On Rage As a Moral Emotion

It is not rare to see groups of enraged people engaged in destructive behavior when you turn on the news these days. Such behavior is puzzling when we think of the agents as rational choosers, since it is often obviously counterproductive. The agents end up in many respects worse off – the neighborhoods that get damaged in riots tend to be the ones rioters live or work in, above all, and violent resistance often invites a brutal response from those who hold the power and control the drones. So what’s the deal with rage? Does it make sense to act out of rage? Can rage be warranted? In this tentative exploration of the issue (I haven’t come across any philosophical literature on it), I’ll argue that it can be, and that when it is, much of the moral responsibility for the wrongful harm that results from acting out of rage belongs to those who have created the rage-warranting situation.

Rage, evidently, is a negative feeling that is a cousin of anger and hate. Yet it is not a species of either, as it presents its target differently, has different characteristic causes, and involves different motivation. To begin with, it seems to me that rage, at least the kind that interests me, has quite distinct causes. It is essentially a response to being driven into a corner, as you see it. What seem to you to be reasonable demands, rooted in basic needs, are denied and (at least typically) portrayed as unreasonable, or, frequently, manifest injustice is dressed up as justice. In your eyes, at least, you’re treated with pseudo-respect, when in fact you’re not respected.

At the same time, there seems to be no way out of the situation by deliberate, rational action that doesn’t hurt anyone. For what we might call rage from below, think of being entangled in a bureaucratic nightmare, some Catch-22 situation that poses a significant threat to the satisfaction of your basic needs. Maybe you’ve been hospitalized after an accident you weren’t responsible for, and you’re being bounced from counter to counter, call center to call center as your insurance company refuses payment, and you stand to lose your home as a result. Everything is done by the book, and you’re the one who is seen as unreasonable, although you’re a victim of injustice you believe anyone should see as such. For rage from above, so to speak, think of young John Lennon, who would fly off the handle at the slightest suspicion of a girlfriend’s infidelity or disloyalty. In addition to an exaggerated sense of entitlement, there was plausibly a deep-seated insecurity behind his response, exacerbated by the impossibility of controlling another person’s affections. (It’s not surprising that jealousy so often goes together with rage.) In this kind of rage, too, there’s the sense that one cannot see a way to get what one needs by deliberate action.

Rage motivates you to destroy, to get physical. Preferably destroy what you see as the obstacle to justice, but as it is often something intangible and impersonal, anything to hand. Action done out of rage isn’t strictly speaking goal-directed, so it isn’t fit to be assessed by the usual standards of instrumental rationality. It is at least close to purely expressive action. You can’t take it any more. You’re being told or it seems to you can’t do anything about your fate. But damn it, you can do something, anything. You can burn something, tear something to pieces, you can throw a rock at someone who tries to stop you. (Or verbally lash out at someone, engage in uncivil, abusive, expletive-ridden speech, or, milder again, play-act rage in song and dance, without actually hurting anyone.) In the case of rage from below, you may know you’ll lose, that you’ll at best annoy the powerful who have got a stranglehold over you, but at least you didn’t just take it. Acting out of rage can restore a kind of self-respect: even if you end up hurt much more than the bastards, at least you had the power, for a while, to disrupt their scheme, to expose to the world that all is not well.

I’ll say that rage is warranted (or, as some might say, rational) when one really is deprived of something important one is entitled to, particularly when a pseudo-reasonable justification is offered for it, and, due to machinations of those benefiting from such deprivation, one cannot change the situation without a significant cost to oneself or others. Often rage isn’t warranted. In the case of rage from below, there’s often an alternative way to change the situation, and in the case of rage from above, one’s sense of entitlement is mistaken to begin with. (I doubt if rage from above can ever be warranted.)

Even if rage is warranted, it doesn’t mean that actions done out of rage are morally permissible. The destruction that rage motivates is often indiscriminate (although, as Bryce Huebner pointed out to me, it may actually be more discriminate than it looks to an outsider.) You break the windows of a shop whose owner didn’t do anything to you, or pull a gun at a hapless minimum-wage customer service worker doing her job, or even lob a mortar round at a kibbutz just across the border. Such wrongful harm to others doesn’t become morally permissible when they are manifestations of warranted rage.

