If I’m resenting the things that I should resent and not resenting the things that I should not resent, I’ll resent you for just up and insulting me out of nowhere. But I won’t resent you for insulting me if you have good reason (or reason of the right kind) to insult me. Similarly, if you negligently do me harm or knowingly (or intentionally) harm me.*

If, as I think we should, we read ‘you have good reason (or reason of the right kind) to insult me’ as referring to fact-relative or objective normative support for the insulting, then appropriate resentment (and non-resentment) is sensitive, in part, to the reasons of (or what matters to) the person who would insult one. And that, I think, is an important result, for it implies that “taking the interests of others into account” (a rough but apt phrase) is built into the standards that govern our reactive attitudes (or at least this reactive attitude). I think this is an interesting way of explaining our taking others into account – as agents, as rational beings, as beings with things that matter to them, not just as ordinary furniture of the universe or generic circumstances relevant to setting goals and making plans – at a basic psychological and normative level.

However, before embracing this result, we need to make sure we actually have it. For, intuitively, in appropriately resenting others for what they do, we respond most fundamentally to their motivation and reasoning (their mindsets, their attitudes), not (not in this fundamental way) to the the objective normative reasons that they have. We should sort this out, then, to make sure that the relevant sensitivity is to (objective) normative reasons, not motivating reasons.

Consider Good Insult, Bad Motivation. You insult me, but, unbeknownst to you, there is good reason (or reason of the right kind) for you to insult me (perhaps I have done something to you that, given my intentions, was terrible, but you don’t see it as the terrible thing that it is). And so, relative to the facts or objectively, it is inappropriate for me to resent you for insulting me (or, intuitively: your insult is appropriate, I deserve to be insulted by you). However, because you don’t rationalize your insult by reference to the facts that are good and sufficient reasons to support it, your mindset is as if you just up and insulted me for no good reason. This warrants my resentment, but the sensitivity here is to your motivation or motivating reasons in insulting me, not to there being normative reason (or not) for you to insult me. I think we should say the following about this sort of case: it is inappropriate for me to resent you for insulting me, but appropriate for me to resent you for, in insulting me, expressing the mindset of unprovoked insult. In the first respect of appropriateness, I’m responsive, in part, to the objective normative support that you have for insulting me. In the second respect, I’m responsive to the motivating reasons behind your insulting me.** And so this sort of case does not gainsay the idea that implicit in the standards of appropriate resentment is a kind of taking account of the interests (or more precisely the reasons) of others.***

I suspect that the other reactive attitudes work in the same way (and are governed by similar normative standards). This result is potentially important, not only in providing the (or a) basic grounding for a kind of basic respect for others (or for persons), but also in helping provide an account of what it is to wrong another person (and what makes an action morally wrong) — Scanlon’s project in WWO. However, this latter result is in view only if warranted resentment (and warrant for other reactive attitudes) is prior to (say, constitutive of) actions being wrongings (or being morally wrong) instead of the other way around. That requires interpreting the ‘because’ in ‘it was right to resent her not showing up because her doing that was wrong’ in an epistemic (or understanding-related) light, not in a metaphysical-determination light. I think that is right, but this seems to me a tricky and hard perennial sort of question. (Scanlon as well needs the order of explanation to go from his story (roughly, of a kind of hypothetical consensus conditioned by reasonable rejection of principles of what we are to allow or disallow) to actions being wrong. I’m hopeful that my kind of story (roughly, of the standards governing the reactive attitudes, including resentment and hence objection/rejection of types of actions others do or might perform) is better-positioned as a good “complaint theory” type of explanans for what makes an action morally wrong.)


*These three patterns seem to cover, however roughly, quite a lot of the territory of resentment-warranting actions (and hence wrongings of persons). We gain some cognitive economy – but perhaps not any explanatory power – in putting all three of these patterns (and any other important ones that constitute appropriate resentment) under the umbrella of actions (and attitudes) that lack respect for others or for persons or some such.

**Plausibly, it is defeasibly appropriate for me to resent a person who is insulting me, precisely because they are expressing a certain hostile or demeaning attitude toward me. But that the person has the right kind of normative support for insulting me is a defeating condition: if they have and express this bad attitude, but objectively speaking there is the right kind of normative backing for their doing so, then resenting them for the insult is inappropriate. Plausibly, as well, the nature of the attitude changes in relevant ways – such that resentment of the person’s mindset is no longer warranted – if the person doing the insulting takes the insult to be backed up by the right kind and strength of reason or normative support (this would be a Good Insult/Good Motivation case).

***To fill things out, consider Bad Insult/Good Motivation. Roughly and intuitively: I insult you, thinking I’m justified in doing so, but (relative to the facts) I am not. In this case, it is appropriate for you to resent me for insulting you. And, again, it seems that, although there is a certain hostility in insulting someone in any case (such that one is defeasibly resented for having or expressing such a mindset toward someone), the nature of the overall motivation changes when I take myself to have the right kind of reason for issuing the insult (such that it is no longer appropriate for the patient to resent the agent for the mindset she expressed in insulting the patient).


