Euthyphro and Political Anger

When I watch people on the Internet get angry over politics– or when I get angry over politics myself– I sometimes think about this passage from Plato’s Euthyphro:

Socrates: But what differences are there which cannot be thus decided, and which therefore make us angry and set us at enmity with one another? I dare say the answer does not occur to you at the moment, and therefore I will suggest that these enmities arise when the matters of difference are the just and unjust, good and evil, honourable and dishonourable. Are not these the points about which men differ, and about which when we are unable satisfactorily to decide our differences, you and I and all of us quarrel, when we do quarrel?

Euthyphro: Yes, Socrates, the nature of the differences about which we quarrel is such as you describe.

Soc. And the quarrels of the gods, noble Euthyphro, when they occur, are of a like nature?

Euth. Certainly they are.

Soc. They have differences of opinion, as you say, about good and evil, just and unjust, honourable and dishonourable: there would have been no quarrels among them, if there had been no such differences-would there now?

Euth. You are quite right.

Soc. Does not every man love that which he deems noble and just and good, and hate the opposite of them?

Euth. Very true.

Soc. But, as you say, people regard the same things, some as just and others as unjust,-about these they dispute; and so there arise wars and fightings among them.

Euth. Very true.

Soc. Then the same things are hated by the gods and loved by the gods, and are both hateful and dear to them?

Euth. True.

Soc. And upon this view the same things, Euthyphro, will be pious and also impious?

Euth. So I should suppose.

This passage is argued about for many reasons– for its attack on theism and faith, or as highlighting the imperfections of our knowledge of the good. What I like best about it, though, is the way it highlights a subtle aspect of our psychology that to me seems very important: that we become angry not merely or usually at actions we disapprove of, but the way those actions we believe to be unjust are incorporated into an ideal of the good or sanctioned by societal approval. You see this all the time in political kerfuffles: Internet trolls of all stripes save their greatest ire not for the worst actors but those who most forcefully articulate a moral architecture they disagree with or are given most elite approval for doing so.

Often, it is merely the suspicion of the existence of such an architecture that motivates anger, as when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters spit upon each other the allegation that each is dominated by identity-politics-obsessed neoliberal stooges (on the one hand) or mouth-breathing mansplaining brocialists (on the other), with differences in policy prescriptions (such as they are) generally sidelined or used merely as evidence for the turpitude and ethical inversion of the opposing team.

Such nastiness is often explained as mere tribalism: we are, one might say, packs of chimpanzees wondering whether the other packs of chimpanzees would taste good for lunch. This is no doubt true, as far as it goes, but calling the animating force mere tribalism omits that political anger is much more about a sense that your own sense of what is just is being trampled on and the unjust are coming to the fore, than merely winning or losing political contests or policy debates. Opponents of gay marriage were often much more angered by Brendan Eich’s firing or by the media’s opposition to Indiana’s RFRA than by the Supreme Court decisions legalizing gay marriage themselves, presumably because the Eich and Indiana affairs appeared to endanger the legitimacy of individuals’ views rather than merely what was held to be within the law.

Or- to take the beam from my own eye– I don’t spend much time thinking about Irish Revolutionary Army violence of the 1970s, but it made me angry that Princeton feted Gerry Adams after it was already widely known that he had personally ordered an apolitical mother of ten to be kidnapped, brought to the Irish border, and shot, with the body not recovered for several decades, along with other episodes of political violence. Recognition by places like Princeton is one of our society’s principal means of pronouncing someone a Good Guy, and one of the costs (says me) of ordering little old ladies murdered is that you don’t get to be a Good Guy anymore, regardless of the merits of your cause. But little do I know. Or, similarly, I don’t feel particularly piqued by the episodes of rioting in St. Louis or Baltimore over the last year, but it annoys me that Matt Bruenig can call in Gawker for more rioting and bemoan in Demos the wealth gap between black and white communities , without anyone pointing out the clear  contradiction between these arguments or suffering professional disapproval for condoning bloodshed.

Some would say that if I were reading the Euthryphro right, I would know that’s just, like, my opinion, man. But understanding where anger comes from doesn’t mean you have to renounce it.



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