Compassion and Resentment in the Age of #MeToo

by Mikhail Valdman

The Walking Wounded

People’s physical wounds are sometimes visible.  Their emotional wounds are hidden from view, sometimes buried so deep that not even their bearer can spot them.  But imagine that it was all visible.  Imagine that you had a pair of magic glasses with which you could see people’s physical and emotional wounds just as clearly as their faces.  What would you see if you put them on and strolled around the city?  Just another day, people moving to and fro?  A civil war battlefield?  A post-apocalyptic hellscape? Whatever you’d see, it wouldn’t be pretty.  We’re mammals navigating a world of predation, raised by other mammals in an environment that’s radically different from the one in which our brains and bodies evolved.  We’re all a mess.  We’ve all been wounded.  No one here gets out alive.

Consider the spectacle from the perspective of distributive justice.  Through your glasses you gaze into the crowd and see a huge swath of humanity in all manner of pain.  But whose pain is getting attention?  Whose is a matter of public concern?  Which distributive principle, if any, guides the allocation of assistance and care?  Does it flow to those with the deepest wounds?  To those whose wounds can be most effectively healed?  Are some receiving the lion’s share of attention despite their wounds’ relative shallowness?  Are some suffering in silence because they lack cultural clout or because their wounds, though deep, lack a political constituency to lobby for their amelioration?  Have your magic glasses revealed a realm in which there is justice in the allocation of resources or have they exposed a heretofore undiscovered continent of distributive injustice?

I would bet on the latter.  We are bad enough at correcting such injustice when people’s wounds are visible.  Make their wounds invisible, and we hardly stand a chance.  Indeed, under those conditions, our amelioration efforts could make things worse by widening the gap between the intended targets and those unwittingly left behind, hardening the latter’s resentments and grievances.  For instance, suppose that a public health care system devoted the bulk of its resources to mending broken legs.  That would be better than nothing.  But if you had a broken wrist, cystic fibrosis, or cancer, you’d be hard-pressed to quell your ire.  What makes broken legs so special, you might wonder, or the people who have them, that they should receive — and feel entitled to receive — the lion’s share of public assistance while other conditions and injuries, no less severe, go untreated?  Taken to extremes that attitude could be irrational; it would suggest that you’d prefer that no one should receive care if the alternative is that only those with broken legs receive it.  But you needn’t take it that far. You could prefer the converse but still resent the unfairness of a health care system that distributed its resources in such a way.


It’s useful to bear in mind the pervasiveness of injury and the attendant inequalities of attention and care when considering the travails of Christine Blasey Ford, and, indeed, of #MeToo, which is failing to gain traction beyond reliably liberal enclaves.  Signs of resistance are everywhere.  Donald Trump, self-proclaimed pussy-grabber, is the president.  Caught on tape confessing to sexual assault (or at least bragging about it) a month before the election, he still received 53% of the white female vote.  Ford’s testimony split the country in two.  At first Democrats were ebullient, but after the final hearing Mitch McConnell was convinced that he’d been handed a gift.  And that was despite the fact that her testimony could hardly have been more compelling while Kavanaugh’s was an unhinged duplicitous rant.  If sexual assault victims aren’t taken seriously under those conditions, one might ask, what hope is there?  Could it really be that half the country either refuses to believe them or just doesn’t care?

It could, but the truth is more complicated.  Some, it seems, really don’t care.  Some care but in the opposite direction, reveling in Ford’s crushed feelings.  Others care, but not enough to overcome their partisanship, as it might have been had the shoe been on the other foot.  Some claim that it’s unfair to judge a middle-aged man by his teenage indiscretions, though it’s rare to see that view consistently applied.  Others claim that human memory is unreliable and susceptible to all manner of distortion, though Kavanaugh’s misleading and evasive testimony, along with Republicans’ unwillingness to investigate the matter properly, should have pushed against that worry.