  1. Achilles resents the hell out of Hector, because Hector killed his beloved Patroclus. I don’t know whether or not Achilles’ resentment is warranted (the Goddess seems to suggest, at the very least, that it becomes excessive by the end). But does its claim to warrantedness depend on the claim that Hector had no good reason to kill Patroclus? I think he probably had as good a reason as any, and what’s more I think Achilles would admit that Hector had as good a reason as any (it was a fair fight, not treacherously or dishonorably or outrageously carried out, etc.). This doesn’t seem to undermine Achilles’ resentment of Hector. Does it give / should it give a reason to undermine it? I’m not sure it should.

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    • Achilles’s animosity for Hector is so excessive that I’m not sure it really qualifies as resentment at all. I think resentment requires the ascription to the resented person of unfairness or mistreatment inspiring indignation. Achilles can’t justifiably accuse Hector of that, and as you say, it’s not even clear Achilles would unjustifiably accuse Hector of that. Achilles’s killing of Hector seems to be motivated by a kind of rage that’s qualitatively different from mere resentment. It’s more blindly visceral, less cognitively laden, than resentment. The thought just seems to be: “You took my beloved Patroclus from me, and I am filled with rage, so you must die. I don’t care whether it’s your fault or not. You’re here, and my rage needs discharge.”

      It reminds me a bit of the famous “printer destruction” scene in “Office Space.” Is the destruction of the printer motivated by “resentment”? Well, it can’t be. You can’t literally resent a printer.

      That said, there’s some background resentment there for the boss, the company, etc. The printer just becomes the scapegoat for the background resentment.

      I think it’s possible to interpret Achilles similarly. Achilles resents Agamemnon, not Hector. But Achilles can’t do to Agamemnon what he does to Hector. So Hector becomes a proxy for Achilles’s resentment of Agamemnon. Does Achilles resent Hector? Only in the attenuated way that the guys in Office Space resent the printer. But again, I’d say that that’s better described as blind rage, not resentment.

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    • Thanks, @radgeekdotcom. Quite helpful to think about this case. You are right that Achilles’ (or any putative victim’s) claim to warranted resentment (whether true or false) of Hector (of the putative perpetrator) for killing Patroclus (doing something that harms or disrespects the putative victim) does not depend on the putative perpetrator’s harming/disrespecting action being performed for no good reason. The “no good reason” description is just a gloss for not having enough or the right kind of reason to defeat what would otherwise be the resentment-worthiness of the harming/disrespecting action.

      The question is whether Hector, in harming or perhaps disrespecting Achilles by killing Patroclus, had enough or the right kind of reason to kill Patroclus. As you point out, it was a fair fight and so, in the context, in some sense, Hector had perfectly good reason to kill Patroclus. The question, I think, is whether this reason is of the right sort to make Hector’s resentment unwarranted. It seems like it should be. You claim that Hector’s resentment is warranted (that it is intuitively such, that it is presented as such). I suspect this is wrong. We might, instead, think of Hector’s resentment as understandable or expected (and that it is hard not to irrationally resent in this way, in such situations). And so we might (or might be invited to) empathize with his anger, resentment, vindictiveness, etc.


  2. I’m not sure there’s any such thing as a “well-motivated insult.” A harsh, justified criticism may come off as insulting, but that’s different from a remark specifically (or exclusively) intended to insult. If unprovoked, an insult seems unjust, and if provoked, it seems ill-advised and childish. So I’m not sure the example works.

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    • I’m not entirely sure, either. The thought was: some insults are justified (and hence not appropriately resented by the person who is insulted — the important bit for my purposes here). At least: an insult that is the return of an unprovoked insult is justified. Is this false?

      Maybe all of this works better for foreseen or intentional harm and negligent harms. If one resents others for harming one in such ways only when the other agent’s reasons for doing the harming action are sufficiently weighty, I have what I need for the point. If all insults are unjustified (and resentment-warranting), then this portion of the overall standard for appropriate resentment will not exhibit the relevant kind of sensitivity to the reasons of others.


      • At least: an insult that is the return of an unprovoked insult is justified. Is this false?

        I think so. An insult aims to demean its target. It’s unclear that there can be a justification (as opposed to an excuse) for demeaning someone (I highly doubt that there can be), and it certainly doesn’t follow that someone’s demeaning you justifies your demeaning them back.

        But I’m disagreeing with your choice of example, not your overall point.


        • This is a fascinating topic. If insulting is cashed out in terms of intent to demean, what you say seems right (or at least very plausible). But is this always the intent? I suspect that there is a broader kind of ill-intent that is salient. Suppose someone cuts me off in traffic and I call her an asshole (and mean this as an insult, not merely as a statement of fact). In insulting her, I’m aiming to (or aiming as-if to) hurt her in a certain way (viz., make her feel shame for what she has done). But this does not seem to constitute my aiming to demean her (mainly because I take her to deserve to feel ashamed of herself in this way).


          • I agree. This might be a slightly nitpicking disagreement about the meaning of “insult.” I had narrowed its meaning to exclude speech acts of the kind you’re referring to. A calling-out is not an insult in my book; it’s a criticism. I actually think ascriptions of “asshole” are truth-apt, and appropriate where true. I had different sorts of cases in mind.

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