So I don’t endorse violence done out of rage. But I do want to say that when rage is warranted, at least a large part of the moral responsibility for the wrongful harm belongs to those who have created the situation in which rage is warranted, the people who impose unjust demands and close off every means-end rational path of resistance. It is a severe moral wrong to put someone in a rage-warranting situation. Blame is also shared by others who benefit from the situation, and bystanders capable of making a difference to it. In contrast, when acting out of rage, agents themselves temporarily shed some of the characteristics traditionally considered necessary for responsibility. It’s not a coincidence that people who act out of rage are often called ‘animals’ by their targets (current events are no exception). They’re not, of course, but in acting out of rage, they are throwing prudence to the wind and neglecting (if not blocking out) long-term consequences of their actions. They are, after all, in a jam they need to get out of, and reason tells them there’s nothing they can do, so it is no surprise that they shove their own reason aside. Unfortunately, observing this while ignoring the situation they’re in contributes to pernicious stereotypes, which reinforce the problems they face.

In the case of communities that are treated unjustly, rage is often rightly described as simmering. Perhaps with great effort, people hold back, knowing that it is likely to be counterproductive. But when there is no reward for non-violent resistance (for example, if after decades of civil rights movement, the criminal justice system is still severely biased against African-Americans from beginning to end, or if after years of ‘calm’, Palestinians are faced with more and more deprivation and humiliation), and something happens that dramatizes the injustice and powerlessness, it is not a surprise if rage boils over.

In spite of everything, when violence is a manifestation of rage, there is always a ray of hope. While hate is relatively insensitive to the actions of the hated person – it can famously attach to someone simply in virtue of who or what she is – rage isn’t. (You can be enraged with someone you love.) Dismantle the cage, and the rat will become man again. Hope, even a sliver of hope, dissipates rage from below. There’s the possibility of a genuine peace, if those responsible for the situation make a sincere apology, which entails an acknowledgement that the agents’ demands are and always were legitimate, and a visible change that indicates genuine commitment to changing things.

As I confessed at the beginning, these are baby steps in a philosophy of rage. My answers are provisional, and there’s many questions I haven’t even tried to answer. For example, what is the exact relation between rage and anger? Are rage from below and rage from above really the same feeling? How is collective rage related to individual rage? I welcome suggestions and corrections.

PS. Here’s a heuristic for when rage is warranted: imagine yourself in the situation of the agent, putting aside their actual, potentially false perception of it, and ask yourself: do you want to join in with Zack de la Rocha?

12 Replies to “On Rage As a Moral Emotion

  1. Really interesting stuff, Antti. There is some talk of rage in the responsibility literature, and it’s typically distinguished from attitudes like resentment in terms of (a) there being a judgment of having been wronged in the latter but not necessarily the former, and (b) the fact that animals rage too (whereas humans are distinctive in their resentment).
    I myself prefer to talk in terms of anger, not resentment, as a holding-responsible sentiment. And what’s interesting is that, in the psychological and philosophical literature on anger, there is a dispute over its relevant spark and action-tendency. Many philosophers, and some psychologists, follow Aristotle in thinking that it is a response to slights whose action-tendency is revenge/retribution. Many psychologists think that it is a response to goal-frustration whose action-tendency is eliminating the blockage (after all, bears and babies get angry). For my part, I see no reason to be an emotion-term chauvinist: these are just distinct and familiar syndromes that nevertheless overlap enough (perhaps in terms of phenomenological feel) that we refer to them often with the same term.
    It strikes me, then, that your “rage from below” has much in common with the goal-frustration model of anger, where it is just pitched at a very high-level. This is the sense in which we share the “anger/rage” with bears and babies. But the “rage from above” strikes me as a response to slights. Note that this can come from above (from someone with an overly strong sense of entitlement, a la Lennon), but it can also come “from the middle,” i.e., from those who have just been, well, really slighted, but they don’t have an overly strong sense of entitlement (it’s just right); they just want to be treated as the equals that they are. But that too could be just anger at a fever pitch.
    If it’s anger of these two sorts that you’re talking about, then the task of working out their fittingness conditions is much easier (as some work has already begun on it).
    Anyway, just some embryonic thoughts on your baby steps.