More interestingly, some opposition to Ford was probably a spillover from resentment of #MeToo, a movement that can seem immoderate, vindictive, and overly reliant on intimidation and kangaroo courts.  I share its goals; I too would like to live in a world in which people didn’t feel entitled to abuse their power or take liberties with others’ bodies.  But the goals don’t always justify the means.  #MeToo has done itself no favors by being unwilling to draw distinctions, accept apologies, or countenance any attitude towards victims other than complete obeisance.  Believing victims has come to mean not just granting them a presumption of sincerity, not just of accuracy, but also a blanket refusal to apply considerations of reasonableness to their perceptions of their ordeal’s effects.  Indeed, for the movement’s champions, one wonders if an unreasonable response to an unwanted touch is even possible.  Also troubling, and seldom discussed, is the movement’s refusal to consider its own role in shaping those perceptions.  Social constructionists to the core, #MeToo’s champions seem to make a startling exception in the case of a victim’s attitudes toward his or her assault, as if social norms have played no role in shaping those attitudes and #MeToo has played no role in shaping those norms.  Perhaps this is an oversight.  Perhaps it isn’t.  After all, such an investigation could potentially expose #MeToo’s supporters to the very accusation that they direct at their critics: they are harming victims.

But opposition to Ford could have also stemmed from a different resentment – one rooted not in displeasure at #MeToo’s tactics or intellectual underpinnings but in its tunnel vision – the kind that would be evident if the lion’s share of medical attention were reserved for broken legs.  Call it the resentment of the left behind – of the millions of walking wounded whose wounds garner little public attention or support.

Let me explain by sharing a bit of my own history.  When I was four, a day care worker threatened me with castration, going so far as to mock-attack me in my cot with a knife.  I was wetting the bed, and she was tired of having to change the sheets.  When I was ten, I was accosted by an older and much larger boy on my way home from school who threatened to break my legs.  He was completely deranged, raving about how I had beaten up his brother (I hadn’t) and for a minute, I thought he might do it.  When I was twelve, I attended a school at which I was bullied mercilessly for months.  Every day was an ordeal, a cat and mouse game in which all I could think about was how to elude my tormentors.  Since then, the threat of violence has subsided but has never vanished.  I’ve since been threatened.  I’ve been groped.  I’ve had a gun to my head.  I’ve feared for my life.

The bullying left the deepest scars.  These days I rarely think about it, but every so often something triggers those memories and the feelings come flooding back.  It’s a heady cocktail of hatred, anger, and self-loathing, wrapped in a powerful desire for redemption.  It’s palpable, and after several seconds I’m consumed by two additional desires: one to lash out and another to withdraw.

I mention my history not to garner your sympathy. I’ve been victimized, but I don’t consider myself a victim, and I would resist being branded as such.  My history doesn’t strike me as exceptional enough to warrant that label.  Growing up, the threat of violence was an ordinary, unremarkable part of my reality, as it was for many.  It was in my home, my school, and on the street.  And yet, many had it worse.  Some had it much worse.  My father was a difficult man, but he wasn’t deranged or a violent alcoholic.  I didn’t have to shield my mother or younger brother from his blows.  I was never molested, kidnapped, or forced to kill enemy combatants in an unjust war.  I never lost a loved one to suicide or mental illness.  And my travails pale in comparison to those of my older relatives, such as my grandmother, who fled Ukraine along with her mother and sister on the eve of the Nazi invasion and returned in 1945 to discover that her entire extended family had been slaughtered.

I mention my history for the sake of perspective.  What happened to Ford was inexcusable: shoved into a bedroom, tackled, held down, groped, mouth covered when she tried to scream.  It must have been terrifying.  But terrifying compared to what?  Her ordeal lasted but a minute, while mine lasted for months.  Their laughter still haunts her; indelible in the hippocampus, as she indelibly put it.  And yet such behavior is hardly uncommon.  My tormentors basked in my anxiety, delighted in my fear.  The thieves who put a gun to my head took my wallet to McDonalds, used my credit card to buy cheeseburgers, and sat around a table laughing with their friends.  To be clear, none of this implies that Ford’s grievances are unjustified.  Quite the contrary.  She was wronged.  She has every right to be upset and to demand apology and redress.  But that is compatible with asking what is so special about the horrible way in which she was treated such that, in a world of limitless horror and limited empathy, her suffering, her wounds, should receive so much of the available attention and care.

Am I suggesting that no one’s wounds should be treated until we’re prepared to extend everyone the same courtesy?  No.  That would be absurd.  Sexual assault is a serious matter.  Victims should be helped, just as broken legs should be mended.  But if you’re wondering why opposition to #MeToo is so intense, why even many women seem to resist it, and why, despite Ford’s credibility, many were put off by her public display of victimization and distress, consider the resentment of the left-behind.  Perhaps Ford’s supporters, while pursuing justice on one front, exposed a much larger realm of distributive injustice on another.  And perhaps that other realm is shaping attitudes and generating resentments in ways that we’ve barely begun to grasp.


