Unreasonable Resentments

Journal of Social Philosophy 41 (4):422-441 (2010)
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Abstract

How ought we to evaluate and respond to expressions of anger and resentment? Can philosophical analysis of resentment as the emotional expression of a moral claim help us to distinguish which resentments ought to be taken seriously? Philosophers have tended to focus on what I call ‘reasonable’ resentments, presenting a technical, narrow account that limits resentment to the expression of recognizable moral claims. In the following paper, I defend three claims about the ethics and politics of resentment. First, if we care about socially just processes of reconciliation, we have good reason to pay attention to the logic of resentments. Second, the account philosophers offer of resentment – its distinctive features, aims, rationality, and gratification – will affect the conclusions we draw about which actual resentments to take seriously, which aspects of resentful claims need addressing, and what it means to address and repair them. In contesting definitions of resentment, I argue, we do more than simply perform housekeeping in philosophical taxonomies of emotion. Restricting our understanding to essentially ‘moral’ cases may cause us to lose sight of expressly political resentments. Instead, I argue, a plausible account of resentment must acknowledge that we resent violations and threats that are not necessarily self-pertaining, may not be expressible as individual, discrete injuries, and cannot always be construed as moral threats. Second, given the dependence of moral judgments on a broader horizon of moral possibility, philosophical standards of ‘reasonable’ or ‘appropriate’ resentment cannot avoid being politically charged. Thus, the widely accepted account of ‘reasonable’ resentment cannot make philosophical sense of the most interesting and perplexing cases. Ironically, a theoretical measure designed to revalue emotional expressions of moral protest may result in the exclusion and silencing of those with the most reasons to protest.

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Alice MacLachlan
York University

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