John Locke Lecture 2012
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John Locke Lectures

The John Locke Lectures are among the world's most distinguished lecture series in philosophy. This list of past lecturers shows that most of the greatest philosophers of the last half century have been Locke Lecturers. The series began in 1950, funded from the generous bequest of Henry Wilde.

Trinity Term 2014

Professor Martha Nussbaum (University of Chicago)

'Anger and Forgiveness'

The 2014 John Locke Lecture series will be held at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays in weeks 2 to 6 of Trinity Term 2014. The lectures will be given at the Grove Auditorium, Magdalen College.

In addition to the lectures, there will be two discussion seminars, in the Seminar Room at the Radcliffe Humanities Building (Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6GG).  The first seminar will be on 19 May, from 2pm to 5pm, and at this seminar chapters 2 and 3 of the manuscript (see below) will be discussed.  The second seminar is on 2 June, from 3pm to 6pm.  The first half of this seminar will be on chapters 4 and 5; the second half, on chapters 6 and 7.

Martha Nussbaum


Lecture 1 (7th May) 'Furies into Eumenides'

Anger is not just ubiquitous, it is also popular – even among philosophers. Many people think it is impossible to care sufficiently for justice without anger at injustice. Many also believe that it is impossible for individuals to vindicate their own self-respect adequately without anger. These lectures will argue that anger is conceptually confused and normatively pernicious. It is neither normatively appropriate nor productive in either the personal or the political life. The first lecture introduces the core ideas, using as a metaphor the end of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, in which goddesses of retribution are transformed into guardians of social welfare. It also introduces a sub-argument concerning forgiveness: rather than being the normatively benign alternative to anger that many people believe it to be, forgiveness (at least as standardly defined) all too often proves a covert form of anger, extracting humiliation as a condition of forgoing angry attitudes.

Lecture 2 (14th May) 'Anger: Down-ranking, Weakness, Payback'

This lecture (a very short form of the chapter 2 available on the website) analyzes the cognitive content of anger, starting from, but not totally agreeing with, Aristotle’s definition. With the help of an example, I argue that anger is almost always normatively flawed in one of two ways. Either it wrongly supposes that punishing the aggressor could make good a past damage – an idea of cosmic balance with deep roots in the human psyche but nonsensical – or, in the case where the angry person focuses exclusively on offense to relative status, it may possibly make sense (a relative lowering of the offender does effect a relative raising of the victim), but the exclusive focus on status is normatively problematic. Although anger may still be useful as a signal, a motivation, and/or a deterrent, its flaws compromise even this instrumental role. I then discuss a concept that I call the Transition: a constructive segue from backward-looking anger to constructive thought about the future. And I identify one species of anger that I do consider normatively unproblematic, which I call Transition-Anger. I also discuss the connection between anger and a displaced sense of helplessness, and examine a possible role for empathy in extricating oneself from the trap of anger.

Lecture 3 (21st May) 'Anger in the Personal Realm'

It is commonly thought that people who have been wronged by intimates ought to be angry, because they owe it to their self-respect so to react. This lecture (a very short form of chapter 4 on the website) contests that claim, discussing anger between intimate partners and anger between adult children and their parents (but focusing on the latter for reasons of time). I end with a discussion of self-anger. In all cases I pursue my sub-theme of forgiveness, arguing that generosity, and not the extraction of apologies, Is what we need.

Lecture 4 (28th May) 'The Political Realm: Everyday Justice'

Many people think that the institutions of the legal system ought to embody the spirit of (justified) anger, and they defend a picture of criminal punishment along these lines. In keeping with the forward-looking and constructive attitude I have defended previously, I criticized criminal law retributivism and defend a Millean (not exactly Benthamite) form of welfarism, looking at the implications of these ideas for several specific aspects of the criminal justice system (victim impact statements, shame-based penalties, juvenile justice conferencing, mercy at the sentencing phase). I insist, however, that the ex post focus of the criminal justice system is actually a narrow part of the task of a good society in dealing with crime. Forward-looking strategies should focus above all on education, health care, nutrition, and inclusion in the political process. (This lecture is a short form of chapter 6 on the website.)

Lecture 5 (4th June) 'The Political Realm: Revolutionary Justice'

When there is great injustice, it is very tempting to think that righteous anger is the best response, and even a necessary response. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that the three most successful revolutionary freedom movements in the past century have been conducted in a spirit of non-anger (distinct from, though sometimes joined to, non-violence): Gandhi’s independence movement, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s role in the U. S. civil rights movement, and Nelson Mandela’s freedom movement in South Africa. Studying the thought and practice of these three leaders, I argue that non-anger is both normatively and practically superior to anger. (This lecture is a short form of chapter 7 from the website.)


The manuscript supporting these lectures is scheduled to be published in Autumn 2015.

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