Anger: Sin Or Virtue? Essay, Research Paper
Anger is a common emotion felt by everyone, often many times a day. Whether it is road rage experienced when driving during rush hour traffic or the feeling of outrage associated with learning of social injustices half way across the world, anger is a part of our daily practice. It is an emotion that has been categorized, along with other emotions and acts, into the seven deadly sins of man. Why is this considered a sin? Why do we feel this anger? Can getting angry ever have a positive effect on our lives or is it always negative? What step should be taken against certain angers? In this paper I hope to discuss the nature of anger. We will look closer at anger as a vice and as a possible virtue. I would like to offer my opinion of how to use anger and the control of anger to optimize happiness in our lives. Hopefully, this will help us learn more about the deadly sin of anger.
In ethics we study the seven deadly sins to help us identify what is important in trying to achieve the good life. When talking about sin we are inclined to refer to vice. A vice is a character trait that detracts one from living the good life. A person’s idea of vice is then dependent on their definition of the good life. Let us not burden ourselves with varied definitions at this point. For the sake of this paper let us identify the good life as a maximization of true pleasure and a minimization of true pain for an individual and those around him or her. In contrast to vice we have virtue. Virtue is some character trait that leads one to living the good life. It is important to distinguish between the two in our study of anger. Anger is very often thought of as a vice. Christian philosophies, in particular, view anger in this manner.
It is without a doubt that anger can bring pain to oneself and to others. At times anger can seem irrational and violent. Seneca views this vice as the most chaotic:
“…the other emotions have in them some element of peace and calm, while this one (anger) is wholly violent and has its being in an onrush of resentment, raging with a most inhuman lust for weapons, blood, and punishment, giving no thought to itself if only it can hurt another, hurling itself upon the very point of the dagger, and eager for revenge though it may drag down the avenger along with it. (Seneca, 107)”
Some people have a different idea of its nature. The philosophies of Aristotle insist that anger can be just. Is it ok to be to be upset at the murder of a loved one? Seneca says no. Even in the most extreme of circumstances one must maintain control over their anger. No action should be taken against the perpetrator. Aristotle believes that it is necessary. The vice lies in the excess and deficiency of anger. As applied to his “doctrine of the mean state” this would imply that anger is only sinful when there is too much or too little. If some anger is necessary then it might be the case that Aristotle could view certain angers as virtuous.
Let us examine a particular case in which I was angered and decide how this was or was not sinful. I was working as a host at a restaurant when I was still in high school. I learned of a scheme that the waiters would run to steal money from the restaurant without the owner finding out. When I discovered this I was outraged. It was the injustice that angered me. I reacted nonviolently when I informed the owner. Actions were taken to see that those waiters were fired.
If we take this and break it down into four parts we might be better able to study this situation. First of all, a supposed injustice occurred. Secondly, I react by getting angered at the idea of the wrongfulness that had taken place (apparent injustice is the most common cause of anger). Thirdly, I calmly take action against to seek that which I think is right. And finally, punishment was carried out. Is angered justified in any or all of these circumstances. Seneca would say that regardless of the fact that I was seeking a higher moral good, I cause myself pain at the onset of anger. A better, ideal reaction would be one of the same outcomes minus the pain of anger. I believe that Aristotle would focus on parts one, two, and four. At this point we would have to decide how to respond. Taken into account all that has happened, I would have to believe that Aristotle would mostly agree that this act was not sinful. A lack of anger would cause a state of deficiency while too much anger would cause a state of excess. If the characteristic, anger in this situation, is not a vice, is it a virtue?
Aristotle believes in the existence of justified anger in specific instances. He also believes that justice is a type of virtue. In other words, a just act is one of virtue. Aristotle says in order for an act to be just the agent performing the act must:
“…know what he is doing, secondly that he should deliberately choose to do it and to do it for its own sake, and thirdly that he should do it as an instance of a settled and immutable state. (Aristotle, 42)”
So if in action I were to meet all these requirements not only would the feeling of anger not be sinful, but it could be credited with yielding virtue. However, it is rather unlikely that all conditions were met. So in my particular case this did not yield an act of virtue.
