AbstractsPhilosophy & Theology

Righteous Anger and Virtue Ethics: A Contemporary Reconstruction of Anger in Service to Justice

by Michael P. Jaycox

Institution: Boston College
Year: 2014
Keywords: agency; anger; emotion; ethics; justice; virtue
Record ID: 2028276
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/2345/bc-ir:103613


This dissertation addresses a specific problem, which is that the Catholic ethical tradition lacks an adequate normative approach to social anger as a potentially constructive resource in the pursuit of social justice. In response to this issue, this dissertation advances the thesis that social anger is a cognitive interruption of the ideologies and structures of oppression, which is to say, an evaluative judgment that the members of a vulnerable social group suffer systemic deprivation of one or more of the social goods constitutive of basic human flourishing. I propose that the civic virtues of justice, solidarity, and prudence may be used as a normative anthropological heuristic for determining whether agents have rightly realized their social anger in regard to particular instances of structural participation, such as political resistance and institutional reform. In order to defend this thesis, the argument first diagnoses the main causes of the problem. In attempting to address social justice concerns, Catholic ethicists have generally retrieved the Thomistic virtue ethic of temperance or moderation in anger, which was designed for damaged interpersonal relationships in a premodern context, and applied it to the contemporary context of structural injustice in sociopolitical and socioeconomic relationships. This normative ethic, however, fails to observe the qualitative difference between the moral agency of individuals in relation to one another and the agency of structural participation. Moreover, this anthropological issue is exacerbated by an uncritical characterization of anger as impulsive and non-cognitive in itself, a problem that can be traced to the lack of an adequate philosophical psychology of emotion. In light of this diagnosis, I argue that Catholic ethicists should critically engage with the cognitive theory of emotion offered by Martha Nussbaum as well as her feminist account of universal human capabilities. Once combined with the contextual anthropology of human agency in history found in modern Catholic social thought, these resources can provide the basis for an inductive natural law methodology appropriate to the task of understanding social anger in relation to the pursuit of social justice. Employing this methodology, I explicate the moral significance of social anger as cognitive interruption and offer a critically reconstructed normative ethic appropriate to the contemporary context of political resistance and institutional reform in public life.