The Pleasures Of Anger

Anger is toxic, corrosive, and damaging; it is the poison we imbibe to hurt others. But like other substances described as ‘poisons’ anger is also intoxicating. As those who have ever felt ‘the red mist’ draw down over their eyes will readily testify, an outburst of anger is wholly controlling; a terrifying loss of self-control. But not one that is wholly unpleasant. And thus anger may be addictive too.

As the experience of happiness can be pleasurable, so can that of anger. This aspect of anger may partially explain its resilience in our emotional frameworks; part of the adaptive character of anger, its continuing survival, might be the pleasure it affords its ‘sufferers.’  Anger is difficult to control, to ‘reign in’; an acknowledgement of the pleasure anger provides may enable us to understand why ‘pointless anger’ and ‘raging’ and ‘venting’ exercise the hold they do. Those driven to drink wake up with hangovers; it is the price they pay for the pleasures of the night before. Those driven to anger may pay the price of broken relationships to experience the pleasures of the red mist. Those who require anger management require treatment in much the same way substance addicts do; they have found a source of once-pleasurable indulgence that has ‘gone wrong.’

There is little doubt about anger’s constructive qualities;  we are exhorted to ‘get, and stay, angry’ if we want to bring about change in this world; we are asked to cultivate an emotion supposed corrosive. Anger appears as a vital tool of our emotional arsenal; a good slave and a bad master. Anger makes us uncomfortable; in seeking to rid ourselves of it, we find the motivation to bring about desired moral and political change. But anger provides too, a space for indulgence of exhilaration. The experience of anger can be feelings of power and moral superiority. These are not unpleasant emotions.

Anger, a primary moral emotion, cannot play the vital constructive role it plays in moral condemnation and outrage unless it provided an affective state that was ‘welcoming’, one that provided more ‘comfort’ than the state of non-arousal from which it represents a departure.  Moral anger has the motivational and affective force that it does precisely because moral anger is pleasurable too. To feel that anger is to feel alive; to deny that anger is to anesthetize ourselves. The angry person told to ‘work through’ his anger, to ‘get over it,’ to ‘overcome it,’ is asked to substitute a bland, affect-less state for a pleasurable, emotionally charged one. Anger is not just frustration or fear writ large; anger is an uncontrollable itch, indulgence in which brings relief and pleasure. In anger we let ourselves be overcome, taken over. Such occupations will not proceed as smoothly as they do if they were taking place in an unreceptive environment.

We condemn some forms of pleasure-seeking—perhaps free soloing, which is dangerous, encourages reckless copycats, and leaves families anxious and scared. We might condemn the angry in similar terms.  The addict’s pleasure seeking is condemnation-worthy when it interferes with life projects; his own and those of others. These are the grounds on which we may condemn the addict. And the angry.

A Bad Argument Against Same-Sex Marriage

I would have scarcely believed it possible, but a few short hours after teaching the naturalistic fallacy in my Philosophy of Biology class, I was exposed to an argument–from a professional philosopher–that, roughly, same-sex marriage is problematic because a) marriage is all about procreation and the raising of children and because b) evolution tell us that reproductive success is important, therefore: Gay marriage should be frowned upon. This resistance then, has nothing to do with religion, God, or the divine sanctification. Rather, it is the scientific thing to do: resist gay marriage because it is against evolutionary demands made on us as a species. This means that active disapproval of homosexuality–societal and legal discrimination for instance–is an expression of a biological instinct and should not be condemned as a moral failing.

The outlines of this argument should be familiar to most folks. It has been made time and again and despite having been spectacularly debunked, it rises again and again, like a zombie, or your favorite refusing-to-die cinematic ghoul.

What this argument attempts–and fails–to do is derive a proposition with normative import from a set of propositions that are purely descriptive. This–as David Hume pointed out a long time ago in his A Treatise of Human Natureis an instance of the naturalistic fallacy, an attempt to bridge the is-ought gap:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

This fallacy manifests itself in the current situation as follows. There are biological facts about us: We reproduce, we pass on our genes, various reproductive strategies are adopted, some work better than the others (in securing more offspring to whom we can pass on our genes). This much can be ascertained by observation and measurement. But what should  we do on noting these observations? The proponent of the argument noted above, wants to derive the following: Those reproductive strategies that work ‘better’ are ‘good’, and therefore should be encouraged, should be praised. The rest should be condemned. (Marriage, it will be noted, has been admitted as a successful reproductive strategy; this is a matter of empirical assessment and could well turn out to be false.)

But whence ‘better’, whence ‘good’? Why is ‘reproductive success’ a moral good to be sought? What is the source of that valuation and why is it allowed to override other values in the derivation above? Might we be allowed to admit other values in arriving at an alternative conclusion? Like, for instance, a more tolerant society is a ‘better’ society than one that isn’t? But then, we would be opening up a debate–conducted within some broad ethical and moral frameworks–on valuation, which is precisely what our protagonist didn’t want. He merely wanted the straightforward elevation of reproductive success to the preeminent moral value without further debate.

The tireless proponents of the so-called evolutionary arguments against same-sex marriage forget that efforts to read normative judgments off the historical workings out of the evolutionary process have as much difficulty in bridging the is-ought gap as any other species of argument. Calling upon biology here is not the scientifically sophisticated thing to do; it is merely to reveal one’s ignorance of the limitations of evolutionary explanation.