Where does the sin of anger lie? How can we live a life with less anger? The ideal way to combat against anger for Seneca is to avoid getting angry. However, this is somewhat impractical. If anger does occur one must then try the method of suppression. Many modern day psychologists say that this may cause a build up of rage. Dolf Zillmann, psychologist and professor at the University of Alabama, agrees with this idea. Through many lengthy experiments he has concluded that an increase in rage occurs as “a sequence of provocations, each triggering an excitatory reaction that dissipates slowly (Goleman, 61).” I believe that this is an important area of study for this topic because we are ultimately trying to find that which makes us happy. This makes me also consider the idea of suppression to be an unwarranted. The approach to the problem that seems most reasonable to me is that of forgiveness. Once an “unjust” act has been committed the agent must review and assess the act. The main goal in this assessment is to come to an understanding or at least a conclusion that lacks anger. This is the ultimate end.
As I see it anger is ever present. To attempt avoidance is foolish. To say “live a life without anger” is as intense of a statement as saying “live a life without emotion”. To me it is less the emotion that is the vice. In my opinion it is the resulting action that could be considered unjust and in turn sinful. All that we can use to develop an idea of one’s personality is how the respond to different emotions. If there were nothing to evaluate how would we then interact with one another? Anger, in this respect, could be argued as virtuous. The lack of anger could result in a problematic society. Conversely, the excess of anger could result it a similar fashion. One could image that effect as one of self-interest. Thomas Hobbes maybe put it best in his description of the “State of Nature”:
“In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the Earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (Hobbes, 82-208)”
By this argument, although somewhat far-fetched, I see there no other way than to at least consider anger as a possible virtue.
I would have to mostly identify with Aristotle’s idea of mean and deficiency. It is the constant struggle between too much and too little of everything that leads one to the most paramount of lifestyles. It is exceedingly important to know with what and when to be angry. This is the most difficult of decisions. Vice is associated with the “bad” decisions. Who chooses what is “good” and what is “bad”? Those around you are the judges. This makes it difficult to choose the “right” action. One can ignore that which society thinks and establish their own ideas of what is right or wrong. Unfortunately, this could easily bring pain, and that would be sinful. Definitions can be dreadfully ambiguous in point of our study. Consequently, we must call upon the relevance of relativity. Intricacies can lie in who is judging and how they judge. A virtuous man would be capable of determining when anger would be considered justified by his peers. This would include knowing when to react to anger, how to react to anger, and the degree to which it should be expressed.
Anger can easily be expressed in a nonviolent manner. This seems to be the most virtuous response to anger. It would be rare for an individual to view nonviolent confrontation as an unfavorable reaction to anger. Therefore, I believe if anger is necessary one must act with serenity. It is also a conviction of mine that the suppression of anger would only lead to complacency. This only reinforces the idea that I stated earlier that suppression in an insufficient means to end anger. If change is necessary, which in some circumstances it is, outrage is invoked. This is when nonviolent action is most crucial. Acts of malice could possible achieve the same end, however the corollaries are more likely to be costly than those of serenity. Let us take history as an example. Rosa Parks, obviously unhappy with her current situation, decided to take a stand. Through nonviolent means her point was made and millions got her message. She was fined ten dollars and had to pay four dollars in court costs. In attempts to end slavery John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry resulted in the death of ten men, two of which were his sons. He was later sentenced to death by hanging. I am not pleading that in all cases nonviolent means will satisfy the end effectively. My only point is that a more desirable outcome is more apt.
Anger can be both virtue and vice. It is a necessary component in accomplishing the good life. Aristotle explains its nature best through excess and deficiency. Anger in these two states would be considered a vice by his standards and mine as well. Rage is an emotion often felt and is unavoidable. It is how the emotion is used that is most noteworthy. Anger in excess might cause undesirable outcome in the forms of violence or physical rage. Anger in deficiency could yield complacency and living a life that is unsatisfactory. Virtuous acts when dealing with anger are those that generate desirable outcome without pain. I conclude that this is an achievable, desired state or at least one worth attempting.
Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. London: Macmillan and Company, 1934. Pgs.41-53.
Seneca. Moral Essays. In Three Volumes. Volume I, “On Anger”. London: William Heinemann LTD. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Pgs. 107-355.
Schimmel, Solomon. The Seven Deadly Sins. “Anger.” New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1997 Pgs. 83-110.
Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. “Anger Builds on Anger.” New York, Toronto, London, Sydney, and Auckland: Bantam Books. October 1995. Pgs. 61-62.
Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia. 1999.