Our capacity to complain is one we should treasure, since it depends on the uniquely human capacity to distinguish between the way things are and the way things ought to be. Of course, this ability is squandered if it results in nothing more than miserable moaning. But complaints that lead to action, or are effective forms of action in themselves, are essential components of our moral toolbox. No great social improvement ever came about through someone deciding to let sleeping dogs lie.
Of course, for complaint to be fruitful we have to distinguish between the things we can and should change and those we can’t or shouldn’t bother with. Life isn’t fair, we learn as children, so if we set about trying to fix everything that isn’t as it ought to be, we’d end up frustrated and exhausted.
So which imperfections should we seriously complain about and which should we let pass with little more than a gesture of disapproval? Obviously, we should start by discarding the injustices we can’t change. Complaining that some people are born richer than others suggests the possibility of political melioration, but complaining that some come into the world cleverer than others is pointless.
Less obvious are the imperfections that could be removed, but only at intolerable cost. Is it really worth continually complaining about your partner’s persistently poor time-keeping, for example? Perhaps he ought to be more punctual, but if his time-blindness is deep-rooted, achieving this goal may cost too much in terms of tension and conflict.
Still less obvious is the corrosive effect conflict has on our own wellbeing and character. Think of people you know who have refused to back down on a complaint because “it’s the principle”. They may be right and they may be able to win. But the effort of complaining and following through can demean even the most righteous of complainants. Sometimes, we should shirk even a good fight, because we don’t want to become bitter. Better the bad guy wins than the good guy is dragged down to his level to defeat him.
Two mutually exclusive injunctions lurk at the back of our minds, waiting to kick in when the world lets us down and people or organisations don’t behave as we’d hope and expect. One is to avoid complaining at all costs, believing such a reaction betrays a whining attitude unlikely to win us many friends. When things go wrong we should just put up with it. The other is to complain as loudly as we can: we have the right to get what we want, and why should they get away with it anyway?
Both these attitudes can take us down unfruitful paths. Taking the stoic route often means bottling things up and accumulating resentment. Constantly complaining, on the other hand, can be wearing for both the complainants and those around them. It can turn into a habit, a tendency to focus on the negative divorced from any attempt to improve things. Or it could be expressed in angry outbursts, all too often directed at the wrong people.
Complaining has to be done well to avoid being pointless or even counterproductive. At the very least it should be done in such a way as to invite a constructive response. As so often, the ancient Greek philosophers have some advice. Paraphrasing Aristotle, who was talking about anger, we could say that complaint should be directed to the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way. This is not easy, as Aristotle knew, and it still leaves us to work out what it means in our particular situation.
The Stoic principle that we can’t control other people and circumstances is also handy. People are what they are and no amount of complaining or rebuke will ensure their repentance. Nevertheless, we can and should express our dissatisfaction, not only to get things off our chest, but also because people need to know when they’ve behaved badly and get the chance to put things right. All we have to give up is the expectation that they will.
Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini’s book ‘The Shrink and The Sage’ is available in paperback (Icon, £9.99). To suggest a question, email email@example.com