  2. Great post, and great questions! I really like your suggestion that rage (and probably anger when fitting) is connected to perceived injustice, that sounds right to me. In fact, I’d be curious to read about cases involving rage that do not involve justice.
    That said, I did have a question surrounding your attempt to separate rage from anger and hate. You say “Yet it (rage) is not a species of either, as it presents its target differently, has different characteristic causes, and involves different motivation.” But, I’m having a hard time seeing the difference between anger and rage. Anger occurs at all different times, though sometimes it manifests when one feels they are not being treated justly. This suggests that there might be a difference in degree and not of kind. I’m not sure that much is riding on this difference but it struck me this way nonetheless.
    Also, I did have a worry; you seem to be shifting the blame from the person acting out of rage to the individuals responsible for “causing the rage”. As if the persons provoking the rage were supposed to know that there actions would cause such a reaction. I’m thinking here of cases where an abusive husband batters his wife in a rage because she cheats on him. Yes, she caused him to be in a rage in one sense but surely she is not morally responsible for her beating.
    In some cases, sure, maybe the aggressor of the rage should have known better, but why think that such cases are the norm? Another question to ponder: should one be so overcome with emotion that they react without reflecting? Many would consider such an action a vice.

  3. Thanks, David! Relating types of anger to relative standing seems promising to me (and a nice way to reconcile contrasting approaches). I don’t have a huge problem with thinking of rage as a species of anger at a high pitch – it’s certainly closely related. But I’d like to emphasize its distinctive features a bit. Let’s first distinguish what we might call animal rage, which is triggered by at least somewhat persistent goal frustration (the f*ing computer froze up again), and interpersonal rage, which has to do with someone’s exercise of agency. I’m here interested in the latter.
    On the input side, frustration certainly seems to play a role especially in rage from below. But it seems to me that it’s specifically frustration resulting from the (perhaps tacit) realization that you’re in a lose-lose situation as a result of someone’s agency (possibly the diffuse agency of many). It needn’t be the case that they deliberately got you there, but they didn’t pay sufficient attention. Because it’s a lose-lose situation, practical reasoning is next to useless – it’ll just tell you that you minimize your losses by submission, self-respect be damned. Because of the submission element, I think the idea of being slighted also plays a role in this variety. (I hope I’m not being too specific – I’m thinking, in part, of my experiences of being enraged with college administration…)
    If this is right about rage from below, there may be more unity with rage from above than you suggest. (Incidentally, I used the Lennon example, as I’m reading Mark Lewinsohn’s Beatles bio as a moment, and he describes Lennon as being enraged in the kind of circumstance I discuss.) Why is the jealous guy enraged and not just angry? Well, psychologists often link anger with a sense of control. But here there’s loss of control, even if not for the same reason as in the case of rage from below. In spite of your repeated efforts, you can’t (in your own eyes) impose control to the degree that would satisfy you, yet you can’t walk out of the relationship either without emotional loss. (Do we get enraged with someone who doesn’t matter to us, except in the animal sense?) So once again you’re trapped, with no path to a desirable (or tolerable) situation visible – a lose-lose situation. Or, to vary the example: when things were going well, Hitler got angry with generals who made mistakes. But when he was by the time he was bunker-bound, he got enraged: he couldn’t get the generals to do what he wanted them to do (it was, in fact, impossible), yet he couldn’t get rid of them, because there was no one else left to do the job. (The famous scene from Der Untergang is of course a great depiction of this:

    “Das war ein Befehl!” etc. from 1:10 is enraged, not just angry.)
    So perhaps interpersonal rage is characteristically triggered by (or has as its core relational theme, or whatever) a specific kind of frustration. The difference from ordinary anger might be clearer on the output side. With anger, there’s a goal in sight, and a way to get there: make them suffer, and you’ll achieve retribution; hit the nail on the head, and they’ll see who you really are. But it seems to me that rage isn’t so focused. You already know you can’t eliminate the blockage and get to the goal. So you do things that are not instrumental to your goals, but at best mimic things that would be instrumental. You hit the glass ceiling (which you’re told doesn’t exist), and when you can’t smash it, you smash your stupid Worker of the Year award. If it’s true that rage motivates expressive or symbolic action, that seems like a clear difference from anger as ordinarily understood.
    Thanks again for forcing me to think of the difference harder, and for providing useful tools for it!

