It is not rare to see groups of enraged people engaged in destructive behavior when you turn on the news these days. Such behavior is puzzling when we think of the agents as rational choosers, since it is often obviously counterproductive. The agents end up in many respects worse off – the neighborhoods that get damaged in riots tend to be the ones rioters live or work in, above all, and violent resistance often invites a brutal response from those who hold the power and control the drones. So what’s the deal with rage? Does it make sense to act out of rage? Can rage be warranted? In this tentative exploration of the issue (I haven’t come across any philosophical literature on it), I’ll argue that it can be, and that when it is, much of the moral responsibility for the wrongful harm that results from acting out of rage belongs to those who have created the rage-warranting situation.
Rage, evidently, is a negative feeling that is a cousin of anger and hate. Yet it is not a species of either, as it presents its target differently, has different characteristic causes, and involves different motivation. To begin with, it seems to me that rage, at least the kind that interests me, has quite distinct causes. It is essentially a response to being driven into a corner, as you see it. What seem to you to be reasonable demands, rooted in basic needs, are denied and (at least typically) portrayed as unreasonable, or, frequently, manifest injustice is dressed up as justice. In your eyes, at least, you’re treated with pseudo-respect, when in fact you’re not respected.
At the same time, there seems to be no way out of the situation by deliberate, rational action that doesn’t hurt anyone. For what we might call rage from below, think of being entangled in a bureaucratic nightmare, some Catch-22 situation that poses a significant threat to the satisfaction of your basic needs. Maybe you’ve been hospitalized after an accident you weren’t responsible for, and you’re being bounced from counter to counter, call center to call center as your insurance company refuses payment, and you stand to lose your home as a result. Everything is done by the book, and you’re the one who is seen as unreasonable, although you’re a victim of injustice you believe anyone should see as such. For rage from above, so to speak, think of young John Lennon, who would fly off the handle at the slightest suspicion of a girlfriend’s infidelity or disloyalty. In addition to an exaggerated sense of entitlement, there was plausibly a deep-seated insecurity behind his response, exacerbated by the impossibility of controlling another person’s affections. (It’s not surprising that jealousy so often goes together with rage.) In this kind of rage, too, there’s the sense that one cannot see a way to get what one needs by deliberate action.
Rage motivates you to destroy, to get physical. Preferably destroy what you see as the obstacle to justice, but as it is often something intangible and impersonal, anything to hand. Action done out of rage isn’t strictly speaking goal-directed, so it isn’t fit to be assessed by the usual standards of instrumental rationality. It is at least close to purely expressive action. You can’t take it any more. You’re being told or it seems to you can’t do anything about your fate. But damn it, you can do something, anything. You can burn something, tear something to pieces, you can throw a rock at someone who tries to stop you. (Or verbally lash out at someone, engage in uncivil, abusive, expletive-ridden speech, or, milder again, play-act rage in song and dance, without actually hurting anyone.) In the case of rage from below, you may know you’ll lose, that you’ll at best annoy the powerful who have got a stranglehold over you, but at least you didn’t just take it. Acting out of rage can restore a kind of self-respect: even if you end up hurt much more than the bastards, at least you had the power, for a while, to disrupt their scheme, to expose to the world that all is not well.
I’ll say that rage is warranted (or, as some might say, rational) when one really is deprived of something important one is entitled to, particularly when a pseudo-reasonable justification is offered for it, and, due to machinations of those benefiting from such deprivation, one cannot change the situation without a significant cost to oneself or others. Often rage isn’t warranted. In the case of rage from below, there’s often an alternative way to change the situation, and in the case of rage from above, one’s sense of entitlement is mistaken to begin with. (I doubt if rage from above can ever be warranted.)
Even if rage is warranted, it doesn’t mean that actions done out of rage are morally permissible. The destruction that rage motivates is often indiscriminate (although, as Bryce Huebner pointed out to me, it may actually be more discriminate than it looks to an outsider.) You break the windows of a shop whose owner didn’t do anything to you, or pull a gun at a hapless minimum-wage customer service worker doing her job, or even lob a mortar round at a kibbutz just across the border. Such wrongful harm to others doesn’t become morally permissible when they are manifestations of warranted rage.
So I don’t endorse violence done out of rage. But I do want to say that when rage is warranted, at least a large part of the moral responsibility for the wrongful harm belongs to those who have created the situation in which rage is warranted, the people who impose unjust demands and close off every means-end rational path of resistance. It is a severe moral wrong to put someone in a rage-warranting situation. Blame is also shared by others who benefit from the situation, and bystanders capable of making a difference to it. In contrast, when acting out of rage, agents themselves temporarily shed some of the characteristics traditionally considered necessary for responsibility. It’s not a coincidence that people who act out of rage are often called ‘animals’ by their targets (current events are no exception). They’re not, of course, but in acting out of rage, they are throwing prudence to the wind and neglecting (if not blocking out) long-term consequences of their actions. They are, after all, in a jam they need to get out of, and reason tells them there’s nothing they can do, so it is no surprise that they shove their own reason aside. Unfortunately, observing this while ignoring the situation they’re in contributes to pernicious stereotypes, which reinforce the problems they face.
In the case of communities that are treated unjustly, rage is often rightly described as simmering. Perhaps with great effort, people hold back, knowing that it is likely to be counterproductive. But when there is no reward for non-violent resistance (for example, if after decades of civil rights movement, the criminal justice system is still severely biased against African-Americans from beginning to end, or if after years of ‘calm’, Palestinians are faced with more and more deprivation and humiliation), and something happens that dramatizes the injustice and powerlessness, it is not a surprise if rage boils over.
In spite of everything, when violence is a manifestation of rage, there is always a ray of hope. While hate is relatively insensitive to the actions of the hated person – it can famously attach to someone simply in virtue of who or what she is – rage isn’t. (You can be enraged with someone you love.) Dismantle the cage, and the rat will become man again. Hope, even a sliver of hope, dissipates rage from below. There’s the possibility of a genuine peace, if those responsible for the situation make a sincere apology, which entails an acknowledgement that the agents’ demands are and always were legitimate, and a visible change that indicates genuine commitment to changing things.
As I confessed at the beginning, these are baby steps in a philosophy of rage. My answers are provisional, and there’s many questions I haven’t even tried to answer. For example, what is the exact relation between rage and anger? Are rage from below and rage from above really the same feeling? How is collective rage related to individual rage? I welcome suggestions and corrections.
PS. Here’s a heuristic for when rage is warranted: imagine yourself in the situation of the agent, putting aside their actual, potentially false perception of it, and ask yourself: do you want to join in with Zack de la Rocha?