The left resents the right for its obstinacy, insensitivity, and spite.  The Right resents the Left for its mockery, self-righteousness, and scorn.  In my lifetime, we’ve never been so divided.  And yet we have so much in common.  We’re all wounded.  We’re all resentful.  We’re all angry.  Some of it is justified.  Yet, none of it is healthy.  Purges, trials, and beheadings, whether metaphorical or real, offer a brief respite but no lasting relief.  Kavanaugh’s ascension didn’t assuage the Right; Ford’s triumph wouldn’t have assuaged the Left.  The anger is toxic and mutually reinforcing.  We need less of it and fast.

Perhaps philosophy can help.  Just as Newton grasped that the force that pulls apples to the ground also holds the moon in its orbit, some philosophers have grasped that this force, along with others, holds us in our orbits as well, determining our thoughts and actions.  They’ve grasped that free will is an illusion and that without it, our moral responsibility practices cannot reasonably be sustained.  The implications are staggering.  Those who love you and nurtured you do not deserve your praise.  Those who loathe you or torment you do not deserve your blame.  Indeed, resenting your tormentors would be on a par with resenting the sun for burning your skin or the rain for soaking your hair.  And such moral responsibility skepticism is unsullied by the fact that, like their religious counterparts, so many philosophers refuse to accept it, holding out hope that some new insight into the meaning of control or freedom will permit them to continue to defend the faith.

When I remind myself that free will is an illusion – and you have to remind yourself, because it’s not your default setting – my anger melts.  My resentment turns to curiosity and compassion.  What trauma, I wonder, possessed that day care worker to threaten a four year old with castration; that older boy to want to break my legs; those bullies to torment me; those thieves to threaten my life?  A blackout drunk by all accounts other than his own, from what was Kavanaugh escaping?  What deep wounds, unattended to and unaddressed, possessed him to seek power or glory or status in another’s humiliation, if that is indeed what transpired?

You don’t have to be a moral responsibility skeptic to think this way.  You could just note that bad behavior has hidden causes the awareness of which tends to make us less resentful and more compassionate.  And yet such skepticism makes compassion practically inescapable because it reveals that, in the end, we’re not so different, assailant and victim, predator and prey.  We are all products of our circumstances, and had we swapped circumstances, we might well have swapped roles.  Reflect on that a moment. It’s a deeply unsettling thought.  I want to believe that my not having been a bully is to my moral credit and not just a matter of luck; that, had I been in my tormentors’ shoes and they in mine, I would not have sought power or status or glory in their humiliation.  But that is probably wishful thinking.  Or at least it might be.  And acknowledging that possibility is prelude to compassion, forgiveness, and, ultimately, peace, both inner and outer.

I don’t know if my suggestions are politically useful. I don’t know how to slot such compassion into our laws or how to square it with a legitimate desire for accountability and deterrence.  By itself, compassion is clearly not enough. There have to be consequences for wrongful action.  And yet we need compassion now more than ever, if not in our laws then at least in our attitudes toward each other.  It’s noon at the O.K. Corral.  The Left and Right have locked eyes, their twitchy hands sliding toward their holsters, ready to draw.  Resentment has brought them there.  Compassion could stay their hand.  If they could see themselves in each other, recognize that they might be separated by nothing more than a simple twist of fate, perhaps a bloodbath could yet be averted.

Mikhail Valdman is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Virginia Commonwealth University, specializing in normative ethics.  He has written on autonomy, exploitation, and political obligation, but mainly he is interested in work that challenges deeply ingrained human conceits.  






31 responses to “Compassion and Resentment in the Age of #MeToo”

  1. Mikhail, while I disagree very strongly with you re: Kavanaugh/Ford, as well as on the matter of agency/responsibility, I agree entirely with the larger sentiment that it is the piece’s main purpose to convey.

  2. Lucy

    Splendid essay Mikhail!

  3. You’re just another #MeToo myrmidon / drone, Mikhail. Your whole post shows that. You decided that Kavanaugh was guilty at the moment of allegation and allowed no evidence – or lack thereof – to sway your opinion, just as so much of your post was laden with similar assumptions and condescending judgements.

  4. I don’t agree with Mikhail about Kavanaugh either, but I think this is quite unfair.

  5. Bunsen Burner

    “The Left and Right have locked eyes, their twitchy hands sliding toward their holsters, ready to draw”

    The Right are the ones with the guns, have you forgotten?

