The Practical, the Political and the Ethical seminar series.

The Practical, the Political and the Ethical seminar series.
23 May 2017, 17:30 to 23 May 2017, 19:00
Room 246, Second Floor, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU


Trust, Anger, Resentment: On Blame and the Economy of Disesteem

R. Jay Wallace (Berkeley)

Blame is naturally understood in terms of reactive attitudes such as resentment. These attitudes, in turn, are responsive to reasons, i.e. considerations that make them fitting or appropriate. It seems to follow that the conditions of blame are in place whenever a person has been wronged by another—just as it is appropriate to withdraw trust whenever someone has betrayed the confidence we had invested in them. But this analogy between resentment and the withdrawal of trust neglects the affective dimension of blame, its connection to anger.

I argue that angry disapprobation functions as a form of social pressure that helps to incentivize compliance with basic interpersonal norms. In experiencing reactive attitudes, we understand ourselves to be participating in a natural economy of disesteem, a system that seems crucial to the emergence of stable cooperative relations between people. The significance of this affective dimension of blame comes into clear focus when we reflect on the role of anger and resentment within the context of a personal relationship: these attitudes do not merely register transparently the existence of independent reasons to adjust our behavior toward another person; they have emotional weight in their own right, as factors that come between us and the agent who has wronged us.

States of this kind can be managed in different ways, as the example of forgiveness shows: in forgiving someone, we decline to attach significance to affective states that are nevertheless appropriate, given the behavior of the party whose behavior is forgiven. I suggest in conclusion that the question of how affective states of this kind are to be managed provides a point of entry for the application of practical norms of various kinds to the assessment of the reactive attitudes, including norms of prudence and moral norms of fairness.

The Institute of Philosophy hosts regular seminars on the practical, the political, the ethical aspects of philosophy. The forum generally meets fortnightly in term time.


IP Events Office
020 7862 8833