Adam Smith on Resentment

Jonathan Jacobs for AdamSmithWorks

May 15, 2019
Resentment gets a good deal of bad press. That is not so surprising. Resentment can become ‘toxic;’ it can motivate us to act in hurtful, vengeful ways even if we recognize that so acting is morally objectionable. Resentment can be painful and yet, we sometimes nurse it and sustain it nonetheless. Someone who is seething with resentment can be a dangerous person for being motivated by passions and not principle, and not caring about the proportionality of his or her resentment-motivated behavior. Nietzsche famously pilloried ressentiment as a kind of cultural pathology characteristic of Christian Europe.[i] Despite all this, there is an excellent case for resentment as a proper part of moral life. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Adam Smith presents a case for the view that, not only is there a place for it, but resentment can play an important role in regard to seeing that justice is served. Smith is not the only philosopher to defend resentment but the view he articulates is especially insightful for the way it fits into his overall view of moral psychology. The present discussion articulates some of the key elements of his view of resentment and its role. 
 
Early in The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith argues that resentment and gratitude are among the most fundamental moral sentiments. Why should this be? It is actually a quite plausible claim. Human beings are capable of acting for reasons, of having purposes and concerns, and of being motivated by a multitude of feelings and attitudes. Moreover, they can consider those feelings and attitudes, and can reflect on their purposes and concerns. We can negotiate the world and interactions with each other on the basis of what we think good and worthwhile, and on the basis of motives we regard as appropriate and commendable. Each mature individual is a locus of voluntary, accountable agency, and that is a crucial feature of the moral sphere. 
 
Smith wrote: “Gratitude and resentment, therefore, are the sentiments which most immediately and directly prompt us to reward and to punish. To us, therefore, he must appear to deserve reward, who appears to be the proper and approved object of gratitude; and he to deserve punishment, who appears to be that of resentment.”[ii]“To punish, too, is to recompense, to remunerate, though in a different manner; it is to return evil for evil that has been done.”[iii] The notion of ‘evil’ here is just that punishment is something unpleasant, undesired. It is certainly not the notion of “two wrongs making a right” or mere vengeance. 
 
Human beings can exercise their abilities as voluntary, accountable agents in ways that merit appreciation and praise—meriting gratitude; and in ways that merit censure and blame—meriting resentment. Gratitude and resentment are responses to normatively fundamental aspects of human action. Each is a basic normative valence of desert, and desert is an integral aspect of morality. In the complete absence of considerations of desert a putative moral order would be barely recognizable, and at the least, incomplete in a significant respect. It would be difficult in the extreme—if possible at all—to imagine moral experience, judgment, and moral life overall if there was no place at all for desert with respect to human action. There could be pleasure and pain; and there could be fear and affection; but eliminating desert would seem to take with it what is most significant about voluntariness and accountability. 
 
Smith was not arguing that resentment seems unavoidable so we need to find a way to contain it, to make it a tolerable aspect of moral experience. Rather, his view was that it has a proper place in morality. Were it to become absent from our lives there would be a significant cost to morality. The reason for that is that resentment is crucial to the concern to see that justice is served. Smith’s notion of resentment included what we would call ‘indignation;” it was not just resentment concerning wrongs done to ourselves but to others, as well. When we feel indignant over the way someone else has been treated unfairly or has been needlessly but deliberately harmed, we are showing a kind of general or impartial concern for justice, and that is crucial to the moral solidarity of a community. It is an important way of communicating commitment to certain values and norms. 
 
Imagine that no one ever felt resentment or indignation on your behalf or on behalf of anyone else. On what basis would people show concern for whether others are treated justly? It might seem like a world liberated from a variety of morally harmful feelings, motives, and behaviors. It might be a world in which no one seeks vengeance; but that’s because no one has any concern for the dignity or wellbeing of anyone else. How plausible is it that human beings should achieve an enduring, effective concern to see that justice is served, and served impartially, not just in one’s own case, if they are insensible, unresponsive to harm in the way they would have to be if they are to be free of resentment?
 
