Anger Management

Martha Nussbaum left students, faculty with a message of peace in Mudd Center for Ethics speech


University of Chicago professor of law and ethics Martha Nussbaum lectures on the topics of anger and justice in Lee Chapel.

John Tompkins

Anger in today’s society should not be encouraged, nor is it essential for justice to prevail, according to Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago.

In Lee Chapel last Wednesday, Nussbaum began her talk with an anecdote about the furies in ancient Greek mythology. She discussed the rage, unbridled resentment and lust for blood. She then transitioned to their transformation by Athena, after which they gained the ability to speak, became women and accepted reason and rational thought.

In explaining this, Nussbaum quoted Aristotle, who said, “A gentle-tempered person is not vindictive but inclined to sympathetic understanding.”

Nussbaum, who is the third speaker for the Mudd Center for Ethics program this year, argued that our reasons for anger are flawed. She also said that revenge was pointless.

“Inflicting pain on the wrongdoer does not help replace what is lost,” Nussbaum said.

Nussbaum talked about a “forward-thinking” anger that focuses on social welfare from the start. According to Nussbaum, this sort of anger leaves behind all notions of revenge and retribution and centers around constructive thought for the future. She called this concept “transitional anger.”

Nussbaum related the theme of transitional anger to the tactics of various civil rights leaders, including Nelson Mandela. She said that if we want good for ourselves and others, constructive thought and generosity is much more useful than anger in bringing about change. A gentle, peaceful approach to problems can gradually weaken the defenses of one’s enemy.

Following a slight delay due to the sounding of a theft alarm in the Chapel, Nussbaum fielded questions about her lecture from students and faculty members. Through her answers, she revealed some of her more controversial stances on the topics of anger and justice, including her view that incarceration in America is vastly overused, and forgiveness can be counterproductive, for it forces people to focus on the past.

Sophomore Emily Webb said she tried to keep her mind open to the issues discussed.

“Her speech was at times radical in its opinions, but she was received with open minds,” Webb said. “I think her focus on the future and almost disregard for past offenses was especially interesting here where our motto may be ‘Not unmindful of the future,’ but we live surrounded by history.”

Nussbaum left her audience with this thought: “Perhaps it is time to give peace a chance.”