Freedom, Blame, and Resentment

16 October 2014


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.  

Comments (14)

Guest's picture


Tuesday, May 15, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Nothing here yet? Maybe the

Nothing here yet? Maybe the trichotomy is too complex for immediate comment. Or, alternatively, the connexion is so obvious and historic that folks already have their own mind-set(s) on the matter, and do not wish to be confused by 'facts'? Or, well, the weather has been nice---people are cooking out, and such like. Hmmmm.

Guest's picture


Friday, May 18, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

I too have been looking

I too have been looking forward to the comments on this topic with anticipation. Perhaps a starting point might be the Hindu metaphor of life as a game of cards: the hand you are dealt is the determinism part; how you play the hand is the free-will part. (This may explain why Kenny Rogers song, The Gambler, seems to have struck a special chord with a variety of people.) The laws of physics and physiology certainly impose limits on the possible but the world is a very complicated place. Rational blaming is difficult enough; a little observation makes it clear that much (perhaps most) of blaming is completely irrational. Blaming the victims, and resenting them for being victimized, is a favorite societal pastime since it frees the less disadvantaged from any obligation or responsibility. I'm not sure who said something to the effect that we can forgive those who hurt us but can never find it in our heart to forgive those whom we have hurt.

Guest's picture


Friday, May 18, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

So if I forgive the evildoer

So if I forgive the evildoer does that mean I am objectifying/disrespecting another person by saying their acts have no emotional force on me and their reasons for acting can be disregarded?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, May 18, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Freedom. Blame. Resentment.

Freedom. Blame. Resentment. This sounds like a story of my early life and first marriage. We both treasured our freedom---blamed one another for not having a better understanding of expectations upon wedding, and resented the outcome when we split up after a mere one and one-half years of matrimonial hell. But, it was a confusing time---1970 was not the best time to make a life commitment---as if any time ever is. In any case, when we finally split, we never spoke again. Better that, I guess, than suffering through twenty years and one or more children. She lives (if she still does) in Canada. I live in the USA.
We are free of one another . I doubt that she blames me any more than I blame her (though she was the unfaithful one). I resent little about our short, torrid, relationship, other than the short, amoral, self -absorbed man who took advantage of a boss-employee relationship to cheat on his own wife by screwing mine.

MJA's picture


Sunday, May 20, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

A Resolution

A Resolution
When One finds the flaw of mankind is his uncertain measure of nature,
And removes it from One's life,
Blame and resentment are removed too,
And One becomes true.
Life without measure is
Equal or free
As is One
As is All.

MJA's picture


Tuesday, May 22, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Freedom is equality,

Freedom is equality,
It exist truly and absolutely in a place called the infinite Universe.
It can be found seen and lived by simply removing the uncertainty or flaw of measure.
Life with out measure is free.
Man is the measure of all things as an old Greek once said.
But it doesn't have to be.
Try it and see!
Justice, liberty, Oneness, Unity, Truth, is right here, right now,
And best of All, its free.

Guest's picture


Tuesday, May 22, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

Joan, your question is

Joan, your question is certainly pertinent to the topic. In the cold calculus of retributive justice, forgiveness is as much an evil as is the evil forgiven. However, it is possible to interpret forgiveness as asserting your freedom to do so; although, if the evil is extreme, exercising that freedom may be difficult, if not impossible. Nevertheless, as my wife's favorite televangelist says, holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die. After all, forgiveness is mostly about the forgiver, not the forgiven, is it not?

Guest's picture


Friday, May 25, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

We all have heard how Jesus

We all have heard how Jesus
Healed the lame
And made the blind to see
And drove evil demons into swine
And drowned them.
Such were His lesser works.
Nailed to the cross at Calvary
He died faultless, it is said
So even the worst sinner could be free.
In due time even Pontius Pilate
Became a Christian saint
Among the churches of Abyssinia
(So it is says in Collier's encyclopedia.)
How's that for forgiveness?

Guest's picture


Wednesday, June 6, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

If resentment is based on

If resentment is based on intent, i.e. good will or bad will, then freedom of choice no longer becomes a factor and freedom ceases to be connected in any way to blame and resentment.

Guest's picture


Saturday, October 18, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

John C. in Berkeley sent the

John C. in Berkeley sent the following questions during today's broadcast:
1. "Jean-Paul Sartre used the term bad faith to describe resentment as the blaming of one's own failure on external factors and therefore denying responsibility for oneself. Maybe Sartre thinks a mature moral being would not succumb to blaming another for the feelings his offense engenders. What about this view?"
2. "Is there a social resentment that grounds denunciation, indignation? Or is resentment a property of individual persons?"

rholway's picture


Tuesday, October 21, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

I still hope to find to

I still hope to find to engage with this in detail. In the meantime I want to address the question of whether we are "naturally programmed to  feel resentment." The evolutionary psychology I use in my recent book Becoming Achilles suggests perhaps so, but martial cultures can ratchet up that propensity to produce fierce warriors like Achilles, whom his friend Patroklos calls a dangerous man, who is liable to blame even one who is not responsible (aitios) for wrongdoing. . 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Having read (part of) the set

Having read (part of) the set-up for this thread I'm feeling not a little resentful at some remarks I once endured about my typos! Righteous indignation is all too easily deflected as resentment. The term is preloaded with pernicious, and usually malicious, intent, especially when used philosophically, and always when used politically. And as for compatiblism, what a fraud that is! Time is no more compatible with determinism than is freedom. 'If..., then' is a logical cul-de-sac. If there is any if about it there ain't no if about it, and if there ain't no if about it it's all pretty iffy! It's mug's game! The concept of the subjunctive, logic in any real sense, militates against determinism as a hermetic limit to time and act.