  4. Hi Antti (if I may),
    I agree with Dave that this is really interesting stuff. I wanted to offer a potential criticism of your account of warranted rage, and see what you might say in response.
    The way you put it above, it sounds like you’re talking about rage being warranted in the sense of being fitting, which I take to be a matter of the representational accuracy of rage.
    I see how rage can accurately depict its object in terms of depriving the subject of something important to which they are entitled, etc. My concern is that rage seems like a really strong emotional response, depicting it’s object as an act of especially egregious moral wrongdoing. So while I can see where rage might be fitting with regard to shape, I have a harder time with the idea that rage can be fitting in terms of size.
    Rage seems like a plausible candidate for an emotion that is always unfitting (or unwarranted, if you prefer that term) because although it accurately depicts it’s object as having a particular shape, rage is always disproportionately strong, and thus never fitting in terms of size.
    I’m not sure I actually agree with this criticism, but since you mentioned that these are baby steps in the philosophy of rage, I thought it appropriate to offer a baby-stepping comment, and see what you think.

  5. Hi Eli (if I may),
    Thanks for the nicely formulated challenge! I guess I’m not sure what you mean by ‘strong’. Let me offer a possible interpretation and defense.
    Suppose for simplicity that interpersonal rage presents its target as responsible for placing one in an intolerable lose-lose situation. (I’m trying to summarize some of the loose things I’ve said above. Note that I think that when we speak precisely, we should talk about the quasi-perception involved in the emotion itself rather than its causes.) On one common view of fittingness (which I happen to reject, but let’s assume I’m wrong, as I may well be), an emotion is fitting when things are as it presents. So then being enraged with S is fitting when S is responsible for placing one in an intolerable lose-lose situation. Here the notion of strength seems to have no place; it’s all about accuracy.
    Strength does come in the picture when we think about the intense phenomenal character and motivational role of rage. If fittingness has to do with manifesting an emotion in action (and I’ve argued something along those lines), then there’s a prima facie challenge to what I say above. (Does the distinction between these two ways of thinking about fittingness match your distinction of fittingness of shape and size?) But I think here the good old wrong kind of reasons come to rescue. We might think acting out of rage isn’t appropriate all things considered, or isn’t morally appropriate. But that’s just to say that we shouldn’t act out of rage, or morally shouldn’t do so, which is compatible with the emotion being fitting.
    Does this sound right to you?

  6. Justin, something funny must have happened with your comment – I’m only seeing it now, and didn’t get an email notification. This is just a quick note to emphasize that I didn’t ignore you, and will reply as soon as I get a proper chance!

  7. Antti, I’m interested in the role played by ‘rage provocateurs’ here. You want to attribute some responsibility to these provocateurs for the subsequent rage-ful behaviors. Two issues here:
    1. Suppose rage is a response to perceived injustice, and in particular a response to feeling powerless to react constructively to that injustice. There are two possibilities regarding the provocateurs: either they knowingly act unjustly and prompt rage, or they act unjustly from ignorance and so prompt rage. What would you say about responsibility of the latter sort? It seems to me that those who (on your view) might share responsibility for rage typically believe they have done nothing unjust (which of course is part of what stokes rage!).
    2. The former sort strikes me as especially vicious. I’m thinking here of bullies who verbally taunt someone repeatedly in the hope of provoking the person’s rage. (Like Ralphie in ‘A Christmas Story,’ who goes ballistic on the neighborhood bully.) When this works, there seems to me to be something akin to moral injury going on: http://bit.ly/1lwVwPu
    The bullying provocateur leads someone else to lose control of their sense of justice and behave violently or indiscriminately, which is a kind of injury to a decent person’s moral sensibility.
    Anyway – cool topic!

