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Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on Anger, Forgiveness, the Emotional Machinery of Trust, and the Only Fruitful Response to Betrayal in Intimate Relationships

“All too often, anger becomes an alluring substitute for grieving, promising agency and control when one’s real situation does not offer control… Anger is often well-grounded, but it is too easy for it to hijack the necessary mourning process.”

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on Anger, Forgiveness, the Emotional Machinery of Trust, and the Only Fruitful Response to Betrayal in Intimate Relationships

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their terrific forgotten conversation about forgiveness and the difference between guilt and responsibility. “To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt,” philosopher David Whyte echoed half a century later in contemplating anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means. And yet the dance of anger and forgiveness, performed to the uncontrollable rhythm of trust, is perhaps the most difficult in human life, as well as one of the oldest.

The moral choreography of that dance is what philosopher Martha Nussbaum explores in Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (public library).

Martha Nussbaum

Nussbaum, who has previously examined the intelligence of the emotions and whom I consider the most incisive philosopher of our time, argues that despite anger’s long cultural history of being seen as morally justifiable and as a useful signal that wrongdoing has taken place, it is a normatively faulty response that masks deeper, more difficult emotions and stands in the way of resolving them. Consequently, forgiveness — which Nussbaum defines as “a change of heart on the part of the victim, who gives up anger and resentment in response to the offender’s confession and contrition” — is also warped into a transactional proposition wherein the wrongdoer must earn, through confession and apology, the wronged person’s morally superior grace.

Nussbaum outlines the core characteristics and paradoxes of anger:

Anger is an unusually complex emotion, since it involves both pain and pleasure [because] the prospect of retribution is pleasant… Anger also involves a double reference—to a person or people and to an act… The focus of anger is an act imputed to the target, which is taken to be a wrongful damage.

Injuries may be the focus in grief as well. But whereas grief focuses on the loss or damage itself, and lacks a target (unless it is the lost person, as in “I am grieving for so-and-so”), anger starts with the act that inflicted the damage, seeing it as intentionally inflicted by the target — and then, as a result, one becomes angry, and one’s anger is aimed at the target. Anger, then, requires causal thinking, and some grasp of right and wrong.


Notoriously, however, people sometimes get angry when they are frustrated by inanimate objects, which presumably cannot act wrongfully… In 1988, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article on “vending machine rage”: fifteen injuries, three of them fatal, as a result of angry men kicking or rocking machines that had taken their money without dispensing the drink. (The fatal injuries were caused by machines falling over on the men and crushing them.)

Beneath this tragicomic response lies a combination of personal insecurity, vulnerability, and what Nussbaum calls status-injury (or what Aristotle called down-ranking) — the perception that the wrongdoer has lowered the social status of the wronged — conspiring to produce a state of exasperating helplessness. Anger, Nussbaum argues, is how we seek to create an illusion of control where we feel none.

Art by JooHee Yoon from The Tiger Who Would Be King, James Thurber’s parable of the destructiveness of status-seeking

She writes:

Anger is not always, but very often, about status-injury. And status-injury has a narcissistic flavor: rather than focusing on the wrongfulness of the act as such, a focus that might lead to concern for wrongful acts of the same type more generally, the status-angry person focuses obsessively on herself and her standing vis-à-vis others.


We are prone to anger to the extent that we feel insecure or lacking control with respect to the aspect of our goals that has been assailed — and to the extent that we expect or desire control. Anger aims at restoring lost control and often achieves at least an illusion of it. To the extent that a culture encourages people to feel vulnerable to affront and down-ranking in a wide variety of situations, it encourages the roots of status-focused anger.

Nowhere is anger more acute, nor more damaging, than in intimate relationships, where the stakes are impossibly high. Because they are so central to our flourishing and because our personal investment in them is at its deepest, the potential for betrayal there is enormous and therefore enormously vulnerable-making. Crucially, Nussbaum argues, intimate relationships involve trust, which is predicated on inevitable vulnerability. She considers what trust actually means:

Trust … is different from mere reliance. One may rely on an alarm clock, and to that extent be disappointed if it fails to do its job, but one does not feel deeply vulnerable, or profoundly invaded by the failure. Similarly, one may rely on a dishonest colleague to continue lying and cheating, but this is reason, precisely, not to trust that person; instead, one will try to protect oneself from damage. Trust, by contrast, involves opening oneself to the possibility of betrayal, hence to a very deep form of harm. It means relaxing the self-protective strategies with which we usually go through life, attaching great importance to actions by the other over which one has little control. It means, then, living with a certain degree of helplessness.