  6. And the Left are the ones with the career and life destroying mob tactics. In the lives of most middle class people — the majority, that is, in Western countries — they are at far greater risk from the latter than from the former. I am much more likely to fall to some enraged Twitter mob than I am to be gunned down by hooligans.

  7. Go back and reread exactly what he said about Ford and Justice Kavanaugh respectively and how he said it. You just might change your mind about my fairness…unless you’re one of the people who conflate fairness and kindness – my comment having none of the latter.

  8. It’s your judgment of him that I find unfair, and while kindness is not required, civility is, and I do moderate for it. This is not a street corner.

  9. Mike Valdman

    I don’t know if he is guilty or innocent but I had the distinct impression that he and the entire Republican party were acting as if he was guilty (e.g. refusing to investigate, trying to confirm him as quickly as possible, not challenging his obvious lies). But, in fairness, I was thoroughly opposed to his nomination from its inception, long before there was a whiff of scandal, and it’s possible that that may have skewed my judgment.

  10. I really hope that this thread does not devolve into a re-litigation of the Kavanaugh case, as it really is not at all what the essay is about. I indicated to Mikhail that I do not agree with his reading of the case, but that’s all I’ll say along those lines. I encourage others to resist the urge to re-fight that fight here.

  11. “And that was despite the fact that her testimony could hardly have been more compelling while Kavanaugh’s was an unhinged duplicitous rant. If sexual assault victims aren’t taken seriously under those conditions, one might ask, what hope is there?”

    Sure sounds like you “knew” he was guilty.

    And that, more than any ingrained bias against him or the POTUS who nominated him (at his predecessor’s request btw), is the basis of my judgement. And it is further vindicated by your feelings about “investigating” a 30+ year-old incident with a single complaining witness whose testimony was refuted by every possible witness to the alleged act.

    As for his “behavior” – If you stir up enough hate against a man that his wife and daughter are getting credible murder and rape threats, be both grateful and relieved if all he does is speak angrily.

  12. Mike Valdman

    Yeah, I meant that both literally and figuratively. There’s no question who has the actual guns. As for the other kind of guns — the ones Dan mentions — I see it coming from both sides. I’m old enough to remember Ari Fleischer’s post 9/11 warning to watch what we say and the insistence that any criticism of the war be wrapped in an encomium to the troops. I suppose that, today, the average person, whoever that is, has more to fear from the left than from the right, though just a bit more and, on the whole, not all that much. But even very small risks can be suffocating in the face of a deeply lopsided cost-benefit ratio.

  13. Mike Valdman

    I think I see the issue. “Her testimony could hardly have been more compelling” does not mean that her testimony was accurate and should be accepted uncritically. It just means that it was obviously sincere and believable as an account of her recollections of the matter, and that, as far as personal testimony goes, one couldn’t reasonably ask for more. But such testimony, no matter how sincere, is prone to all manner of distortion. So further investigation is called for. At a minimum, the only witness (Mark Judge) should have been compelled to testify under oath. But Republicans refused, thus raising my suspicions. So, in sum, I both (a) found her testimony very compelling and (b) wasn’t sure whether or not Kavanaugh was guilty. Those aren’t inconsistent propositions.

    In any case, I think Dan is right that we shouldn’t let this devolve into a Ford vs Kavanaugh debate, so I’ll say no more on the subject. But I appreciate your comments.

  14. Bunsen Burner

    Oh yes, I realise you were being figurative. It’s just that whenever I think of the partisan cold war in the US turning hot, I can’t help but remember which side has all the guns

  15. s. wallerstein

    Outside of academia and some “progressive” corporations in Silicon Valley, bosses are likely to be rightwing and put pressure on employees with leftwing views. My sister tells me that she has to hide her leftwing views in her job setting, for example, and she does not live in Mississippi, but in a supposedly “liberal” part of the country.

    By the way, there are lots of hate crimes committed against blacks, trans-people, Jews and women, and they are almost exclusively committed by rightwing thugs. The 11 Jews killed in a Pittsburg synagogue were murdered by a neo-Nazi, not by twitter mob. So I agree with Bunsen Burner.

  16. Zac


    Is it that you’re against people having preconceptions before coming into something? Or are you against people not having your own preconceptions coming into something? Mikhail had different impressions of their testimony than you did. Big deal. That isn’t really addressing the essay at all.

