One: Resentment and Ressentiment Strawson on freedom and resentment

The British philosopher P. F. Strawson maintained in his classic essay “Freedom and Resentment” that resentment and other reactive affects are natural and original elements of the interpersonally constituted fabric of moral life: “the reactive feelings and attitudes ... belong to involvement or participation with others in interpersonal human relationships”2 Without affective reciprocal relations that matter to both parties, in which they are both invested and thus can potentially evoke negative reactive feelings in the self against the other, we would not be in the realm of the normal attribution of agency and responsibility. We usually do not resent what is considered to be outside of the other’s efficacy. Despite this limitation on what can be appropriately ascribed to others, in conspiracy theories and pathological emotional conditions, we resentfully feel we have been treated unfairly even though the perceived injustice was outside of anyone’s actual power and freedom to choose.

Strawson depicts how resentment is a normal reaction to the other’s unfairness and indifference. Resentment is experienced as a demand that the self places upon the other, demanding her or his recognition or goodwill, whereas shame is experienced as the demand of the other placed on the self.3 The example of resentment serves to establish how the first-person participant perspective of ordinary moral life relies on internal motivations and justifications irreducible to a neutral third-person standpoint. The complexly mediated psycho-social phenomenon of resentment proves the necessitarian account of moral agency to be inadequate while simultaneously exposing the inanity of the “obscure and panicky metaphysics of libertarianism”4

An objective third-person standpoint brackets the participant perspective that encompasses resentment and gratitude, condemnation, and forgiveness. This neutral impersonal attitude, associated with the overly theoretical viewpoint of determinism, would not include the negative and positive emotions that help constitute the fabric of ordinary moral life. It would also not encompass the space of reasons that includes the consideration of what is rational and reasonable to do through arguing, quarreling, and reasoning with others.

In the objective attitude, which for Strawson is a useful resource to contextually adopt as a temporary stance depending on the situation, one does not reason with others insofar as they are others. Others are not participants from this intellectualized viewpoint; Strawson describes how they become the objectivized and depersonalized objects of social policy, management, training, assessment, and treatment.5 This claim indicates that resentment is as much a social-political issue as it is a moral psychological one.

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