The Weakness of the Furies
Victim anger can be useful to the political struggle, but it can also become excessive and obsessive, deforming the self.
February 19, 2020
Feb 19, 2020
27 Min read time
Victim anger can be useful to the political struggle, but it can also become excessive and obsessive, deforming the self.
Thus did every type of bad practice take root in Greece, fed by these civil wars. Openness, which is the largest part of noble character, was laughed down; it vanished. Mistrustful opposition of spirit carried the day, destroying all trust. To reconcile them no speech was strong enough, no oath fearful enough. All of them alike, when they got the upper hand, calculating that security was not to be hoped for, became more intent on self-protection than they were capable of trust.
—Thucydides, The Peloponnesian Wars
It is the end of the Trojan War. Hecuba, the noble queen of Troy, has endured many losses: her husband, her children, her fatherland, destroyed by fire. And yet she remains an admirable person—loving, capable of trust and friendship, combining autonomous action with extensive concern for others. But then she suffers a betrayal that cuts deep, traumatizing her entire personality. A close friend, Polymestor, to whom she has entrusted the care of her last remaining child, murders the child for money. That is the central event in Euripides’s Hecuba (424 BCE), an anomalous version of the Trojan war story, shocking in its moral ugliness, and yet one of the most insightful dramas in the tragic canon.
Good character is more fragile than we like to think.
From the moment Hecuba learns of Polymestor’s betrayal, she is a different person. Unable to repose any trust in anyone, unwilling to be persuaded, she becomes utterly solipsistic and dedicates herself entirely to revenge. She murders Polymestor’s children and puts out his eyes—symbolizing, it would seem, the total extinction of their relationship of mutuality and care, as well as her own refusal of friendly reciprocal vision. Polymestor wanders onstage blind, crawling on all fours like the beast he always was. At the end of the play, it is prophesied that Hecuba will be transformed into a dog—an animal the Greeks (wrongly) associated with rabid pursuit of prey and a total lack of interpersonal concern. As Dante summarizes her story in the Inferno, “deranged, she barked like a dog: so far had anguish twisted her mind.”
Hecuba is not just grief-stricken: she is stricken, as well, in the very core of her moral personality. She can no longer sustain virtues that used to define her as a human being, friend, and citizen. In depicting her transformation, Euripides clearly inverts the mythic creation of citizenship and human community depicted in the final drama of Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 BCE), by then a famous creation story of the Athenian democracy. Initially the Furies, grim goddesses of revenge, are said to be like dogs, sniffing after their prey, incapable of love or justice. But at the end of the play, they agree to trust the promises of goddess Athena and to adopt a new way of thinking characterized by “mildness of temper” and “a mindset of communal friendship.” They stand up, receive the robes of adult citizens, and celebrate the law-abiding justice of the city.
Aeschylus’s moral is that a political community must abandon the obsessive pursuit of revenge and adopt an idea of justice that is both law-governed and welfare-oriented, focusing not on hunting one’s prey but on deterring bad behavior and producing prosperity. For Euripides, however, moral trauma can cause the collapse of trust and the other-regarding virtues, producing a revenge-obsessed parody of real justice. Euripides’s grim drama is part of a long tradition of reflection, in the Greco-Roman world, about the damage that events beyond people’s own control can do to them as they aim to lead a flourishing human life, a life that includes acting in accordance with all the major virtues. The most prominent conclusion of this tradition is that events people don’t control can block them from acting in socially valuable ways. By removing political citizenship, friends, family, and the wherewithal to act in society, such events may prevent a person from living a completely flourishing life, what the Greeks called eudaimonia. Just having the virtues inside, as Aristotle and others stress, is not enough, if one is radically cut off from acting. But Hecuba suggests a more radical conclusion: such events can also corrode the virtues themselves, producing moral damage of a long-standing sort. The first sort of damage can be reversed: an exiled person can be restored to citizenship, the friendless can acquire new friends. But Hecuba’s damage lies deeper, in longstanding patterns of action and aspiration that form part of her character. Particularly vulnerable are the relational virtues, patterns of friendship and trust. Bad treatment at the hands of others—experiencing a violation of trust—can make people worse.
