Martha Nussbaum has a problem with anger. In a nutshell, it is that such an emotion continues to exist. Anger and Forgiveness has a great many animadversions to make against the first of its titular themes, which its author believes to be an atavistic and almost entirely deplorable element in human evolution. Anger, Nuss­baum asserts, “em­bodies an idea of payback or retribution that is primitive, and that makes no sense apart from magical thinking or narcissistic error.” While a fleeting moment of outrage—what she calls “transitional anger”—may be inevitable and even useful when one is confronted with injustice, it is necessary to move rapidly and decisively through this stage to a “forward-looking” stance. “All anger,” she declares bluntly, “is inappropriate.”

But that does not mean that its supposed opposite, forgiveness, is greatly to be preferred. The very worst kind of forgiveness, Nussbaum maintains, is the Christian form of “transactional” forgiveness, in which pardon is granted if the offender acknowledges fault and repents. To require a prior admission of wrongdoing is to compel the perpetrator to subject himself or herself to “a traumatic and profoundly intrusive process of self-denigration.”

For Nussbaum, even unconditional forgiveness, offered as a free gift and involving no action whatever on the part of its beneficiary, is only a little less objectionable. “Un­conditional forgiveness requires that the wronged party have angry feelings first, and then choose to waive them.” Thus tainted at its root, it is not so much an act of generosity as an ugly and “petty” display of self-righteousness on the victim’s part.