This post examines the virtues of judgment and righteous anger. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about these virtues, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about them, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about these virtues and how to nurture them.
What are these virtues?
Judgment, or censure, is (at least) the ability and willingness to identify and call out something that is unjust or someone who is acting unjustly. Sometimes it goes beyond questions of justice: you can also judge someone unwise, unkind, unreasonable, and so forth.
Righteous anger is a motivating fury, usually provoked by injustice. If you are righteously angry you have noticed something (or suffered something) that violates your sense of justice in a way that provokes an emotional response that encourages you to do something about it (and often, to signal your displeasure to those around you).
We contain multitudes
I have already written about the virtues of good temper, patience & forbearance, and forgiveness & clemency and you might wonder if I’ve lost the plot by pivoting to something like “righteous anger” that seems at first to contradict those. In my defense:
- These might not be as contradictory as they appear. You may have the virtues of forbearance, forgiveness, good temper, and the like, but still have a limit beyond which you get angry in a virtuous way. It may be that there is a time for forbearance and a time for judgment, a time for good temper and a time to be furious, and that you need skill in both modes in order to best flourish as a human being. Even forgiveness guru Jesus thought that judgment came first, forgiveness after: “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.”
- I am being ecumenical in my research into virtues. Different virtues were prized by different cultures and traditions in different periods. I should not be surprised if the collection of virtues I unearth does not cohere seamlessly.
- Some virtues are commonly given the name of one of their more imbalanced extremes, when the opposite extreme is more common or more harmful or when the pendulum is swinging against it for whatever reason. For example, the virtue concerning self-regard is sometimes called “pride” when it seems important to contrast it with poor self esteem, slavishness, etc., but is sometimes called “humility” when it seems important to contrast it with arrogance, narcissism, etc. The virtue concerning anger could be like this, where pushovers might be told they need to get mad and stand up for themselves, while hotheads might be told they need to chill out: different advice for different people, but aiming at the same golden mean.
Related virtues and concepts
If judgment / righteous anger causes you to strike out against the person who provoked you, this is punishment or chastisement, which can be done more-or-less skillfully, though I don’t know that punishment / chastisement rises to the level of a virtue.
Sometimes judgment / righteous anger can be a component of valor. A lot of cinema heroes are motivated by righteous anger over some villainy, as they engage in their bold, courageous acts in the name of justice.
As I mentioned, there is a tension between these virtues and forgiveness, mercy, clemency, and so forth. There is also some with equanimity / tranquility, acceptance / surrender, humility, and tolerance / charity (in the sense of being charitable towards others’ foibles).
If you are deficient in the virtues of judgment and righteous anger, you might be called a pushover or schnook or someone who lets people take advantage of you (if the injustice was aimed at you), or as a “good German,” someone who is overindulgent or -lenient, or someone who is unmoved (if the injustice was aimed at others). An example is Martin Luther King’s admonition about not only “the hateful words and actions of the bad people but… the appalling silence by the good people.”
If you have an excess of these virtues, you might be called sanctimonious, superior, holier-than-thou, vindictive, blame-seeking, or judgmental. Critics of “callout culture,” “outrage porn,” and the like have noted pathological ways in which judgment and righteous anger can be harnessed to unvirtuous ends. When righteous anger is shared with others, it can feed on itself and result in a sort of lynch mob that becomes detached from clear judgment in pursuit of catharsis through scapegoating. This suggests that the virtues of judgment and righteous anger require discernment and courage (the courage to stand alone in your judgment, or to judge differently from those in your in-group).