‘Deranged, she barked like a dog: so far had anguish twisted her mind.’
How can this be? How can the crimes of Polymestor undermine Hecuba’s virtue? Aristotle appears to deny the possibility, holding that a good person will be firm in character and will “always do the finest thing possible given the circumstances,” amid the blows of fortune, although perhaps, in extreme circumstances, falling short of full eudaimonia. Most tragic dramas agree, portraying heroes and heroines who remain noble under fortune’s blows. The character Hecuba in Euripides’s play The Trojan Women is just such a noble figure, showing love, leadership, and the capacity for rational deliberation in the midst of disaster. His Hecuba, virtually unique in the Greek tragic corpus, depicts tragic events in all their potential ugliness, showing us that their cost is often greater than our stories reveal. For this reason, the play has been valued low through most of the modern era, dismissed as repugnant and a mere horror show. As scholar Ernst Abramson observed in 1952, it came to the fore again in the light of the grim events of the twentieth century, which have shown that good character is more fragile than we like to think.
• • •
It is attractive for feminists to believe that victims are always pure and right—women and other victims of injustice. Often they are inspired by a prevalent modern philosophical view: the good will is not affected by contingencies beyond people’s control. Immanuel Kant is one of the most influential sources for this view, although it has ancient Greco-Roman antecedents in Stoic ethics (which influenced both Christian ethics and Kant), and it also corresponds to some strands within Christian thought. Kant says in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) that even if the good will has no chance at all to accomplish anything, “yet would it, like a jewel, still shine by its own light as something which has its full value in itself. Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither augment nor diminish this value.” The jewel image clearly implies, further, that the will cannot be corrupted by those same external circumstances. People who hold this view may also be inspired by a well-known psychological tendency known as the “just world” hypothesis: if there is misery, it must be deserved. If no desert, no deep harm.
It is attractive for feminists to believe that victims are always pure and right.
Early in the feminist tradition, the Kantian view was called into question. Mary Wollstonecraft analyzed the damage women’s personalities and aspirations suffer under inequality. She claimed that women all too often exhibit servility, emotional lack of control, and lack of due regard for their own rationality and autonomy. These, she argued, are morally bad traits that women have been nudged into by their dependence on the good will of men. Criticizing Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who praised the coy and submissive Sophie as a norm for female character, she insisted that women, just as much as men, should have the opportunity to grow into fully autonomous agents, winning self-respect and the respect of others for their dignity and self-authored choices. When they are denied this opportunity, they suffer damage at the very core of their being.
In a similar vein, John Stuart Mill insisted in The Subjection of Women (1869) that one of the worst aspects of the male “subjection” of women is its mental and moral aspect:
Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favorite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear: either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose. All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others.
Because women are brought up this way, and because, in their socially and legally powerless condition, they cannot obtain anything except by pleasing men, women think that being attractive to men is the main thing in life.
And, this great means of influence over the minds of women having been acquired, an instinct of selfishness made men avail themselves of it to the utmost as a means of holding women in subjection, by representing to them meekness, submissiveness, and resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man, as an essential part of sexual attractiveness.
These insightful observations have been taken up in recent times by social scientists working on the deformation of preferences under conditions of inequality. Jon Elster’s Sour Grapes (1983) used the idea of “adaptive preferences” to explain the long persistence of feudalism, and the fact that the revolutions of the eighteenth century required a revolution in consciousness before a change in rights could be achieved. Elster took his title from Aesop’s fable in which a fox, learning quickly that the grapes he initially wants are out of reach for him, quickly schools himself not to want them and calls them “sour.” Other scholars working on these phenomena have emphasized that deformed preferences can be found even earlier in life, so that people learn never to want the attractive thing in the first place—thus echoing Wollstonecraft’s and Mill’s observations about women. Economist Amartya Sen has found deformed preferences in subordinated women even where their own physical strength and health is concerned. I have developed the same idea in connection with preferences about higher education and political participation.
Wollstonecraft argued that women have been nudged into morally bad traits by their dependence on the good will of men.