Truman Chen's picture

Truman Chen

Wednesday, October 29, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

Well put! I'd like to put

Well put! I'd like to put forward the idea that the mainstream connection between freedom and moral culpability is a useless one in our daily lives. I think the traditional problem of free will is invoked in two general situations: (1) decision-making and (2) justice.
In the first case, I think it would be salient to remember Sartre's famous story of the young Frenchman trying to decide whether he should join the French war-effort to avenge his brother's death and leave behind his mother who wants her son to be around to take care of her, or stay at home to take care of his mother and leave his brother unavenged. I think it would be rather amusing if someone were to come to this Frenchman and tell him that the traditional problem of free will has been resolved. To understand the irrelevance of this metaphysical discovery, we can analyze the two different possible conclusions. Case 1: we are truly free, and so the Frenchman is free and has complete responsibility over his decision. Okay, he still feels the weight of responsibility and indecision. In addition, he still feels some fear of future blame (self-blame if he makes the wrong decision or blame coming from his mother). Case 2: we are determined, and so our sense of freedom is but an illusion. However, we still retain this sense of freedom and hence responsibility. After this, Case 2 is equivalent to Case 1. Therefore, we see that however the debate on free will and determinism turns out, the Frenchman is helpless in his decision-making process. Metaphysics is not relevant in making your life choices (at least in this sense).
In the second case of Justice, we often hear of the case of the criminal trying to absolve himself of guilt by pleading psychological problems or something of the sort. I am inclined to argue that, just as it was with the Frenchman, this retroactive invocation of the problem of free will is also entirely irrelevant to our daily conception of justice and punishment. Similarly, lets speak in terms of two cases. Case 1: the criminal was free and "could have done otherwise". However, does this immediately imply that he should be punished either by imprisonment or capital punishment? I am inclined to say no. On my own non-metaphysical grounds, I think a deeper analysis of the assumptions underlying our intuitive support of imprisonment and capital punishment is necessary, and I think rehabilitation is the better alternative, although it can admittedly be improved on. Case 2: the criminal was determined and could not have acted otherwise. Okay, now most of us would agree that we should not morally condemn or punish someone who did something that he was not in control of. This is the condition of control, which can be found at least as early as Kant, if not in our common sense far before Kant. So it seems that imprisonment or capital punishment is unreasonable and psychological rehabilitation would be the more reasonable option. Here again we end up with the conclusion of rehabilitation. The problem is that rehabilitation is not as developed as it could be, especially since we currently do not think of criminals as people that need help more than harsh punishment. Thus, it seems that our very assertion on the connection between our mainstream understanding of freedom and responsibility is misleading us to the wrong societal conclusions. Not only is it bad metaphysics, it's bad assumptions leading to a bad application of philosophy.

Guest's picture


Thursday, October 30, 2014 -- 5:00 PM

The degrees of similarity

The degrees of similarity does play a part.  I think a mathematician could assist in this problem. 
Freedom to act does naturally include all outcomes that are physically possible, and those are reinforced by physical contexts, and further reinforced and further reinforced, until common problems represent a statistical situation.  To blame is an aspect of communication.  One may communicate within himself and then behave with the thoughts of his inner communication right in the brain that can run the body or hallucinate....  There is a difference between origin and subsequent "origins".  To say, we are simply alive, and of all the things to happen in the car:
Why was I not prepared to have my legal responsibility of remaining two seconds away from a vehicle in front of me taken away; (answer to personal question) because that is my responsibility, and furthermore, I am now consciously aware that I could be blamed for any action that the driver behind me does take, however much I could agree or disagree. 
Resentment suggests that one feels entitled.  I'm not sure if it's utopian or suggests some other thing.  I have experienced resentment, and did express it verbally and actively which would call upon my environment, to my attentions, as needing to give insight or input or apology and addressing whatever issue I had.  I could've relied on religion or reason or the judge of a court.  But the expression of emotion does let others and self judge or otherwise consider with a context of reason and with purpose, often unmet with direct expression or definition for it being boring or unnecessary.  It let's others know that it could happen to them, and do they care?
Freedom is never utilized by a component.  People are components, in most contexts, for example.  Freedom is arbitrary and freedoms are often requested; components play with freedom and express it's capabilities.  Resentment is a feeling that causes actions, yeah.  Resentment is personal and includes not one singular thing but a history.  Blame is safe and healthy as it puts an active focus to circumstances and allows one to play with freedom, in the way I've already described.  To blame does make use of the environment and imposes a context and reality to components, but that is done with things that we like, also, and often enjoy being "beautiful" or "fun to be around", which we didn't ask for.  When we blame or become resentful, we are actively calling on our environment to recognize it with whatever extent of blatancy.  And it will or should for one's attention is on it, and the lines can be drawn between cause and effect to an end with whatever imagination is applied to it. 
He cut you off and my cat peed, if front of me, on something, sure, but in my room.  He's been quite cozy in there and has seen me flick ashes right on the floor, and I also thought it proper to leave a hair ball that he coughed up halfway onto an envelope, to show him that his dirt is not dirtier than my dirt, and he started at that hairball and slept next to it, as if he loved it being there.  So I Lysoled the shit out of the pee that had gotten on the floor, for having been curious why he was sitting so casually on my bag; and told him not to pee there, and covered the spot with a shirt, to signify that some cat harming chemical was a bit too accessible to the very cat that was the reason that Lysol was sprayed.  But I treat my cat like a sentient being at all.  So.  I'm going to move the litter box.  My fault for all the reasons it is, and to meet those reasons with my actions does effectively solve some problems I had had.  It doesn't remove the origin, and that would be a terrible problem to have.