The pros and cons of judgment and righteous anger
“I rather must confess, that I always suspect people that affect to cover all defects of others with the cloak of charity.” ―Baron Knigge
In a recent essay, philosopher @AgnesCallard argued that “Anger is a moral sense.” In the same way that cold chills us, brightness makes us squint, and sweetness makes us salivate, injustice makes us angry. She resists “anger management” — the attempt by others to make us disbelieve our anger-senses and conform to theirs: “ ‘If you don’t stop being angry, you’re irrational.’ ‘If you don’t start being angry, you’re immoral.’ Neither of these speeches tends to go over well — at least not with me.” She defends anger this way:
[A]t times it is only the angry who are in a position to apprehend the magnitude of some injustice. For they are the ones willing to sacrifice all their other concerns and interests so as to attend, with an almost divine focus, to some tear in the moral fabric. When I am really angry, it is not even clear to me that I can calm down — the eyes of the heart do not have eyelids — and the person making that request strikes me, to adapt a locution of Socrates’, as trying to banish me from my property, the truth. They are calling me “irrational,” but they seem not to see that there are reasons to be angry.
Anger as a warning signal
Righteous anger can be a way of drawing a line. You go from being tolerant to saying “this is no longer tolerable,” and do so in an unmistakable way. Anger can be a form of raising your hackles in a way that deters: it says “don’t push me,” “back off,” “you’re going too far.” It can be a good complement to tolerance by setting a limit: “I’m a tolerant person, but do not try to take advantage of that by walking all over me.” The abrupt change in body language and vocal tone that (often) accompanies anger signals that a threshold has been crossed.
Such a signal works best when it is rare. A person who regularly uses explosions of anger to try to change other people’s behavior just gets a reputation as an angry person, a hot-head, someone who “is always on about something.” Their anger has a “crying wolf” quality to it, which makes it less effective when it’s most needed.
The trouble with quibbles
“The surest way to work up a crusade in favor of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behavior ‘righteous indignation’—this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.” ―Aldous Huxley
The “divine focus” that Callard says anger provides can also be a dangerous sort of tunnel vision. She notes that “the more perfectly one attends to the gravity of the wrongs done, the less sensitive one becomes to the gravity of the wrongs one is poised to commit in response.”
Anger can exacerbate some cognitive biases, such as the fundamental attribution error (in which we attribute something we are angry about to the rotten character of whoever is to blame). On the other hand, there is some evidence that anger can motivate you to investigate the cause of your anger more critically.
Judgment as a way of backing your values
If you are too reluctant to judge — for instance because you overvalue tolerance, don’t like to rock the boat, or don’t want to draw attention to your own shortcomings — this can lead to a decay in your values, and, if this becomes a common practice, to culture-wide corruption.
“Can love be other than exacting, or loyalty refrain from admonition?” asked Confucius. Judgment does not have to be hostile. It can be a loving thing, if done skillfully and with good intentions. For example: “That racist joke you told, it was beneath you. Don’t be that way.” That judges the act as a poor one, but judges the actor perhaps even above their own self-regard.
Montaigne insightfully struck back against the idea that you should not judge anyone else until you have become morally pure yourself, when he said: “To censure my own faults in some other person seems to me no more incongruous than to censure, as I often do, another’s in myself. They must be denounced everywhere, and be allowed no place of sanctuary.”
And Alexander Solzhenitsyn decried the practice of pardoning corruption in high places:
When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.… Young people are acquiring the conviction that foul deeds are never punished on earth, that they always bring prosperity. ¶ It is going to be uncomfortable, horrible, to live in such a country!
It seems there are a number of virtues associated with anger and judgment. In summary: Do not get angered too easily, or at the wrong things. When you do get angry, do so in a measured way that does not lead you to do something regretful or unwise. But blow your top if you can do so in a way that helps you focus your efforts on a righteous cause that defends your values, and when you do, do so in a way that is legible to others, particularly the target of your anger. Make anger temporary — do not seethe. Transition from anger to rational action and when possible to forgiveness.
Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)
Adolf Freiherr von Knigge, Practical Philosophy of Social Life (1788), Chapter Ⅰ, Section ⅩⅩⅧ
Agnes Callard, “Anger Management” The Point (27 January 2021)
Frequently attributed to him, anyway, though I have had a hard time tracking down the source. It is often alleged to be Crome Yellow, but I could not find it there.
Analects of Confucius, ⅩⅣ.ⅷ
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1974)