Which Motive Worsens A Bad Action More: Desire or Anger?

This is the latest of a series of posts wherein I will be critically reading Stoic writings that have bearing on ethics. In February 2016 I will also teach a one month long course on Stoic Ethics. Get more information here and write me at camelswithhammers@gmail.com if you want to sign up so that I can schedule the class’s time around your availability. Also I will be teaching a regular length class onthe ethics of war.

Marcus Aurelius writes in Book 2, Meditation 10 of his Meditations:

In comparing sins (the way people do) Theophrastus says that the ones committed out of desire are worse than the ones committed out of anger: which is good philosophy. The angry man seems to turn his back on reason out of a kind of pain and inner convulsion. But the man motivated by desire, who is mastered by pleasure, seems somehow more selfindulgent, less manly in his sins. Theophrastus is right, and philosophically sound, to say that the sin committed out of pleasure deserves a harsher rebuke than the one committed out of pain. The angry man is more like a victim of wrongdoing, provoked by pain to anger. The other man rushes into wrongdoing on his own, moved to action by desire

I mostly disagree with this assessment, for several reasons.

The most trivial to this context is that, of course, I don’t think there are “sins” (in the sense of wrongdoings that are wrong either partially or completely because they offend against God or gods).

But there are moral wrongdoings and this particular text can be read as being about secularly identifiable moral wrongdoings without any alteration of meaning.

Also, I think it is important that we consider and compare genuine wrongdoing done from anger and genuine wrongdoing done from desire. If our first inclination is to be defensive of either anger or of desire as generally maligned, we might be tempted to cite a notable case where we think that, say, a particular kind of act thought to be motivated typically by desire is wrongly maligned as evil in the first place and then compare that to a case of unambiguous wrongdoing motivated by anger and complain that desire gets a bad rap. Or vice versa, we might defend a maligned kind of action done from anger against a clearer cut case of wrongdoing motivated by desire, in order to improve the reputation of anger. So, let’s take off the table, say, righteous and defensible acts from anger that might get a bad reputation from an undue fetishization of even temperedness and, say, harmless sex acts that are unduly disparaged as evil or base and the desires that motivate them reviled as beastly, etc.

Let’s assume cases where people genuinely commit morally condemnable harmful or unfair deeds by our own estimations. Even if you and I might differ on some disputable cases, as long as you’re thinking about the cases that you think count and I’m thinking of the ones I think count, we can probably still reach an agreement about the relative wrongfulness of being driven to wrongdoing by anger vs. being driven to wrongdoing by desire. One recommendation is that in our minds we each thing up a variety of different genuine moral wrongdoings motivated primarily by anger and a variety driven primarily by desire so that we don’t inadvertently make a relatively trivial overall wrong the paradigm of one and a relatively serious overall wrong the paradigm of the other and tip the scales by thinking of overall wrong and overall unfairness of an overall action itself rather than more specifically the contributions of anger or desire to wrongness. One way to balance this might be to consider exactly comparable actions in terms of their harmfulness and their unfairness where the key variable is a motive of anger or a motive of desire.

After trying to control for anger and control for desire in these ways, we might ask, as a separate question, whether on average anger-based wrongdoings were more unfair or more harmful and whether on average desire-based wrongdoings were—if such a thing can even be fairly eyeballed. In such a case, on consequentialist grounds, we might learn that we have a bit more morally at stake in prioritizing controlling the one or the other if for some reason we cannot do both equally.

So, to the direct analysis.

The first thing that I think is troubling is the contrasting ways that Aurelius characterizes being driven into wrongdoing. In both cases, the wrongdoer is passive but the kinds of passivity differ between them and this difference accounts for the moral difference. Aurelius considers the angry wrongdoer to be under the equivalent of an involuntary bodily spasm, whereas the desirous wrongdoer has made himself the obedient servant to pleasures that he has made master over himself. But this is unfair. Anger is not literally the same as an unstoppable bodily convulsion and people who frequently vent their anger rather than controlling it become angrier. They become mastered by their anger just as much as those who are poor at controlling their desires see them grow. Both desires and angers are capable of conditioning. And, it’s worth noting, that some desires motivate in ways that are akin to the “body” overpowering the conscious mind leading to actions that are just as metaphorically like an involuntary spasm as an outburst of anger can feel like. A brain and body that are compulsively attached to a desired end can just as much make a person feel like they’ve lost control of themselves as undergoing a physical bodily revolt can. It’s not really a love of the resultant pleasure so much as the desire to banish a craving or need. And that craving or need can be due to innate neurology or conditioning. It could be due to changes in brain chemistry based on past pleasures, it could be due to all sorts of physiological regulatory mechanisms in the brain that have absolutely nothing to do with your conscious thoughts about how much you like pleasure.