But modern feminists have some strong reasons for sticking to the Kantian view. Victim-blaming is ubiquitous as a strategy of subordination. It comes easy to the proud to construct fictions of their own moral superiority, portraying the subordinated as in some sense deserving their subordination because of intellectual and moral inferiority. Colonial domination was typically “justified” by arguments alleging that the dominated people are like children, needing firm control. Even the usually clear-eyed Mill said this about the people and cultures of India (while in the employ of the British East India Company). In our own time we have all heard such denigrations of African Americans and African American culture as excuses for white dominance: the black family is allegedly morally inferior to the white family, black culture to white culture. Indeed such victim-blaming is a virtual trope of recent conservative thought about race. As philosopher Lisa Tessman says of one such critic in Burdened Virtues (2005), “His account leaves no space for implicating the oppressive social systems that cause moral damage.” A substantial feminist literature raises doubts about the concept of adaptive preferences as applied to women, for similar reasons. There is no subordinated group that has not been systematically charged with preexisting moral deficiency—charges that deny the extent of damage that domination does to the subordinated.
It seems crucial for people seeking justice to face these grim facts and their moral toll. There are delicate issues here: Up to what point is social damage merely a source of unhappiness, and at what point does it eat into the moral personality? How far do subordinated peoples really internalize and act out the negative image of themselves purveyed by their dominators, thus—as Wollstonecraft and Mill argue—failing to achieve key moral virtues? One must approach the complexity of these issues subtly and yet frankly. It does no good to pretend that everything is rosy when people are schooled to servility and deprived of encouragement for autonomy. Indeed such a pretense plays into the hands of dominators by implying that what they have done is merely superficial.
In general, here’s how the world looks to me. First, dominators usually have a defective moral culture that rationalizes their domination in many ways, not least by its victim blaming. Second, one thing they typically do in order to maintain their power is to encourage servility and an absence of autonomy and courage in the subjugated. They also inflict trauma by cruelty, one purpose of which is to break victims’ spirit. Sometimes they fail: people have great resources of resilience and insight, and can indeed shine like jewels in the worst of circumstances. But sometimes they succeed, and that success is the dominators’ deepest moral crime.
Modern feminists have some strong reasons for sticking to the Kantian view.
Women are especially likely to exhibit a complicated mixture of moral overcoming and moral damage. Unlike most subordinated groups, they live in intimate proximity to their dominators. This is good for them in a way, since it means that they may be well fed, cared for, even educated. But it is also bad for them: the intimate context contains depths of cruelty that are not always present outside of intimacy, and needs for boundless submission on the part of the thirsty proud. In a 1980 essay in Ethics entitled “Racism and Sexism,” African American philosopher Laurence Thomas predicted that sexism would prove more difficult to eradicate than racism, because males had a stake in the domination of women (expressed, for example, in the phrase “a real man”) that whites do not typically have in the domination of blacks (no parallel phrase “a real white,” or so he said). Thomas’s article received a lot of sharp critiques, and, forty years later, it does seem that he is wrong about the depth of racism in U.S. culture. What he said, however, is surely true of sexual orientation prejudice as compared with sexism in U.S. society. Sexual orientation prejudice has dropped away with startling rapidity—in part because dominant straight society has no stake in it. There is no concept of the “real straight” that entails ongoing subordination of LGBTQ people. With gender, given the usually intimate context, the stake males have in producing pliant women remains high.
• • •
Moral Damage in Feminist Thought
Feminist philosophers have not typically been uncritical Kantians. Kant and white male Kantians did not need to wrestle with sexual violence, domination by a spouse, or the myriad problems that child care and domestic work pose for women’s aspirations. They, and their twentieth-century followers, casually asserted things about virtue that were false: for example, that two valid moral claims could never conflict. One way that luck influences virtue, as the Greek tragic poets knew well, is precisely by producing such conflicts,
Female philosophers of my generation questioned that denial. Juggling child care and work, we knew that circumstances beyond good people’s control often produced painful contingent moral conflicts, particularly in an unjust society. We had allies among leading male philosophers—particularly Bernard Williams (who actually did a lot of child care and, in general, understood women’s demands with a rare sensitivity). But it was far more difficult for powerless young women to make bold countercultural claims than for a dominant male, who had, in addition, served as an Royal Air Force pilot during his national service.