  17. Zac

    I’m not even the picture is so clear on campuses either with the likes of Turning Point USA drawing up censorious lists of professors and creating their own harassment campaigns. If you follow the Georgetown Free Speech Project, much more professors are getting fired for leftwing speech than rightwing speech. Part of this would be expected, since more professors are leftwing, but it also goes against the “political correctness” rehash that we’re experiencing these days:

    Sachs has had a back and forth with Jonathan Haidt on this, and they even took part in a decent debate over it:

    And all that aside, whether right or left, I don’t think the biggest threats to our lives and livelihoods are coming from these harassment campaigns.

  18. Zac

    Hey, Mikhail

    I’m skeptical of two things here. One, the effectiveness of trauma ranking. Two, free will debates!

    On free will, I’ve always been interested in those debates, but I rarely ever find them convincing on a deep level. This goes especially for the argument that we have no free will and everyone should accept this because it will make us better people. My own fault maybe, but it’s never clicked. If people don’t deserve any more praise or blame than the sun then why do they deserve compassion? I don’t feel compassion for the sun. Is it just because we’re unfree things with feeling? But not all of our tormentors torment us to purge themselves of bad feelings. There isn’t always a cozy story we can end up telling where Bill picked on you because his dad picked on him or whatever. Sometimes people wrong us for no good reason, and if you feel that any notion of free will drops out of the equation (even a compatibilist notion, say), then it’s not clear how much reasons even matter. They could’ve done it because Mercury is in retrograde. Our whole game of giving reasons, explaining actions, assigning responsibility and just REACTING to people slips out from under us. The implications are staggering. Perhaps more so than you grant here. And curiously, you’re talking about freedom and resentment here but you don’t ever mention Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment”.

    Why don’t we care as much about the guy who held the gun to your head? Well, dollars to doughnuts, he’s in prison or trifling away his life this side of poverty, not sitting on the highest court of the land. I’d argue that if you said seventeen-year-old Kavanaugh was the one who held the gun to your head, then that would change things. When you’re electing someone to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court, judging someone’s character is an extremely important thing. We can ask ourselves whether her account is true, but that’s separate than the point you want to address. We can bracket that. Instead, we can ask ourselves if her account would speak to relevant character flaws, and to do that you have to consider the passage of time. I think we’ve agreed that the act considered in itself is morally gross. If my nephew did it, I’d be horrified. But if my nephew did it and I only found our thirty years later, then the immediate question would be how he reacted to it now. Has he changed? Does he regret it? Does he own up to it? And if you legitimately doesn’t remember it, how does he handle the accusation? Is there moral continuity between him then and him now? These are justifiable questions for an electing body to ask of a candidate. The issue wasn’t relevant because we consulted a trauma index, but because it spoke potential shameful behavior in his youth a far throw from “boys will be boys.”

  19. Zac wrote,
    “On free will, I’ve always been interested in those debates, but I rarely ever find them convincing on a deep level. This goes especially for the argument that we have no free will and everyone should accept this because it will make us better people. My own fault maybe, but it’s never clicked. If people don’t deserve any more praise or blame than the sun then why do they deserve compassion? I don’t feel compassion for the sun.”

    Excellent argument! If humans have no free will then you have to treat them just like a piece of furniture or machinery etc. You can not have compassion for a piece of machinery!

  20. Yan

    Zac and ontologicalrealist,

    These points seem to imply both a confused understanding of incompatibilism and of what I took to be the article’s point. The point was not the normative claim that because there is no free will you ought to have compassion, but the psychological claim that it is causally the case that when you disbelieve in free will you do in fact become more disposed to compassion.

    Compassion is a happy accident of disbelief in free will, not a moral duty that follows from it—one which, paradoxically, would then require free will to morally obey!

    And what an odd argument: machinery and humans both lack some quality, x, thererfore we must treat them the same. One might think what counts as appropriate or reasonable treatment might have something to do with the different properties they possess, more than imaginary ones they lack.

  21. davidlduffy

    “compassion into our laws”: there has been a 40-50 year movement towards increasing punishment, which was partly driven with the victims rights movement. Simplifying wildly, the tendency of juries (when exposed to the specific facts of a case) and judges to be “compassionate” – at least to be understanding and to recognise the social causes of crime as moral excuses – and to be forward looking was overturned by general political forces. In that case, recognition of the harms to victims and inability to offer reparation led to increased resentment of the criminal classes. There have been opposite trends in sentencing too, of course, eg murder of an abusive spouse, but even there MR type arguments are a counter-influence. I might also add these are pretty country specific.