And, equally important to stress, desire is not always aimed at pleasure anyway. Desire is drawn to a number of intrinsic goods (where, in this limited case, I mean by “intrinsic” a good that the desire aims at directly and is satisfied by attaining directly, rather than as a means to a further end), of which pleasure is just one. Desire can be directly for another person’s benefit (sometimes without any actual considerations about foreseeable pleasurable rewards from doing so) or for personal achievement (without direct motivational reference to the pleasure expected to accompany the achievement) or for meaningfulness, etc., etc. While I don’t mean to join on the bandwagon of those who out of a misguided attempt to display intestinal fortitude might disparage pleasure as a matter of superfluous indulgence that should always be strictly subordinated to higher goals, I do want to stress that desire is just as often directed towards those other sorts of goals that one might consider more generally ethical valuable than pleasure.

And since a good deal of genuine moral wrongdoing is motivated by a compromised pursuit of genuinely good and valuable things I think that this takes at least some of the sting out of the wrongness; especially where the good things they are aiming at wrongly are the generally higher kinds of good things worth prioritizing the most.

And this gets me to one of the key distinctions I want to make. I am influenced by Plato to see desire as a species of love. It is affirmative. I am influenced by Nietzsche to class anger among the reactive emotions. It is negative. Now, of course, there are times not to affirm a given thing and times to respond to something negatively. We must be able to make negative judgments about bad things. And anger is often vital to that process in ways I already explained in the final set of paragraphs in a previous post in this series. But overall I would rather someone be driven by a generally affirmative spirit than a generally negative one, motivated to create and have positive goods for themselves and others and motivated to find the good within others and their circumstances. I think that erring on the side of affirmation is better than erring on the side of negativity, all things considered. Love is a better way to go wrong than hate, all things considered.

In this vein, anger is often a deadlier temptation the kinds of evils done out of a sense of one’s moral justice. People who feel morally aggrieved are more likely in their anger to self-righteously engage with malicious desire to hurt while feeling affirmed by their own conscience. Anger is an awful temptation to otherwise good people to indulge in fantasies of harming others and feel good about themselves as they do it. Anger at perceived “sin” or immorality generally can make reactionary religious believers and other moralists into merciless authoritarians and/or violent extremists.

By contrast the morally condemnable harms and unfairness due to desire is generally more of the incidental kind whereby someone aims at something good in a way that is negligent to the well being of others. This can of course be genuinely harmful and destructive too. But such harms are less often about directly hating or harming anyone else than anger. When someone else fixated on pursuing a good outcompetes us, it is easy to feel resentment even when they’ve done nothing wrong because our pain is overly desirous of someone to blame. (As Nietzsche is wont to point out.) Similarly, even when someone culpably harms us or treats us unfairly out of indifference to our well-being, we will often be inclined to attribute to them malice where it’s only apathy towards us and a singleminded interest in the good that interests them that is the source of wrong. In this way we judge unfairly, liking to compound in our imagination the full extent of evil motive in anyone that hurts us, even when it’s not actually there.

Now, I don’t mean to put a rosy spin on this. The cases where apathy really is worse is where the harm is greater than what is done by anger and there’s not even the halfway good excuse of anger’s pain. Where the apathy is a sheer indifference to the goods of others to increasingly harmful extents, then one’s own overall commitment to the good can be called increasingly into question. Many a sociopath, as far as I understand, can be at least as harmful through their apathy about hurting people who stand in between them and the good they want as they can through any feelings of anger or hatred. To the extent that Aurelius is zeroing in on the ways that apathy about decreasing overall good so that you can have a particular good that you may have done without is a kind of superfluous and unjustifiable creation of evil results that could have been easily been avoided, he is right to be disdainful.

