Friday, June 29, 2012

Justice and Patience

[This is an excerpt of a work in progress, in which I am attempting to illustrate the claim that patience supports the development of other virtues. As the post title suggests, here I am looking at justice, as a character trait. I'm not entirely happy with this, which is in part why I'm posting it here for comment.]

As Seneca suggests, anger poses a difficulty if we aspire to be fair in our judgments and treatment of others because anger tends to fixate intensely upon a harm (or a perceived harm) and to lash out in response. We might say that lashing out is anger’s idea of justice: you hurt me, so I hurt you. Yet when we are not angry, we easily see that this kind of reactionary “reasoning” (if it can be called that) is misguided. Although it has been so often repeated that it now seems cliché, we know that there is a great deal of truth in Gandhi’s remark that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” But precisely because that remark tends toward cliché, it is easy to nod in passing agreement without pausing to appreciate the significance of its implications. For it means that we have to rethink, and essentially reject, the logic of anger, which presumes that an injury or harm can be canceled out by responding to it in kind.

Responding to the injustices of others with patience rather than anger […] is certainly not to “do nothing.” Indeed, the failure to respond to injustice can itself constitute a further injustice, and there is nothing patient about those who “tolerate” injustice because they lack the motivation to address it. Thus, as we seek to reflect upon the relationship between patience and justice, we must bear in mind that apathy and despair—as well as attachment to the goods we may enjoy as a result of injustices in the society as a whole—can also pose obstacles to just action and a just character.

The challenge of justice is rooted in the problem of power. That is, it is in the power we can exercise over others that we find the possibility of treating them with either justice or injustice. It might be said, then, that we commit injustice when we abuse our power, and are complicit in injustice when we fail to exercise our power to respond to those abuses committed by others. But some might go further and suggest that we become unjust when we fail to offer assistance to those who are suffering, even when that suffering is the result of natural causes rather than human wrongdoing—that it is not merely wrong, or unkind, but unjust to stand idly by when we could provide great relief to others. This further thought might be vindicated by suggesting that we owe others basic moral consideration, simply in virtue of our sharing a world with them, and that ignoring the suffering of others is an instance of the fundamental injustice of not honestly acknowledging them as members of the moral community.

Through news and other forms of media, we can learn of many problems, many injustices, about which we can realistically do little or nothing, as individuals. At the same time, we may feel complicit in governmental policies and chains of production and distribution (of goods, like food and clothing, which we need) which trouble us morally if we look at the details closely. Indeed, we may worry about complicity precisely because we suspect ourselves—those of us living in privileged nations—to be one of the few. These observations and concerns can become a source of weariness, and thus a problem to which I will return below.

If we are called to settle a dispute—between children, or friends, or colleagues—then justice requires a fair hearing. We must attend to both sides, weigh details and claims, and offer not only judgment but justification. Often, the parties to the dispute will themselves be angry and impatient, which we ourselves will have to endure. If we are infected by their anger, we may well lose the ability to judge impartially. In patience, we are able to keep our attention properly focused; good judgment requires wisdom, but it also can take time. Justice cannot always be swift. In many cases, “swift justice” may not be justice at all, but only the violent outbursts of anger or other forms of impatience.

Importantly, failures of patience that take the form of despair may also undermine our capacity to act justly. The weariness I mentioned above can manifest itself in the despairing attitude of those who, overwhelmed by injustice surveyed at large, withdraw into their own lives and narrowly defined worlds, choosing to live their own lives without paying as little attention as possible to the world beyond. Of course, we all do this to some extent, because there is only so much attention we can pay and only so much that we can do. And we do indeed have our own lives to live. Thoreau writes, in “Civil Disobedience”:

It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.

In this respect, Thoreau leaves it open that we may, without being unjust, withdraw from the busy world in pursuit of our own Walden Pond. But the risk of withdrawing is that we may be doing so in bad faith, that we withdraw from the world, convince ourselves that there is nothing we can do, as a rationalization for enjoying the conveniences and comforts of our own lives and labors, and for not getting involved in larger affairs.

The withdrawal I have in mind here is not so much a physical withdrawal—say, of the hermit who goes off to live far away from others—but rather a mental withdrawal, in which a person focuses only upon his or her own circumscribed life, a turning inward that is merely self-absorbed rather than contemplative, and thus obscures the possibility of mindful attention to others, of taking notice of others—a withdrawal that has excused itself from taking notice of others. This kind of orientation could not possibly be conducive to a just character.

Thoreau’s conditions for justly devoting our attention “to other pursuits and contemplations” call for a kind of patience. It is the patience required to examine our own lives, to determine whether we are giving “practical support” to unjust practices, through the goods we purchase or the leaders we support, and so forth. Since most of us do not choose to withdraw from society, to live in the woods or the deserts, this means roughly having the patience to make ourselves reasonably informed citizens. (Here, we might take “reasonably” to imply that we don’t try to “inform” ourselves to the point of self-defeating psychological and moral exhaustion.) Thus, the examination of our own lives and habits ultimately requires the patience to attend to the world of which we are a part, to resist the temptation to withdraw mentally. All of this takes time and attention which is easily spent, and often wasted, on other things: media and technology, for example, enable us to connect, but they can also promote immense disconnection, distraction, and self-absorption.