We did persist, however. And although outstanding female philosophers have worked in the Kantian tradition (often showing its complexities and tensions)—women such as Onora O’Neill, Christine Korsgaard, Barbara Herman, Marcia Baron, and Nancy Sherman (also an Aristotelian)—on the whole, women doing explicitly feminist philosophy have rarely been Kantians, because they have felt that Kant denied truths of their experience. Barbara Herman did show surprisingly, and cogently, that Kant has important insights about the urge for domination inherent in sexual relations. But hers was a late attempt to show feminists who had dismissed Kant that he actually had something to offer them, as indeed he does. My own approach to the topic of objectification is infused with Kantian ideas, and I have learned a lot from the views of Herman and Korsgaard—as well as, of course, the great (Kant-inspired) John Rawls. For the most part, however, feminist philosophers have been drawn to other sources and have used other insights to craft views that take the damages of domination seriously.
On the whole, women doing explicitly feminist philosophy have rarely been Kantians, because they have felt that Kant denied truths of their experience.
A pioneer in this area was Sandra Bartky. Already in 1984, in her essay “Feminine Masochism and the Politics of Personal Transformation,” she insisted—as had Wollstonecraft before her—that many of women’s emotions and character traits have been shaped by a system of domination to serve its ends. She insisted that views that deny the possibility of such damage are highly superficial:
Those who claim that any woman can reprogram her consciousness if only she is sufficiently determined hold a shallow view of the nature of patriarchal oppression. Anything done can be undone, it is implied; nothing has been permanently damaged, nothing irretrievably lost. But this is tragically false. One of the evils of a system of oppression is that it may damage people in ways that cannot always be undone.
In another valuable essay, “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power,” she described—echoing Mill, but with far greater specificity—the production of an “ideal body of femininity” that serves male interests, being slender rather than massive, weak rather than muscular. I would add that this was written when women were forbidden to run in marathons on the grounds that this would tax their frail reproductive organs, and in which female tennis players were upbraided for looking muscular. (Chrissie Evert represented the “good” woman, Martina Navratilova, who introduced serious weight training to the tennis regimen, the “bad” woman.)
My own work on “moral luck,” in The Fragility of Goodness (1986), was not explicitly feminist, but was inspired both by life and by discussions with other women. And valuable work on moral luck began to crop up all over the profession. Claudia Card took aim at the ideal of women as caring helpmeets in the work of such people as Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings. Making eloquent use of Friedrich Nietzsche, she argued that the valorization of self-abnegation is a kind of slave morality: women, feeling themselves powerless, give the name of virtue to traits that powerlessness has imposed upon us. (Related insights were developed already in 1973 by a male Kantian, Thomas Hill, in an important essay, “Servility and Self-Respect,” which explicitly alludes to the way a male-dominated society requires servile behavior of women.)
In a related vein, Marcia Homiak, a distinguished Aristotle scholar, argued in a series of articles that real virtue requires enjoyment of one’s own activity and a type of “rational self-love” cultivated in confident relationships with others—and that sexism has all too often robbed women of that joy and that confidence. Her insights have been too little heralded, and feminists should make them central.
Thinking seriously about equality means thinking about the need to repair the damaged self, supporting the cultivation of virtues that domination has made difficult.
In 2005 Tessman contributed an important systematic study on the whole phenomenon of moral damage in the context of feminist struggle and resistance. Following the example of those who draw on ancient Greek thought, but with valuable contemporary elaboration, Tessman argues in Burdened Virtues that in a variety of ways sexism damages the subordinated self. She concludes that thinking seriously about equality means thinking, as well, about the need to repair the damaged self, supporting the cultivation of virtues that domination has made difficult.