Also it is worth noting that in at least one kind of action we can imagine that the same action with the same harmfulness and unfairness would be qualitatively worse if motivated by desire than anger. When someone is engaging in violence, whether a fight or torture or killing or war or whatever, the malicious desire to hurt for the sake of the delighting in the sufferer’s pain, taken from them against their will, is clearly a worse morally tainting motive than doing these things out of the backlash caused by internal anguish. Sadistic impulses are clearly qualitatively worse than mere retributivist impulses, all things equal. However, again, retributivist impulses are more widely spread in humanity and are more often sanctified by misguided moral feelings and judgments and arguably allowed to do far reaching overall damage to humanity. And so more struggle is probably actually required against them in the average, non-sociopathic, human heart than against sadism. Retributivism is precisely what leads to sadism with a good conscience among otherwise empathetic people.

Last but not least, I think that Aurelius’s attempt to assess the comparative wrongnesses of desire and anger in terms of which is more or less “manly” is not just a bit of gratuitous, dated, overlookable sexism. It’s not like whatever he meant by “manly” is something not inherently sexist, something that can be updated as easily as in this case we were able to swap out the word “sin” and replace it with “moral wrongdoing” and lose none of his important connotations.

In this case, we are looking at the way in which pernicious ideas about gender distort perceptions of the value of things. There is a long, ugly tradition of associating masculinity with reason and femininity with emotion and disparaging the emotions as inferior to reason on analogy with how women were supposedly inferior to men. As contemporary feminists have pointed out, this tradition conveniently hasn’t held men’s presumed greater susceptibility to anger as a matter of emotionalism that makes men in the main “emotional”. The nurturing emotions, compassion, and the propensity to express emotions in the form of crying have been associated with women and been taken for various symptoms of a general feminine weakness.

Meanwhile, men have long been socialized not to feel emotions that would make them vulnerable to others or make it harder for them to carry out obligations that require toughness. They have been conditioned not to express their emotions in tears lest they (supposedly) betray internal weakness. They have been discouraged from actively cultivating the “womanly” tendencies to be nurturing. But they have had recourse to anger, without having their “manliness” or “toughness” called into question. In this context it is a toxic prejudice that has Aurelius trying to protect “manly” anger from being criticized as a form of subjection to an undeserved master the way the pursuit of pleasure supposedly is. He goes out of his way here to insulate anger from being seen as an emotional problem and compares it to the least culpable of causes—an uncontrollable spasm of bodily pain. He minimizes the fault in anger by minimizing the amount of rational control even possible to have over it. And in doing so he covers for clearly the most potentially violent and destructive of all the emotions. And he seems to do all this out of a disreputably sexist prejudice for the manly.

At its worst, sympathy for the angry wrongdoer over the pleasure seeking wrongdoer contributes to perverse narratives that someone can commit a “crime of passion” where one’s “love” for another leads him to kill her because he feels betrayed by her. It seems as though those who sympathize with the anger of a jilted lover over the adulterous tend to take a similar view as Aurelius in weighting the presumed gratuitous, avoidable, self-indulgent wrong of reaching for an illicit pleasure as worse for being an unforced error of a sort that introduces the pain in the jealous lover and partially mitigates the wrongness of the actions of that lover—even though murder should be unambiguously recognized as categorically morally worse than any wrongness in adultery.

Your Thoughts?

Full table of contents of posts in my Revisiting and Revising Stoicism series:

Revisiting The Stoics, Towards Revising Stoicism
“People Will Be Terrible. Deal With It.”
CWH Revised Stoic Meditation #1: On Frustrations with Other People
Which Motive Worsens A Bad Action More: Desire or Anger?

In February 2016 I will teach a one month long course on Stoic Ethics. Get full information on the course here and write me at camelswithhammers@gmail.com if you want to sign up so that I can schedule the class’s time around your availability. To learn about more of my class offerings and how my classes run, click on any of the banners below. This month (January 2016) I will also be starting a new Ethics of War class. 

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