  8. Antti,
    That’s helpful, and at first glance, it sounds somewhat plausible to me. That said, let me first try to clarify what I mean when I say that rage is always too strong, and that this bears on the representational accuracy of rage. Frankly, I’m not sure if what you’ve said about fittingness corresponds to the distinction I’m drawing between shape and size. I’ll add discussion of your view to my reading list, and get back to you. 🙂
    When I say that rage is too strong, I mean to say that it presents its object as a more serious injustice than it really is. So while rage may accurately depict its object in terms of an unjust denial of something to which one is entitled, etc., I want to suggest that rage also depicts this injustice as something really terrible, not just an injustice but an extremely serious, egregious wrong, as morally repugnant as any wrong that’s ever been inflicted. To put it another way, rage always exaggerates the seriousness of the injustice to which it is a response.
    When I say that rage is always too strong, and that this is a problem of representational accuracy, what I mean to say is that rage depicts its object as a more serious wrong than anything could ever be, and that this is true even where one’s rage is a response to the sort of injustice you describe.
    I’m still not sure I think that’s right, but that’s what I was getting at. I hope that this explanation is somewhat clearer.
    Since this is a blog, let me also ask an admittedly naïve follow-up regarding the notion of fittingness as it pertains to emotions manifesting in action. Is the thought here that rage motivates us to destroy, and that rage manifest as destruction is fitting when it’s a response to the sort of injustice you’ve described? If so, could one still press that rage is always unfitting because no injustice is so serious as to justify wanton destruction? I see how that could be construed as a moral concern, but couldn’t someone plausibly raise this criticism in non-moral terms? For instance, could someone say that apart from moral concerns about rage, the wanton destruction that rage motivates is always an overreaction to the eliciting conditions, because nothing is ever so terrible as to justify such action? Again, I see how that could be construed as a moral concern, but I’m curious if you find it plausible as a non-moral concern.

  9. OK, everyone, thanks for the great comments! Let me try out a few replies.
    First, Justin (finally): I hope what I said earlier in response to David helped clarify the relation between anger and rage. On the wife-beater – well, I take it that it’s a case of rage from above, in which case it’s not warranted according to my sketch. So there’s no transfer of responsibility to the rage provocateur (to borrow Michael’s nice term). The point about self-control is a good one. Mauno Koivisto, the former president of Finland, used to say “When someone provokes you, you shouldn’t be provoked.” And maybe that’s true, all things considered. What I find intriguing is the following possible combination: Even if B’s actions warrant A’s being enraged with B, A shouldn’t (all things considered, or morally speaking) be enraged with B. However, if A nevertheless is enraged with B, and acts wrongly, B is co-responsible for that harm.
    Second, Eli (since this picks up on the point), thanks for the clarification. The issue hangs on the exact content of rage, if we take the accuracy line. It’s not easy to settle what it is. But I think that if what I say about the dissipation of rage is along the right lines, it can’t present its target as the most egregious wrong possible. Presumably some hope for room for action isn’t going to reduce our desire to punish the worst possible kind of wrong. But it seems to transform rage. I think that’s one argument in favour of thinking that the extreme element of rage doesn’t contribute to its content, but only its motivational role. (Side note: this depends in part on what we think is the source of the representational content of an emotion. Jesse Prinz would say, roughly, that emotions represent characteristic triggers. That would support my line, I think. But I think the content derives from phenomenal character. That makes my view harder to defend, but, I think, still defensible.)
    On justification: I want to say that even if fittingness is a matter of ideal endorsement of manifestation, it’s distinct from justification of the action that manifests the emotion. So rage might be fitting, even if acting on it isn’t in any way justified.
    Michael: thanks for your comment, will reply soon!

  10. Even if displays of rage are always counterproductive in themselves, it can be very much in your interests to be THOUGHT to be prone to fly off the handle, for this will discourage others from crossing you. And perhaps the most effective way gain a such as reputation is really to BE prone to fly off the handle. Think of wanton displays of violence by prominent gangsters.
    This doesn’t of course justify rage, but may be an important part of its explanation. See Robert Frank, Passions within Reason, 1988.

  11. Thanks, David! I like Frank’s book a lot, though I confess I didn’t think of it while writing this. I suppose your point is essential to explaining why we have an emotion with such seemingly counterproductive action tendencies in the first place.

  12. And Michael (in the off chance that you might still read this), sorry again for failing to reply to your very helpful suggestions! (I was in the very rare situation of staying in a place without an Internet connection for a week, and eventually forgot about the whole thing.) To be honest, I still don’t have much to add. I agree with your point 2. On the first point, I think it matters whether the provocateur’s ignorance is culpable or not. And I suspect that in a lot of real life cases of rage from below, the ignorance is indeed culpable – the powerful should (and are in a position to) know that what they’re doing to the weak is unjust.

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