When someone acts without regard for our feelings or needs, a natural response is to feel resentment toward that person. But is that a rational response?
Our topic this week is a threesome. We’re going to talk about freedom, blame, and resentment. You might not think that those three are obviously connected, but I hope to convince you that they are. Let’s start with the middle term of our threesome – blame. We blame people when they do bad things. Blame often leads to or is accompanied by resentment, especially when we are directly and personally harmed by another person. For example, some reckless jerk is darting in and out of traffic. He cuts me off, causing my car to spin out of control. Everybody is likely to blame him for being so reckless. Blame isn’t necessarily a personal thing. But as the directly harmed party, I am also liable to feel something more personal -- an intense and visceral resentment toward him.
Now here’s the connection to freedom. We blame and resent people for the things for which they are responsible. And we think people are responsible for what they freely do. So by looking at when blame and resentment are called for and when they are not, maybe we can learn something about freedom.
Of course, we have to be careful here. There are two different senses of blame -- a non-moral sense and a moral sense. And only one of them has anything to do with freedom or even resentment. In the non-moral sense, to say that one thing is to blame for another is just to say that the one caused the other. Blame in this sense applies to all sorts of things and events -- human and non-human, alike. For example, in this sense we can say that the rise in obesity is to blame for the increasing prevalence of type-2 diabetes. Or in pretty much the same sense, I might blame my dog for knocking over the flowerpot.
I hope it is clear that this non-moral sense of blame really has nothing to do with freedom. But it also doesn’t have anything to do with resentment, either. I may be upset at my sweet, but rambunctious doggie for knocking over the flowerpot – yet again – but I don’t resent her. She’s just not the kind of creature that it’s appropriate to resent. Moral blame and personal resentment are reserved for special kinds of actions performed by special kinds of creatures.
So here’s a natural thought. How about we compare the dog to the jerk to see if we can isolate the difference between the two that makes it appropriate to resent the one but not the other?
Now some philosophers, and probably many Christian Theologians, will think that’s easy. They’ll say that it comes down to the difference between metaphysically free action and causally determined action. The jerk, they will say, did what he did freely. That is, he wasn’t causally determined to do it. He could have done otherwise. That’s why we all hold him morally responsible. That’s also why I, as the aggrieved party, resent him. The dog, by contrast, doesn’t choose. She just acts. And the way she acts is strictly determined by her doggie nature. That’s why I don’t hold her morally responsible and don’t resent her.
But I think that that approach is way too metaphysical. The real difference between the jerk and the dog doesn’t have to do with what the philosopher Peter Strawson once called the panicky metaphysics of incompatiblism (which is what we were just considering). The real difference is all about respect and disrespect. Take the jerk. He presumably saw the space between me and the next car, considered the cost and benefits of cutting me off vs. slowing down, and in full knowledge of all that still decided to cut me off. Me and my rights and my well being just didn’t count for much in his calculations. In other words, the reckless jerk disrespected me by not giving me due weight in his reasoning. I resent him basically because I’m offended by the attitude toward me that his action expresses.
And notice how the jerk differs from the dog. The dog expresses no will toward me at all. That is, she expresses neither good will nor ill will toward me. She probably lacks the capacity to even think about me and my rights and my well being. So in knocking over the flower pot, she’s isn’t disrespecting me in the way the jerk of a driver was, she’s just being her rambunctious doggie self. No point in resenting her for that.
Of course, you could still wonder, I suppose, how this shows that metaphysical question about freedom and determinism are irrelevant to issues about blame and resentment. The way to answer that question is, I think, to think about what would excuse the reckless driver and forestall my resentment. Excusing the driver has nothing to do with finding out either that determinism is true in general or that his action was determined in this particular case. In other words, it isn't about whether his actions were caused, but about how they were caused. In partticular, it's again all about the character of his will. Suppose he didn’t see me or that he cut me off accidentally or that he was really trying to get out of the way of a rapidly approaching emergency vehicle and cutting in front of me was the only way he could do that. I might be upset, since being cut off is a bad thing. And although he harmed me, it seems incorrect to say that he wronged me or that he disrespected me. And so I shouldn’t resent him. Or so it seems to me.
I’m won’t insist that I’ve said enough to silence the person who thinks the real issue has something to do with the incompatibility between freedom and determinism. But I hope it’s clear that even if we bracket that issue, there is still lots of fascinating stuff to talk about. Here are just a few of the questions I hope we discuss: What exactly are we responding to in another when we either resent or blame them? Whether our actions are free or determined? Or whether they express good will or ill will? Is there more to say about the difference between and creatures who are sometimes appropriate objects of resentment and creatures who are never appropriate objects of resentment? And what about excuses? Is to explain an action ipso fact to excuse it? And if not, what’s the difference between explanations that excuse and those which fail to excuse?
Tune in, write in, join the conversation. You won’t regret it. And I hope you will have no cause to resent us.