Like other important figures in the tradition of British Moralists (including, among others, Hutcheson, Hume, Butler, Smith, Reid) Smith did not believe that people are naturally or inevitably egoists who have to somehow be manipulated or argued into having any concern for the welfare of others.[iv] He (like the others in the tradition) recognized that people tend to have an especially strong concern for their own interests but also that sociability is an integral feature of human nature.[v] Human beings need to live in society, and there are all sorts of ways they are willing to promote the interest of others, find it pleasing to do so, and have genuine concern for others, even complete strangers. Consider what parents do for children, friends for each other, efforts made to help those in distress, philanthropic projects of all sorts, people’s efforts to improve their communities, make provision for the next generation, and so forth. 
 
To be sure, there is also plenty of selfishness and callous indifference to the plight of others, and also downright cruelty. But, in general, for human beings to show moral concern for the rights and interests of others human nature does not need to be remade somehow. Rather, inclinations and sensibility most people already have need to be extended, made more robust, and more regular. Consider how important it is to most of us that others think well of us, and for the right reasons. Some people are concerned only with appearances or are happy to deceive others but most of us believe it is important to be morally decent and to be recognized as such. 
 
It is part of Smith’s view that people want to be praiseworthy and not only praised.[vi] They want to be admired for their dignity and virtue, and not merely elicit praise whether on good grounds or fatuous ones. He wrote: 
Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praise-worthiness...[vii]

And:
Neither can we be satisfied with being merely admired for what other people are admired. We must at least believe ourselves to be admirable for what they are admirable. But, in order to attain this satisfaction, we must become the  impartial spectators of our own character and conduct.[viii] 
 
This comports with Smith’s view about how integral to our lives certain sentiments and attitudes are. And because he was elaborating a theory of morality Smith went further, and argued that there is a kind of dignity in resenting properly, in judging what a wrongdoer deserves on the basis of what the person has done and how that person was motivated and not just on the basis of how one has been affected by the wrongful conduct. It is not so surprising that many people resent too much or too long, but it is damaging. However, there is a morally significant role for resentment. It is the safeguard of justice and the security of innocence.
It prompts us to beat off the mischief which is attempted to be done to us, and to retaliate that which is already done; that the offender may be made to repent of his injustice, and that others, through fear of the like punishment, may be terrified from being guilty of the like offence. It must be reserved therefore for these  purposes, nor can the spectator ever go along with it when it is exerted for any other.[ix] 
 
There is something contrived and implausible about claiming that we should ‘transcend anger,’ ‘overcome resentment’ or ‘grow out of such negative sentiments and attitudes’ as though they are uncivilized, morally brutish, and always morally dubious. We should not evaluate the moral role and significance of a sentiment or attitude or motive just on the basis of whether forms of it can be associated with harmful conduct, disreputable passions or failures of self-control. In addition, we should not forget that there are such things as misplaced compassion, uncalled for apology, misguided forgiveness, and so forth. Whether a sentiment or attitude is agreeable or disagreeable, whether it tends to motivate benefiting others or not, there is the question of whether it is merited or unmerited, appropriate or inappropriate.
 
Blame, derision, contempt, and other negative sentiments, attitudes, and judgments are disagreeable inasmuch as they are painful to feel. Also, they can easily play a role in motivating morally dubious conduct. Nonetheless, voluntary, accountable agents are susceptible to being objects of such attitudes on the basis of what they are like, how they are motivated, and what they do. Are those sentiments and attitudes always reflective of moral immaturity or of a sensibility that is insufficiently oriented to justice or the good? Actually, most, if not all, are among the responses and forms of regard appropriate on the basis of persons’ features and conduct, the features and conduct of rational agents capable of reasoned conceptions of what to do and how to respond. They are not just episodes of passion unconnected with appropriate bases. 
 
