18 Pages

Resentment and moral judgment in Smith and Butler


Adam Smith expresses a fair amount of ambivalence towards the passion of resentment. In the opening pages of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he cites it as a passion whose expression initially ‘excites no sort of sympathy, but … serve[s] rather to disgust and provoke us’ (Smith 1976, TMS I.i.1.6). Even more than in other cases, we must ‘bring home’ the particularities of the resentful person’s circumstances and provocation to ourselves – and, in particular, we must figure out whether we sympathize with his antagonist’s motives – before we can possibly ‘enter into’ his emotional state. Our sympathy with resentment is always indirect and secondary. Indeed, resentment belongs to the class of ‘unsocial’ passions, alongside hatred and spite: those emotions whose immediate effects are most disagreeable to the spectator (I.ii.3.5). There is thus almost no foreshadowing, in the opening pages of TMS, of the role resentment will come to play in Part II: Of Merit and Demerit. Resentment reappears there as a fully-fledged moral sentiment, whose natural attributes are such that they successfully ground our moral judgments of demerit or blame, just as our natural sentiments of gratitude ground our judgments of merit or praise. Resentment – it would appear – has become moralized. This essay is a discussion of the ‘moralization’ of resentment. By

moralization, I do not refer to the complex process by which resentment is transformed by the machinations of sympathy, but a prior change in how the ‘raw material’ of the emotion itself is presented. In just over fifty pages, not only Smith’s attitude towards the passion of resentment, but also his very conception of the term, appears to shift dramatically. What is an unpleasant, unsocial and relatively amoral passion of anger in general metamorphoses into a morally and psychologically rich account of a cognitively sharpened,

normatively laden attitude, an attitude that contains both the judgment that the injury done to me was unjust and wrongful, and the demand that the offender acknowledge its wrongfulness.1 Two very different readings of ‘Smithian resentment’ are thus available from the text. Indeed, the notion of two distinct forms of resentment – an instinctive, amoral version and a rich, rationally appraising attitude – would bring Smith into line with an earlier account of resentment, found in Bishop Joseph Butler’s Fifteen Sermons Preached at Rolls Chapel, first published in 1726. Ultimately, I argue, the differences in their theories are to Smith’s credit. It is precisely because the ‘thin’ or generic retaliatory passion described in Part I can be reconciled with the rich, normative attitude in Part II, that Smith is able to accomplish his meta-ethical goal of grounding moral judgments in naturally occurring emotions.