Thinkers in this tradition can still stress, as many do, that we must listen to the narratives of victims and give their account of their own experience some degree of priority. That epistemic correction is important, since members of subordinated groups have typically been denied an equal status as knowers and givers of testimony. Listening never means listening with no critical questions, and the possibility that moral damage is distorting the narrative—often in an “adaptive” direction, denying real wrongs—ought to be with us always as we listen.
• • •
Is Retributivism a “Burdened Virtue”?
Tessman makes a further valuable point about the virtues. The struggle against systematic wrongdoing, she argues, requires a specific battery of traits that may be virtuous in the context of the struggle—advancing its goals—but not as elements in the life of an agent striving to live well. A type of uncritical loyalty and solidarity, for example, may be required in a political struggle, and yet it may not equip us for the best, most reciprocal types of friendship. We can think of many further cases.
Consider two cases, closely related, that point us back to Euripides’s play. The first is the denial of trust and friendship to those on the “other side.” The second is a focus on retributive anger. Tessman explicitly remarks on the latter: she says that this type of victim anger is useful to the political struggle, but that it can also become excessive and obsessive, deforming the self. So people have a tragic choice before them: either fail to fit oneself maximally for struggle, or do so, but lose some of the richness of a fully virtuous personality.
Victim anger can be useful to the political struggle, but it can also become excessive and obsessive, deforming the self.
I agree with Tessman that in both of the cases I have named there is distortion of the personality, but I don’t agree that this distortion is useful for a liberatory struggle. We don’t have a tragic choice after all, although we do have the extremely difficult task of waging a difficult struggle without poisoned weapons. If we want reconciliation and a shared future in the long run, we had better figure out how not to slip into burdened so-called virtues.
Let’s think first of mistrust of all people on the “other side.” Hecuba learned only that Polymestor was untrustworthy, but she concluded that all men are untrustworthy. This is a common move in feminism (as in other struggles for equality). In my time, heterosexual women were often charged with disloyalty to the feminist cause, and the phrase “woman-oriented woman” was used to mean both “feminist” and “lesbian.” Some otherwise admirable feminist groups also advised their members not to collaborate professionally with males. (The same tendency can be found in other movements for equality.)
I gave my book chapter on Hecuba as a Eunice Belgum Memorial Lecture after her tragic suicide. A gifted PhD classmate of mine, Eunice had gotten a good job at a liberal arts college. Once there, she co-taught a class on feminism with a male (feminist) faculty member. At a meeting of the Society for Women in Philosophy (SWIP), of which Eunice was a member, she was denounced for betraying the cause by cooperating with a male faculty member. Her parents told me that she made many phone calls the day she committed suicide, including to female students in her class to apologize for corrupting their consciousness by trusting a male faculty member. I felt and feel that Eunice was (originally) correct and that SWIP was wrong. If we can’t form carefully sifted cooperations with well-intentioned people on the “other side,” we have no hope of eventual reconciliation. Thus the refusal of trust is not a “burdened virtue” in Tessman’s sense: it is not useful, and it retards the progress of the struggle.
Indeed, sometimes a struggle requires trust even without solid evidence of intentions. Nelson Mandela was no credulous weakling. His ability to trust others was combined with a secure and advanced critical capacity. Throughout the struggle in South Africa, he formed close bonds with white allies (including Denis Goldberg, a Rivonia codefendant, and Albie Sachs, later a distinguished judge). These friendships were carefully sifted over the years, partly through Mandela’s close ties to the South African Jewish community. Here, trust was well founded. But Mandela also took some risks in the trust department. During coverage of his funeral in 2013,
Let’s now think about anger. The feminist case for anger imagines anger as vigorous protest, the opposite of servile inactivity. As such, anger looks strong, indeed essential. However, we must begin by making a distinction. If we analyze anger into its component parts, as a long philosophical tradition in both Western and non-Western thought has done, it includes: pain at a perceived wrongful act that is thought to have affected the angry person, or some people or causes she cares a lot about. Here we already have lots of room for error: the person may be wrong about whether the act was wrongfully inflicted rather than just accidentally; she may be wrong about its significance. But let’s suppose that these thoughts withstand scrutiny: then anger (thus far) is an appropriate response to wrongdoing. It expresses a demand: this is wrong, and it should not happen again. It alludes to the past, but it faces forward and proposes to fix the world going into the future.