We often think of patience as involving the endurance of something irritating and unpleasant, but here we might recall the remark of the Sufi mystic Sahl al-Tutsarī that, “Patience in well-being is more difficult than patience in tribulation.” When life is good, patience as constancy and mindfulness is crucial if we seek to maintain a commitment to justice, to maintain a just character. This is because we can become spoiled by our own good fortune, and in our enjoyment, fail to give thought to those who deserve our moral attention. This is not the place to theorize about what, in terms specific acts, we owe to those others, but if we lack—or lose—that disposition for patient attention to the world beyond our own immediate lives, then it appears that we lack a necessary component of a just life and character.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Philosophy Haikus

I've been busy with teaching, but hope to post some new reflections soon. Last night, I found myself writing haikus to summarize the views of some of the philosophers I've been teaching. Here are a couple, which may or may not amuse. More to come?

You are free, so don’t
ask me for advice. What do
I look like, a priest?

If a neighbor breaks
your stuff, so what? You didn’t
need that shit no-how.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Auden on "Righteous Anger"

"Righteous anger can effectively resist and destroy evil, but the more one relies upon it as a source of energy, the less energy and attention one can give to the good which is to replace the evil once it has been removed. That is why, though there may have been some just wars, there has been no just peace. Nor is it only the vanquished who suffer; I have known more than one passionate anti-Nazi who went to pieces once Hitler had been destroyed. Without Hitler to hate, their lives had no raison d’être."

-- W.H. Auden, "Anger," in: Angus Wilson, et al., The Seven Deadly Sins (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1962), pp. 84-85

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Feeling Angry

I'm currently writing about Aristotle and Seneca on anger. The short of it is that Aristotle thinks that anger is sometimes rational (and to experience and express it sometimes virtuous) and Seneca denies this. Some of this disagreement stems from the larger disagreement between Aristotelians and Stoics about whether "externals" are necessary for a good life (and thus whether external misfortune truly harms oneself). But although Seneca shares Aristotle's definition of anger as the perception of a wrong to oneself (or another one cares about) and a desire for revenge, he stipulates a rather high threshold for what counts as being angry--which is that one must approve of the desire for revenge (in addition to affirming the perception of wrongdoing), at which point one becomes angry and is, as it were, done thinking. Once angry, anger won't listen further to reason. So, if you can control your "anger," then you aren't really angry on Seneca's view.

This might complicate the attempt to understand the extent of disagreement between Aristotle and Seneca. Perhaps all that can be said is that Aristotle thinks that it is right to approve of that desire for revenge (to deem it justified) and Seneca does not. But it also seems that, although Seneca says he more or less agrees with Aristotle's definition of anger, he actually doesn't, since real anger, for him, doesn't occur until one has assented to the angry impulse.

In a sense, then, there is an important difference for Seneca between feeling angry--he wouldn't call this anger in the strict sense--and being angry. I wonder whether this distinction might actually be helpful insofar as it presses us to distinguish between mere feelings (or impulses) and our judgments about them--the extent to which we identify with or reject them, in terms of whether we think it right to act on them in particular ways. We sometimes say, "I was angry with P," but what we really mean is that we were irritated, annoyed, frustrated, or so forth. And perhaps very much so. But we might have felt those things without deciding that we should exact some revenge upon P. And we might experience those feelings and still remain reasonable and in control in our dealings with P. Seneca would applaud us, and say that, in fact, we had not been angry. Had we become angry, we would have lost control.

I suppose if we experience an outburst--we start yelling and screaming, losing control even for a moment--then we crossed the threshold. So perhaps that kind of outburst should be counted as a kind of "revenge." In general, avoiding such outbursts, those momentary losses of control, seems like a good thing. (A calculated "outburst," would seem to be something different, and compatible with inner control.) And Seneca realizes that in order to do so, we probably also have to work on ourselves so that we are not too easily irritated, annoyed, etc. The feelings of anger can be hard to fight back. But again, Seneca would not say that we have to fight back our anger, but rather avoid becoming angry in the face of feelings that can provoke assent to anger. That is, anger doesn't happen to us, though feelings of irritation, annoyance, and frustration, etc., do. These are what the Stoics would call the "affective preludes" of anger.

My impression of the Stoic view is that it can be perfectly ok to experience the "affective preludes"--at least, there isn't much we can do, in the moment, about the impulses we experience except to respond to them ("deal with them"). And in a sense, this seems to leave room in the Stoic view for something we would normally call anger--namely, that cluster of feelings we associate with anger. The Sage, apparently, still has feelings, but he or she no longer responds to those feelings in the way that people generally do. Irritation no longer gives rise to anger. (And the Sage is presumably not irritated by many of the things that irritate ordinary people.) But the Sage is capable of feeling. This seems important, since critics of Stoicism claim that Stoicism lacks feeling. But what it lacks is emotion--understood specifically as false judgments. But feelings are something different from emotions on the Stoic view.

And so when Seneca says that anger is always to be avoided, he isn't saying that we should try to extirpate our capacity for the feelings we associate with anger--though if we are hot-tempered, we should probably work on that. (But Aristotle wouldn't disagree.) He's saying (roughly) that we shouldn't seek revenge. And when he says we shouldn't seek revenge, he's not saying that wrongdoers shouldn't be punished.* Rather, they should be dealt with fairly, reasonably. And that's very hard to do in the heat of anger.

* Perhaps the challenge here on the Stoic view is to work out what a "wrongdoer" is, since the Stoics don't regard loss of "externals" as a harm to the self. The only harm is loss of virtue, and you can only do that harm to yourself. But I suppose one could simply suggest that a wrongdoer is someone who abuses one's "preferred indifferents"--which includes one's physical security, possessions, as well as the other people one cares about...