Here’s something that’s happened quite a few times at talks at which I argue that moral anger (i.e., moral resentment and indignation) is threatened by free will skeptical considerations – University of Arizona last weekend was a case in point. Someone will say that nothing about free will skepticism challenges anger with impersonal states of affairs, such as the picnic’s being rained out or the car battery’s dying, and then propose that nothing about free will skepticism threatens anger with agent-involving states of affairs either. So even if it’s agreed that being angry with an agent because of the bad thing he’s done is out, anger with bad agent-involving states of affairs would still be in the clear.
A worry about this proposal is that anger with impersonal states of affairs seems unstable. You’re initially angry that the car battery died, but my sense is that this fairly quickly turns into different sorts of negative emotional attitudes, like frustration and disappointment. One feature of this sort of anger is that it disposes the angry person to look for some agent to be angry with – the people at the car shop who should have noted the problem, or the person responsible for taking the car for a check-up. When no fitting agent can be found, the anger tends to turn to emotions like frustration and disappointment. Anger with states of affairs seems ephemeral, and maybe this is because it only makes sense when it’s directed at an agent.
Another worry is whether anger with agent-involving states of affairs can be distinct at the emotional level from anger with the agent. Take Manuel’s (2005) character Jeff the Jerk, the middle level manager who callously fires his workers. A free will skeptic, intent on living in accord with her view, says to him when it’s clear to Jeff that she’s angry: “Jeff, I’m not angry with YOU for being such a jerk, but I am angry THAT you’re such a jerk.” That there would be such a distinction at the emotional level seems implausible. One might respond by arguing this is just a function of the epithet-concept ‘jerk,’ since it would seem to be strongly agent-focused, and so not readily state-of-affairs-focused. So imagine instead that the free will skeptic says to him: “Jeff, I’m not angry with YOU for being so callous, but I am angry THAT you’re so callous.”
This statement might be true, but I’d say the attitude is unstable, and will tend to change either into an emotion like frustration or disappointment or else into anger with the agent. So my tentative verdict is that anger with agent-involving state of affairs isn't a promising alternative for free will skeptics.
Agree or disagree?