Arcadi on Vicens’ “Love and resentment”

February 14th, 2017 by

Our January 25 seminar was offered by The Revd Dr. Leigh Vicens. With respect to doing analytic theology, Vicens is a unique and aptly trained scholar. She is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with degrees in philosophy from Dartmouth College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But Vicens is also an ordained priest in The Episcopal Church with an MDiv from Virginia Theological Seminary. Her blending of philosophical rigor with Christian—even pastoral—concerns was on full display in her paper entitled “Love and Resentment.”

The guiding question of Vicens’s inquiry is, “Do loving relationships necessarily involve a susceptibility to resentment on the part of the lovers?” The idea is that if you love someone, then loving that person seems to open you up to being hurt by that person. Because, guess what, people are messed up (my words). But if you are hurt by the person you love, you will likely end up feeling resentment toward them. You will think they are worthy of your feeling bitter toward them or annoyed at them or directing ill will toward them. You will think that they deserve your targeting them with ill will. This view was offered by the philosopher Peter Strawson in an important essay from the 1960s. However, Vicens counters regarding this view that “the model of love central to Christian thought and practice would seem to involve the repudiation of resentment.” This leads to what I think is her statement of thesis: “one can suspend one’s reactive attitudes toward another on the grounds that the other is not ultimately responsible for what she does without sacrificing the [essential] elements of loving relationships.”

In order to get to this conclusion, Vicens presents the “free will skepticism” of Derk Pereboom. The basic idea of free will skepticism is that (because of empirical, philosophical, or theological motivations) people don’t really have the agency that would be required for them to be apt recipients of reactive attitudes like anger or resentment. A reactive attitude is one that is directed toward a person (like “I am angry with you” or “I feel resentment toward you”). This is opposed to non-reactive attitudes which are not directed toward a person (like, “I am sad about spilling the milk”). So, if no reactive attitude is ever warranted, then love must not necessarily include the susceptibility to resentment. As Vicens puts it, “On Pereboom’s view, humans are not ultimately morally responsible for what they do, or deserving of praise or blame in a way that would make them appropriate targets of the reactive attitudes.” Rather, Pereboom might counsel, we ought to replace our reactive attitudes towards those we love who hurt us with non-reactive attitudes like disappointment or sadness.

Vicens moves to address two similar but different arguments by Seth Shabo and Justin Coates against Pereboom’s proposal. The gist of these arguments is that if Pereboom’s picture is apt, then no one is actually in a loving relationship, for an essential component of loving is lost on Pereboom’s picture. So, Pereboom is wrong and Strawson is right. However, Vicens analyzes these arguments to find a premise to reject in each, thus entailing that the arguments do not go through and, thus, Pereboom’s notion remains unscathed.

At this point, Vicens pivots to corroborate this picture with two pieces of evidence from Christian theology: (a) some key passages in the New Testament and (b) the account of Christian forgiveness offered by Marilyn McCord Adams. On (a), Vicens notes that there are a few suggestive passages in Scripture that seem to point to the removal of reactive attitudes. For instance, “I say to you that everyone who is anger with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matt. 5:22); “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice” (Eph. 4:31); and “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude…it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor 14:4-5). On (b), Vicens relates McCord Adams’ explication of forgiveness. I won’t get into the whole argument here, but basically on this view forgiveness means letting go of the offence, attempting to see the offender as God might see them, and praying to overcome negative reactive attitudes toward the person.

This was a clear, insightful, and provocative paper. There were a few questions that emerged from the Q&A time (and I think still endure). A first might be, what if one isn’t a free will skeptic? Does any of this analysis still apply? Secondly, what of those passages in Scripture that seem to commend reactive attitudes? For instance God is said to be angry, or Paul says to “be angry and do not sin” (Eph 4:26), presumably entailing that there are conditions under which one ought to be angry. Nevertheless, despite these enduring questions this was a helpful paper that pushes our understanding of the contours of the relationship between love and resentment.

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James M. Arcadi is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary and a Templeton Research Fellow in the Jewish Philosophical Theology Project at the Herzl Institue. He completed his PhD in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Bristol where he focused on a philosophical explication of the doctrine of the Eucharist.

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