Upholding justice is especially important to the social life of human beings and to the possibility of their happiness. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith wrote, “A sacred and religious regard not to hurt or disturb in any respect the happiness of our neighbor, even in those cases where no law can properly protect him, constitutes the character of the perfectly innocent and just man.”[x] 
 
The fact that justice concerns principles of right action and principles of what is owed to persons and what sorts of legitimate claims they can assert does not mean that there is no role for sensibility in the concern for justice. Someone whose moral education did not include the development of resentment aimed at injustice should not strike us a fortunate person, someone spared the “disagreeable” character of resentment, and freed from punitiveness. Rather, in lacking sentiments that “beat in time” with others’ resentment of injustices this is someone who is morally tone-deaf in a significant respect.[xi] 
 
Resentment can involve perception and judgment and it should not be interpreted merely as a kind of hostility or inclination to be punitive. It can reflect regard for the wrongdoer as someone whose motive and whose conduct is not just objectionable but blameworthy. In addition, it can show regard for the victim, as someone who has suffered unmerited (but voluntarily done) harm. We do not resent the storm that ruined the orchard; nor do we feel resentment on behalf of the fruit trees. And if we feel sympathy for a family whose barn has been destroyed it is a different mode of sympathy from that we feel for the person who has been wronged, say, by an arsonist having burned down their barn. (“Sympathy” in Smith’s usage is not limited to something such as “feeling for” or compassion. By “sympathy” he mans the ability to represent to ourselves the thoughts, feelings, and responses of other persons. In that broader sense it is crucial to morality, as the basis of our bonds of community, shared concern, and reciprocity.) 
 
There is even an important aesthetic aspect to morally appropriate responses, inasmuch as they reflect a proper balance, order, fitness of form and measure. Smith wrote:
Nothing is more graceful than the behavior of the man who appears to resent the greatest injuries, more from a sense that they deserve, and are the proper objects of resentment, than from feeling himself the furies of that disagreeable passion; who, like a judge, considers only the general rule, which determines what vengeance is due for each particular offence; who, in executing that rule, feels less for what himself has suffered, than for what the offender is about to suffer; who, though in wrath, remembers mercy, and is  disposed to interpret the rule in the most gentle and favour- able manner, and to allow all the alleviations which the most candid humanity could, consistently with good sense, admit of.[xii] 

The impartial spectator could never approve of punitive resentment unregulated and uncontained by the employment of sympathy and imagination in a critically reflective process. Smith wrote:
But we admire that noble and generous resentment which governs its pursuit of the greatest injuries, not by the rage which they are apt to excite in the breast of the sufferer, but by the indignation which they naturally call forth in that of the impartial spectator; which allows no word, no gesture, to escape it beyond what this more equitable sentiment would dictate; which never, even in thought, attempts any greater vengeance, nor desires to inflict any  greater punishment, than what every indifferent person would rejoice to see executed.[xiii]
 
Punitiveness can be felt in proper measure, and it can be a mode of addressing the person punished as a rational, accountable agent capable of morally righting himself. Punitive resentment is part of a communication of values the offender can recognize as guidance rather than as merely hurtful. The wrongdoer should be able to reflectively recognize that others cannot share the motives and attitude that resulted in his unjust act. Often, when we describe a response or an attitude as punitive we are criticizing it, highlighting a respect in which it is morally objectionable, perhaps for being too harsh or for being vindictive. But punitiveness need not be vindictive or blind to proportionality. Punitiveness can be expressed by censure and imposed by sanction in a manner that is merited and proportional. It can be very difficult to ascertain its proper proportions but it is surely a mistake to think it is always excessive, always intended to injure in the sense of worsening the person punished.[xiv] 
 
When punishment is meted out on the basis of desert and proportionality not only is there no reason to regard the retributive sentiments that support that as morally questionable, they are morally commendable. Along such lines Smith wrote, “[t]he violator of the more sacred laws of justice” will find himself repugnant and he “becomes in some measure the object of his own hatred and abhorrence”. [xv] Smith said of the virtuous person that “[h]e is in friendship and harmony with all mankind, and looks upon his fellow-creatures with confidence and benevolent satisfaction, secure that he has rendered himself worthy of their most favourable regards.”[xvi] And he wrote: “There can be no proper motive for hurting our neighbor, there can be no incitement to do evil to another, which mankind will go along with, except just indignation for evil which that other has done to us.”[xvii] 
 
There are at least half a dozen places in the first fifty or so pages of The Theory of Moral Sentiments where Smith uses the expression “beats in time with” or an expression almost identical to that one. He is, in each of those instances, highlighting the great importance of community of sentiment.
 
