Is anger a moral response?

I recently attended a four-day gathering of 400-plus compassionate human beings, all united by a desire to heal our national and global divisions. And while it was in many ways a wonderful and spirited event, I found it marred by a mantra intoned by several of the featured speakers: “Anger is a moral response.”

The assertion disturbed me. Anger is human. Anger is understandable. As an early sign of a relationship gone wrong it’s even important and helpful. But is it “moral”?

Studies in neurobiology indicate “no.” Anger is triggered by our brain’s more primitive limbic system — an instinctual reaction to a perceived threat with absolutely no moderating input from the locus of moral reasoning: our neocortex.

From its inception, then, anger has nothing to do with morality. It simply isn’t part of the recipe.

Can we add a dash of morality to our anger after it’s baked? We often try, but in my experience the chemistry goes awry and what we get instead is justification — a mental framework upon which we build and expand on our grievances. And as neurobiology again informs us, the angrier we are the weaker the link between our limbic system and neocortex. Moral reasoning becomes harder not easier, and acts of violence more likely not less.

Does our anger become moral when put in the service of morality, when we channel its raw, primal energy in a positive direction? One conference speaker seemed to say yes, that our anger is moral when tempered and balanced by a commitment to relationship, to a spirit of love.

But I would argue anger is not love’s soul mate, not some divine union that, like oxygen and hydrogen, leads to a life-giving emergence. Instead anger is more like what Chaos Theory calls a “strange attractor:” a value “toward which a system tends to evolve.” When anger is present it’s prone to attract more of the same kind of energy, increasing the possibility of destructive thoughts and acts.

Instead of being love’s partner, anger is a signal of love’s absence, and a clarifying lens to help us choose between the two. Not anger and love. Anger or love. We need to decide and commit.

And if what we desire is simply to harness anger’s energizing “impulse to action,” I suggest we look instead to courage. Courage gives us the strength to be vulnerable, to face what triggered our anger in the first place: deep pain and suffering arising from a sense of fear, loss, diminishment or dehumanization.

Anger pushes such pain and suffering away, and in that push great harm is often done — both to ourselves and to those around us. Courage embraces the pain and, in a paradox lived out by moral heroes past and present, transmutes it into fearless love, deep wisdom and true power. Our actions are now drawn from a deep well of compassion, leaving the perpetrators of pain without an outward adversary. They’re forced to face only themselves — the one proven alchemy for redemption and change.

8 thoughts on “Is anger a moral response?

  1. This is an important, deeply inspiring reminder from Kern.

    I recall my father, a super-intelligent man, working his way through the process of encountering anger and had to think through what it meant to give up preoccupying with enemies. His identity was so tied into having adversaries and putting them down in witty ways that he bounced out of the entire process and was never able to explore it further.

    While I may have done a fair amount of processing my anger, I still find myself shaken to the core, way over-preoccupied, by what is happening in our country at the moment, from the “top” down. For long moments the only authentic reaction I can find within myself about someone like Wayne LaPierre of the NRA is anger. Even when anger subsides, or even better transmutes into passionate interest in exploring a more creative response, there is this frustrated puzzlement. How could millions of people get so locked into bizarre dogma about needing to have guns that it seemingly has become the center of value in their whole lives, taking precedence over the repeated shattering of so many other lives? Let alone that the NRA’s power as a lobby has ethically paralyzed great swathes of politicians. It seems like a kind of collective psychosis. But even just to say that is to realize how futile the reaction of anger is—if you were a psychiatrist, you wouldn’t become enraged at the odd behavior of your patients.

    Courage is the right name for that detached steadiness which pauses to think creatively, pauses to look first at how anger works within me, opening the possibility of not responding merely as an echo.

  2. Agree Kern.

    Anger can also be a gift. If we look at anger as a response from the unconscious and take the time to discover why we have the reaction to something we can change and see the situation with new eyes and change our response.

    • So glad you mentioned how our anger can be a gift. I hope you get a chance to read Louise’s further comments below!

  3. Kern, thank you, there is great compassion, wisdom and honesty within your words. I am agreeing with everything you have said, and yet something has bothered me and been just out of reach. It has taken me a while to connect with that. There is nothing about what you have written that I would change. What was bothering me is having patience with process, if that makes sense, compassion? Choosing to peel back the layers of an onion and connect with who I have been. Is anger a moral response? I have experienced it as that, when my axis (identity) was embedded in a longing to be part of a group. You are right, there is always some justification and protection involved. But would I have become what I am without first having known of that axis? I don’t know.

    My experience of being willing to surrender to what pain can reveal has been clumsy, messy even. I don’t even know that it was voluntary and yet there must have been a choice made or there would still be suffering. An image that comes to mind is of a man or woman falling to their knees on the ground, having just lost something precious to them. At first they shake a fist at the sky, angrily asking why? At other times wring their hands together and ask why? Or look inwardly and are uncomfortable with something seen. There is conflict at the heart of being human. I have heard this being called a force of nature, an evolutionary impulse which appears chaotic to our eyes. If we are unified and given a blueprint to ‘be magnificent’, how would we choose to define that and allow it to define who we are? When would we be done, with ourselves and with the world? I can only say that in stillness is acceptance – a cosmic in-breath felt in a heart-beat. I don’t know if that is love or clarity of being but have experienced that anger has no hold in its presence. On a grand scale and involving all of humanity, no wonder that is mind-boggling: a cosmic garden coming into bloom in its own time.

    • Louise, thank you for so beautifully pointing out what I agree is missing from the piece: a sufficient acknowledgment of process, and of the compassion that process requires — for ourselves and each other. And also gratitude, as Virginia points out in her response…seeing our anger as a “gift” for the very reasons you state above, providing that “evolutionary impulse” toward our higher nature. Thank you again, Louise. I am so appreciative of your response, and all the ones above it!

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