talked it over, so her betrayal might no longer be a reason for anger on my part. The betrayal remains the same, and just as wrong as it was, but its moral significance changes in light of the way it was addressed. So, from the fact that the wrong remains forever, it doesn’t follow that the reason for anger remains forever. The argument for bearing grudges is not valid.
Now consider the argument for revenge. Callard says that revenge is how we hold each other accountable, so it is essential to the accountability mechanism of anger. But even if revenge is a way to hold a person accountable, it does not seem to be the only way. Though Callard focuses on egregious wrongs, most of the mundane wrongs we encounter in the course of our daily lives do not prompt us to seek revenge. In fact, almost every meaningful relationship involves some instances of wrongdoing, which may even strengthen the relationship if they lead to a clarification of its essential norms, expectations, and boundaries. When I feel wronged by a family member, friend, or lover, I am not inclined “to make her bad my good,” but I certainly want to hold her accountable, and I seek her recognition of the wrong she has done to me. Since revenge is not necessary for accountability, the argument for revenge is not sound.
Though we are not forced to accept Callard’s “devastating conclusion”—that limitless violence is morally and rationally justified—Callard calls our attention to a deep and important fact: an appropriate response to wrongdoing may sometimes involve the intentional infliction of suffering on others. This should not lead us to lament the existence of wrongdoing in our world, but to recognize that suffering has a place in our moral ideals. You can’t be good without experiencing some bad.
Oded Na’aman is a fellow at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows and, starting in 2022, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a longtime member of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization of veterans who collect testimonies of Israeli soldiers’ from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. His essays and works of fiction appeared in Haaretz, Alaxon, Ma’ayan, the Guardian, the Nation, Le Monde, Huffington Post, Foreign Affairs, and The Point. His 2014 Boston Review essay “The Possibility of Self Sacrifice” was noted in Best American Essays.
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