The Moral Nature Of Anger

There is an oft-voiced contention that anger is most usually what we might call a "moral" emotion—a response to personal offence. Consequently, for a thorough understanding of anger we need to appreciate the judgements of blame and the attributions of intent that are involved. The fact that anger usually involves such moral judgements emphasises the role of the cognitive processes of appraisal and interpretation as integral parts of the anger experience. There is considerable historical agreement as to the exact ways in which these interpretations and appraisals are involved in the generation of anger: Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Lactantius, Aquinas, and Descartes (see Chapter 2) all suggest that anger is the result of an appraisal of some deliberate, negligent, or at least avoidable, slight or wrongdoing; that the anger is most usually directed at another person (although clearly it can be directed at the self or inanimate objects); and that the desires (or action potentials) associated with anger consist of punishment for, or correction of, the wrong that has been carried out. This analysis clearly raises questions concerning what constitutes a deliberate wrongdoing and under what conditions it is therefore appropriate to feel anger and so on—the issues, in fact, that were raised by Aristotle in the quote with which we opened this chapter.

As a rider to this moral viewpoint, most of the ancient philosophers have endorsed the suggestion that anger is a singularly adult and a uniquely human emotion, because subhuman animals (and human infants) lack the cognitive processes necessary to form judgements about whether events are unjustified, deliberate, or arise through negligence. As Seneca argued: "Beasts and all animals, except man, are not subject to anger; for while it is the foe of reason, it is nevertheless born only where reason dwells" (De Ira, p. 115). Furthermore, historical teachings on anger suggest that the wrongdoing or slight will have been committed by another human being; again, because only human actions can be judged in moral terms.

In sum, there is considerable historical and philosophical consensus that anger is a moral emotion involving attributions of intent towards a recognisable, usually human, agent for a personal offence. In the next section we consider some of the research in contemporary psychology that has sought to examine these issues and comment on some of the limitations of this viewpoint.

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