This is the type of anger that I have called transition anger, because it registers something that has already happened, but turns to the future for a remedy. This type of anger may be accompanied by proposals to punish the offender, but these proposals will understand punishment in one or more future-directed ways: as reform, as expression of important norms, as “specific deterrence” for that same offender, and as “general deterrence” for other offenders contemplating similar crimes.
If we can’t form carefully sifted cooperations with well-intentioned people on the ‘other side,’ we have no hope of eventual reconciliation.
Transition anger is indeed important for a struggle against injustice. It is outraged protest, and protest is important to draw attention to the wrong and energize people to address it. Nor does this type of anger “burden” the personality. It is exhilarating and liberating to face forward and imagine solutions to problems. Nor does this type of anger risk becoming obsessive or distorted.
However, let’s face it: this is not all that people usually mean by anger. Anger is rarely pure of a further element (present in all the philosophical definitions of anger I know, including Gandhi’s): the wish for payback, for commensurate pain to befall the aggressor. I’ve already said that transition anger can give a useful role to punishment, so it’s tricky to distinguish the future-directed type from the purely back-directed retributive type. But people are usually not pure in their orientation to future welfare. When struck, their impulse is to strike back. They so easily imagine that a counterbalancing pain on the other side annuls or undoes their pain or wrong. Hence the widespread support for capital punishment among relatives of homicide victims. Capital punishment has never been shown to have deterrent value. People call for it because of its alleged proportional retributive fittingness. Your child’s death is made good by the criminal’s death, or so it is all too easy to think.
We all know victims who focus obsessively on retributive fantasies and plans toward those who have wronged them. Virtually the entirety of divorce and child custody litigation is retributive in spirit, rarely aimed at equity and general welfare. Our major religions nourish retributive fantasies: the book of Revelation, for example, deserves Nietzsche’s judgment that it is an ugly revenge fantasy. And a study of the way “victim impact” statements have figured in criminal trials shows that they serve largely to ramp up the demand for harsh punishment of a retributive sort. Past injuries, however, are past. Pain creates more pain and does not repair the original injury. The proportionality of pain to past pain is, by itself, never a reason for a harsh punishment, and it typically distracts from the task of fixing the future.
Both Western and Indian philosophical traditions (the only non-Western ones I know enough about to speak) judge that ordinary anger is retributive; what I have called transition anger is exceptional. Studying the breakdown of marriages and friendships, one is inclined to agree. However, the numbers don’t matter: it is the distinction that matters, and this distinction has simply not been clearly made, throughout the whole philosophical tradition.
One is the development of a wholesome social organization to resist with effective, firm measures any efforts to impede progress. The other is a confused, anger-motivated drive to strike back violently, to inflict damage. Primarily, it seeks to cause injury to retaliate for wrongful suffering It is punitive—not radical or constructive.
I’m with King: the retaliatory sort is not useful to the struggle because it is confused and not constructive. Nor is it really “radical” in the sense of creating something new and better. King wanted accountability, legal punishment, and the public expression of shared values. He rejected pain for pain as easy, weak, and stupid.
• • •
The Weakness of the Furies
Feminism today needs a similar distinction. Anger is strong and valuable if it expresses well-grounded outrage and faces forward—with constructive ideas, a refusal of payback retributivism, and, let’s hope, a radical trust in what we may create by joining together. It is not strong and valuable if it indulges in easy retributivism, and we all know that getting stuck in retributivism is a common human weakness. If we see clearly the weakness of retributivism in the capital punishment context—and I believe most feminists do see that—it seems odd to defend retributivism as essential to feminist struggle. Strangely, however, even when the distinction between retributive anger and what I call transition anger has been announced and made central, as it was by King and as others have done in his spirit more recently, feminist discussions of anger’s value tends to ignore the distinction and ride roughshod over it—so hard it is to get one’s mind around the fact that there is an anger that eschews retribution.
We need to address the future, and for that we need an uncertain trust and a radical type of love.
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February 19, 2020
27 Min read time