"Moral Anger' And The Virtue of Meekness




I’ve been arguing against moral anger ever since the day Dorothy Day chided me in a letter, “But isn’t anger a sin?” (At that period I was arguing that feminists should cultivate anger as a means to energize the struggle for women's equality.)  My conversion to peaceful non violent resistance necessitated giving up anger and embracing meekness in all its forms—such as compassion, gentleness, charity, forgiveness and kindliness.     

 Now I have found some surprising support in philosopher Glen Pettigrew’s article in  Ethics  (Volume 122,January 2012) “Meekness and “Moral Anger.’” Pettigrew seeks to rehabilitate and endorse meekness as a crucially important personal and civic virtue.  As a philosopher he invokes the authority of 18th century thinkers such as Hume, Shaftesbury, and Butler.   They champion meekness as an important personal and civic virtue and define its core as the ability to govern one’ temper when provoked and act with calm beneficence.   

Pettigrew declares that the virtue of meekness doesn’t mean devaluating yourself or becoming mindlessly submissive.  Nor does it entail ignorance, indifference or approval of moral transgressions and evils.  After all the great exemplars of the virtue in history, such as Socrates, Buddha and Christ, dedicated themselves to achieve moral revolutions for the sake of others.  Neither could modern exemplars of the virtue of meekness, such as Ghandi, King and Mandela, be accused of moral apathy or ineffectiveness. 

 Moral anger, by contrast, despite its great press, actually has many drawbacks.  It alienates others and provokes their defensive opposition to changing.  When individuals are provoked and give way to anger they do not find catharsis, but enkindle more anger.  Anger distorts balanced judgment and  lessens accurate appraisals of risks. When an offended person seeks redress or revenge they tend to misread others and miscalculate situations.  Instant angry aggressive responses may have served survival in the primitive evolutionary past, but they are counter productive in developed societies.

Christians who seek to love their neighbor as themselves and follow Jesus can understand that anger and contempt are sinful. When Jesus showed bursts of anger it seems more a sorrowing lament over human hardness of heart. Much more consistently and essentially Jesus models and preaches forgiveness and love of enemies.  Since love leads to creativity, mutuality and peace, it is true that the meek will be blessed or deeply happy.   And yes, the meek also will inherit the earth.  Why? Because anger seeks to annihilate the offense and destroy all before it.  How then can anger be moral?  







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ed gleason
6 years 9 months ago
I would say, only the re-action to anger has a moral component. The emotion, anger, is an internal  emotion spontaneously occurring due to outside stimuli, and only the resulting behavior has a moral component. Jesus overturning the tables was a justice action, therefore quite moral.  
Gregory Popcak
6 years 9 months ago
Great reflection, Sidney.  I like to make the distinction between anger and wrath.  Anger, as an emotion, is a gift from God.  (It has to be since it's a product of our God-given neuroendocrine system). I believe anger is the emotional warning bell that alerts us to a possible injustice.  I would argue that the proper response to anger is to first take it to prayer, second evaluate the nature (or the actual reality) of the injustice and third, make a plan to address the injustice.  

By contrast, wrath is anger that is either not intended to address an injustice (and is therefore manipulative or self-serving as opposed to serving the common good), or leads to a disproportionate response to an injustice.  Metaphorically speaking, justice isn't served by hunting bunny rabbits with an elephant gun!

In short, I think anger is to wrath what, say, desire is to lust, or hunger is to gluttony.  That is, it's a disproportionate and destructive manifestation of an otherwise God-given drive that, in its poper context, leads to healthy functioning and rightly ordered relationships.
Kay Satterfield
6 years 9 months ago
I understand what you are getting at in this article.  Martin Luther King strove to win people over instead of bowling them over in the civil rights movement.  It's my understanding that he got this idea from Ghandi.  I do think that anger like what someone might have for a social injustice can propel that person to actions that can bear good fruit.  Anger is a normal human emotion and in my opinion is not all together bad, it's how you chose to channel it.
Michael Barberi
6 years 9 months ago
Meekness or patience is one of the seven capital virtues. Meekness helps to overcome the sin of unjust anger and vengence. To be angry pe se is not a sin. Like all virtues one must seek the mean, as Aristotle said. The mean of a virtue is not necessarily the "mid point" between the two extremes. It can be closer to one end than the other. Prudence is necessary. 

What we lack is a theory of virtue, or virtue ethics, that is not abstract. For example, "to be just" is ambiguous because this is insufficient to answer complex quesions and cases. In real life we encounter many situations where a conflict of virtue and values can cause moral dilemma. In centuries past, and to a certain extent today, people needed guidance. It was easy for the Church to issues a series of do's and don'ts, or juritical rules, norms and moral absolutes. This was the foundational basis of the moral manuals to help priests hear confession, determine if a sin was committed and then to appropriate a penance. However, some moral absolutes are themselves problematic in their application to complex ethical cases where the norm is unreasonable and insensible given the facts and circumstances, virtues and values.

David Pasinski
6 years 9 months ago
Don't wrtte off anger.
Augustine's words...

"Hope has two beautiful daughter-anger and courage; anger at the way things often are and courage to change them towhat they ought to be."
Crystal Watson
6 years 9 months ago
I think you're wrong about moral anger and especially about Jesus.  He was passionately angry at the religious leaders of his time ... "woe to you ..."

I read an article recently on wrath at Thinking Faith (http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20120405_1.htm) in which Philip Endean SJ writes ...

"To the extent that Christianity reinforces social norms, it finds various ways of marginalising, even condemning anger. But to the extent that Christianity is an agency of change and conversion, both social and individual, anger is an important source of positive energy. The perception of unmet needs provokes responses that can be termed angry: if the perceptions are correct, then the anger is righteous, a hunger and thirst for justice that is to be sustained, not repressed."


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