Is trust a matter of belief or emotion? Both, in complexly related ways. Trusting someone, one believes that she will keep her commitments, and at the same time one appraises those commitments as very important for one’s own flourishing. But that latter appraisal is a key constituent part of a number of emotions, including hope, fear, and, if things go wrong, deep grief and loss. Trust is probably not identical to those emotions, but under normal circumstances of life it often proves sufficient for them. One also typically has other related emotions toward a person whom one trusts, such as love and concern. Although one typically does not decide to trust in a deliberate way, the willingness to be in someone else’s hands is a kind of choice, since one can certainly live without that type of dependency… Living with trust involves profound vulnerability and some helplessness, which may easily be deflected into anger.

One of William Blake’s illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost

Another element that makes intimate relationships a special case is how deeply we experience their breakdown. Nussbaum writes:

The damage involved in the breakdown of an intimate relationship … is internal and goes to the heart of who one is… Beyond a certain point there is really no place to go, except into your own heart — and what you find there is likely to be pretty unpleasant. So there is something lonely and isolating about these harms; they involve a profound helplessness. Once again, this helplessness can easily be deflected into anger, which gives the illusion of agency and control.

She points to one more singular feature of intimate relationships and their breakdown — the simultaneous and often confusing coexistence of positive and negative emotions toward the person whom we once loved and whose painful betrayal has now spun us into anger. (This might well share psychological underpinnings with the paradox of why frustration is essential for satisfaction while falling in love.) Nussbaum considers the complexities of this duality:

We typically form intimate relationships with people we like. We choose our spouses, and even though parents do not choose their children or children their parents, there is typically, in cases that are not really awful, a symbiosis that produces liking on both sides, though adolescence certainly obscures this. Most other people in the world, by contrast, are not people with whom one would choose to live. It’s pretty easy to find them irritating, or off-putting, or even disgusting. How many people who sit next to one by chance on an airplane are people with whom one would be happy living in the same house for an extended period of time? But a spouse, a lover, a child — these people are welcomed, and there usually remains something nice about them that is not utterly removed by whatever it is they have done. The target of anger is the person, but its focus is the act, and the person is more than the act, however difficult it is to remember this. This nice something could become another knife to twist in the wound of betrayal (to the extent that a person is appealing, it’s harder to say good riddance), but on the other hand it could also be a basis for constructive thought about the future — in a restored relationship or some new connection yet to be invented.

Nussbaum, who has written brilliantly about the nuanced relationship between agency and victimhood, turns a skeptical eye toward the common cultural mythology of anger as a response indicative of self-respect. (I am reminded of Joan Didion’s unforgettable assertion that self-respect springs from “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life.” How, then, can anger — the artificial and ill-fated attempt to take responsibility for another’s life — be a wellspring of self-respect?) Instead, Nussbaum points to a Transition — a mental pivot in which one turns from anger to more constructive, forward-oriented considerations of what can be done to increase welfare rather than to inflict harm in vengeance — as the proper self-caring response to a breach of trust. She writes:

Anger is such a large and corrosive problem that much of the literature focuses on how to manage it so that it does not destroy one’s entire life. And it is especially here that there’s a widespread feeling that, bad though anger is, people (and women especially) owe it to their self-respect to own, nourish, and publicly proclaim their anger.

Anger, Nussbaum suggests, is a mask for the profound grief we don’t want to or simply can’t let ourselves feel when confronted with an intimate betrayal:

Such breakdowns typically, and rightly, involve deep grief, and grief needs to be dealt with. Grief is amply warranted: intimate relationships are very important parts of a flourishing life. (Here the Stoics are wrong.) But grief, and the helplessness it typically brings with it, are usually not well addressed by allowing anger to take the center of the stage. All too often, anger becomes an alluring substitute for grieving, promising agency and control when one’s real situation does not offer control… The way to deal with grief is just what one might expect: mourning and, eventually, constructive forward-looking action to repair and pursue one’s life. Anger is often well-grounded, but it is too easy for it to hijack the necessary mourning process. So a Transition from anger to mourning — and, eventually, to thoughts of the future — is to be strongly preferred to anger nourished and cultivated.

Nussbaum considers the particularly charged betrayals of intimate spousal relationships:

Because the couple pursues jointly some of the most important life goals of each, these goals themselves become shared goals and are shaped by the partnership. The vulnerability involved in such a relationship therefore goes very deep… Even though it would still be possible, and, I believe, highly desirable, to preserve a core sense of oneself as a person who could continue no matter what, this is often difficult to achieve, and it is always difficult to strike a balance between this healthy self-preservation and a kind of self-withholding that is incompatible with deep love.