Smith’s discussion of resentment is not, of course, meant to rationalize whatever resentments people happen to feel. It is an account of how even a “disagreeable” sentiment can have an important role in moral life and moral motivation. It explicates what sorts of features of actions and motives merit resentment (i.e., primarily injustice) and how resentment can be properly proportioned to its object. (That is a role for the impartial spectator.) Part of what is so striking about Smith’s moral theory is that he explains distinctions between morally sound and unsound judgments and actions, and how certain responses and attitudes can be merited by their objects, how they can be in proper proportion—all of this explained basically through the resources of imagination and sensibility. He does not appeal to objective values or to a priori principles, but to what is most reasonable based upon reflection and striving for impartiality.






[i] Nietzsche develops his view of ressentiment in On the Genealogy of Morals. It is not exactly the same phenomenon as resentment though it is related to it in important respects. Some of Nietzsche’s critique of ressentiment would apply also to resentment. Both, in his view, involve hostility born of weakness and envy of the strength and prosperity of others, the hostility being turned into a notion of one’s own moral superiority, as a way of gaining at least a ‘moral’ victory over the other. Ressentiment, he held, is what motivated and sustained the moral values characteristic of Christianity (but not only Christianity).
[ii]  Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Ibid. II.i.I. 7, p. 69.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] In Mill’s Utilitarianism the current of thought concerning sociability and the social feelings is very pronounced. In fact, it is a crucial part of his “proof” of the utilitarian principle. He regards human beings as strongly desiring to be in unity with their fellow-man and he held that we can come to “naturally” take into account the welfare and interests of others. In Hobbes’s Leviathan the social feelings do not have the central role that they have in other British thinkers’ works but we should keep in mind that Hobbes’s emphasis on self-interest has much to do with the kind of reasoning that would motivate a person to agree to leave the precariousness of the state of nature; he was not also arguing that no one would ever have any concern for anyone else except insofar as one’s own interest is promoted thereby.
[v] See, for example, TMS, II.ii.2.1, p.p. 82-83.
[vi] See, for example, TMS, III.2.6-7, pp. 116-117 for Smith’s remarks on the natural sociability of human beings.
[vii] Smith, TMS, III.2.2, pp. 113-114.
[viii] Ibid., p. 114. Here there is mention of the impartial spectator, a key notion in Smith’s conception of moral epistemology. That notion is not essential to the main elements of Smith’s view of resentment but it is important in the passage quoted because of how important it was to Smith that we should really be able to think of ourselves as praiseworthy and virtuous
[ix] Smith, TMS, II.ii.1. 4, p. 79.
[x] TMS, VI.ii. intro. 1, p. 218.
[xi]  Smith uses the expression “beats in time” and similar expressions, such as “keeps time” and “in harmony” and “perfect harmony” frequently in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In fact, such expressions occur about a dozen times in the first quarter of the work. They occur elsewhere in it, as well, along with numerous references to the pitch of sentiments.
[xii] Ibid., Iii.6.5, p. 172.
[xiii] Smith, TMS, I.i. 5.4, p. 24.
[xiv] As far back as Plato’s Gorgias and up to the present theorists have developed theories of punishment maintaining that the imposition of sanction should be understood as a communication of values meant to morally reorient and correct the offender. There is a difference between punishment being felt as unwelcome or undesirable (most of us do not like to be punished) and punishment being meant to harm or worsen the person punished. The latter is morally wrong. Something can be unpleasant but also educative or able to motivate enlarged understanding and changed motives. One of the chief concerns about contemporary carceral practice is that it pretty clearly does worsen or harm . It is difficult to see how that harming can be justified. That is not a reason to abolish incarceration. It is a reason to reform it. 
[xv] Smith, TMS, II.ii.2.3, 84.
[xvi] Ibid., II, ii. 2.4, p. 85.
[xvii] Ibid., II.ii.2.1, p. 82.