Philosophy Ph.D. Dissertations


Resentment and Morality

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Philosophy, Applied

First Advisor

Michael Weber (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Howard C. Cromwell (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Christian Coons (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Neal Tognazzini (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Sara Worley (Committee Member)


Resentment is widely held to be central in moral practice and moral theory, perhaps even the key to understanding concepts like moral wrongness and moral responsibility. Despite this, philosophers pay relatively little attention to resentment itself. For the most part, it is often simply assumed that resentment is a kind of anger, where resentment is differentiated from anger by a belief, judgment, or thought that one has been morally wronged by the object of one’s emotional response. However, this assumption gives rise to problematically circular accounts of our moral concepts, since it involves characterizing resentment in terms of the very concepts that moral philosophers were hoping to explain in terms of resentment. And while some philosophers have claimed that the circularity inherent in such accounts is unproblematic, I contend that such accounts are not informative enough to help us understand our moral concepts.

My dissertation explores the implications of the assumption that resentment is simply a moral form of anger, and argues that this account of resentment is both inaccurate and not well-suited to the role that resentment plays in moral philosophy. First, I argue that despite prevailing assumptions to the contrary, resentment should not be thought of simply as a moral version of anger. Instead, I argue for a non-cognitive, adaptive account of resentment as an emotional response to violations of the interpersonal norms of one’s social group. This account is both empirically well-grounded and consistent with evolutionary and developmental accounts of emotion. It also avoids the circularity inherent in contemporary characterizations of our moral concepts, when given in terms of resentment. Finally, it allows for a ready-made response to the charge that resentment is an immoral or imprudent emotion that we would be better off without. Resentment, on this account, is an adaptive response with deep biological roots, and it plays a crucial role in the success of human cooperative endeavors.