In ongoing relationships, Nussbaum argues, there are bound to be many strains and possible breaking points, since the very premise of a long-term intimate relationship is that two different people with different goals (however similar their values may be) must somehow reconcile the autonomy of their individual personhood with the cohesion of their shared life. She examines these elemental dynamics:

It’s clear that there will be more strains when people are inflexible and intolerant, seeing every divergence from what they want as a threat… Anger will also be more common when one or more of the parties feels a lot of insecurity, because so many things can seem threatening, including, indeed, the sheer independent existence of the other person. (Proust makes the point that for a deeply insecure person, the other person’s very independent will is a source of torment and, often, rage.) A good deal of marital anger is really about this desire for control — and since such projects are doomed, that sort of anger is likely to be especially hard to eradicate. Intimacy is scary, and it makes people helpless, since deep hurt can be inflicted by the independent choices of someone else; so, as with other forms of helplessness, people respond by seeking control through anger. People never dispel their own insecurity by controlling someone else or making that person suffer, but many people try — and try again. Furthermore, people are adept rationalizers, so insecure people seeking control are good at coming up with a rational account of what the other person has done wrong…

One of Maurice Sendak’s illustrations for Melville’s Pierre

Nussbaum argues that while anger is an understandable response when spousal trust is breached, it is ultimately more destructive than constructive for the person feeling it, for it prevents her or him from processing the deeper emotions and healing the wounds from which they ooze. She examines the innermost machinery of betrayal:

What’s the real problem? It is one of deep loss. Two selves have become so intertwined that the “abandoned” one has no idea of how to have fun, how to invite friends to dinner, how to make jokes, how to choose clothes even, if not for and toward the other one. So it’s like learning to walk all over again, and that is particularly true of women without strong independent careers and social networks, since those who do have careers have many parts of their lives that have not been blasted by the betrayal, friends of their own who are not attached to the spouse, and lots of useful work to do. Children have all of their adolescence to learn, gradually, how to live apart from their parents, and they expect to do so all along. A betrayed spouse often has no preparation for separateness, and no skill at leading a separate life.


It is easy, in that situation, to think that the best future is one involving some type of payback, since that future, unlike the future of self-creation, is easy to imagine. It’s still intertwined with the other person. It is like not breaking up. You can go on being part of a couple, and keeping that person at the center of your thoughts.

One of William Blake’s illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy

But this default response of anger, Nussbaum cautions, does nothing to address our actual problems — in fact, it obstructs their solution:

[Anger] diverts one’s thoughts from the real problem to something in the past that cannot be changed. It makes one think that progress will have been made if the betrayer suffers, when, in reality, this does nothing to solve the real problem. It eats up the personality and makes the person quite unpleasant to be with. It impedes useful introspection. It becomes its own project, displacing or forestalling other useful projects. And importantly, it almost always makes the relationship with the other person worse. There was something likable about the person, and even if marriage is no longer possible or desirable, some other form of connection might still be, and might contribute to happiness. Or it might not. But the whole question cannot be considered if angry thoughts and wishes fill up the mental landscape. Far from being required in order to shore up one’s own self-respect, anger actually impedes the assertion of self-respect in worthwhile actions and a meaningful life.

The only reasonable requirement, Nussbaum argues, is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing on behalf of the wrongdoer:

Being heard and acknowledged is a reasonable wish on the part of the wronged party, and asking for truth and understanding is not the same thing as asking for payback. Indeed, it often helps the Transition. However, often the extraction of acknowledgment shades over unpleasantly into payback and even humiliation, and this temptation should be avoided.

Nussbaum concludes:

Intimate relationships are perilous because of the exposure and lack of control they involve. Being seriously wronged is a constant possibility, and anger, therefore, a constant and profoundly human temptation. If vulnerability is a necessary consequence of giving love its proper value, then grief is often right and valuable. It does not follow, however, that anger is so.

Anger and Forgiveness, based on Nussbaum’s 2014 Locke Lectures in Philosophy at Oxford University, is a tremendous read in its totality and goes on to explore such facets of this perennial subject as payback, mercy, shame, our ideas about strength and weakness, what everyday justice means in the political realm, and how false social values warp our interior lives. Complement it with psychologist David DeSteno on the psychology of trust in work and love and Maria Konnikova on what con artists reveal about the psychology of deception, then revisit Nussbaum on human dignity and how to live with our fragility.

Published May 3, 2016




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