    More generally, even those who don’t believe in moral responsibility believe in other kinds eg role responsibility. Surely one can still be resentful of someone who has failed their obligations in the (still-moral-to-me) contractarian sense.

  22. Zac

    Hi, Yan

    Perhaps the point was not the normative claim that the absence of free will ought to lead one to compassion, but perhaps it leads to me throwing compassion out the window because I don’t agree with your chain of reasoning due to causes outside of any our controls. Perhaps reasons get totally swallowed up by causes and the whole idea of reasoning gets thrown out the door in favor of blind causes. Reason itself has a normative element, and insofar as you’re ripping the normative element out of our consideration, you’re ripping reason out as well, save as another unreasoning cause of our conduct. In that case, maybe it’s the case that correctly(?) believing no one has any free will in any relevant sense leads people to be more compassionate. So what? People will be or won’t be compassionate due to the whims of the world outside of their agency. People also will or won’t be resentful, regardless of your or my judgment of resentment, outside of our agency. There have been some heavily qualified studies that Gregg Caruso has appealed to suggesting that doubt of free will leads to more compassionate sentiments, but how clear are these findings and how confident are we are in them to sue for overturning practically the entirely of our collective sentiments? Is that even possible? The studies aren’t in yet. Nietzsche doubted free will. Hard. He didn’t end up a prophet of compassion. Quite the contrary. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration outside of just this this hugely metaphysical speculation before we get to sentimental judgments, and I’m not so sure that we can assume compassion necessarily follow from doubt of free will.

  23. Mike Valdman

    Lots of interesting comments. Let me respond to a few:
    (1) I’m also not interested in trauma ranking; in that domain the problem of other minds strikes me as insurmountable.
    (2) No one “deserves” compassion because no one deserves anything. But it would nonetheless be good if we had more compassion for each other.
    (3) I’m with Yan: “The point was not the normative claim that because there is no free will you ought to have compassion, but the psychological claim that it is causally the case that when you disbelieve in free will you do in fact become more disposed to compassion.” Of course, this is an empirical claim, open to the usual methods of refutation.
    (4) The more I think about it, free will/moral responsibility skepticism may be a red herring here. Perhaps my argument requires only the following claim:

    (C) Had you been exposed to the same circumstances and causal forces as person P, you would likely have acted just as P acted.

    From there the argument could proceed along two tracks, one psychological and the other normative.

    Psychological claim: Recognizing the truth of (C) is likely to make you more compassionate towards P.

    Normative claim (one version): Resenting P is irrational/inappropriate/unfitting if it’s likely that you would have acted similarly under similar circumstances.

    Anyhow, lots to chew on.

  24. Bharath Vallabha

    I have no opinion on Ford vs Kavanuagh. I found her testimony believable and his hard to believe. But this doesn’t translate into knowing what the truth is. She can genuinely believe it was Kavanuagh that harmed her and be wrong. He can be genuinely acting like a jerk at the hearing and be right, as the level of pressure must have been intense. Moreover, more investigation would have been good, but it is not obvious it had to happen. For me it was mainly because of the implications if there was an investigation. What are the general principles for other cases going forward that would imply? Perhaps some have the answers, but was unclear to me.

    This suggests a different way philosophy can heal the distrust on both sides. (I like the moral luck approach too.) At the heart of hot button issues are some deep philosophical issues, which overwhelm us in their sense of intractability. The sense of intractability actually pushes towards emotional, gut responses, as if slowing down the thinking will trap us in quicksand, and lead to pointless, hair splitting without any practical results. The caricature of philosophy. But really good philosophy slows down the thinking in a way which illuminates the issues and shows a practical way forward – if only we slow down enough to see it. If we go over 100 mph, we miss the exit ramp. But people want to go 150 and complain the highway has no exits, so best to just drive off the road.

    It is not one or another view in philosophy that helps. It is the doing of philosophy itself when done well. In our society there isn’t enough of that. Though this essay made me pause and reflect. Thanks for that.

  25. Yan


    “Reason itself has a normative element, and insofar as you’re ripping the normative element out of our consideration, you’re ripping reason out as well, save as another unreasoning cause of our conduct.”

    I don’t really object to this. As an incompatibilist, I think of the force of reasons as not essentially different (though strategically and practically different) than other kinds of force. For example, I think reward and punishment are sometimes causally effective means of changing people’s behavior and character, regardless of they respond to it freely. Likewise, I think reasoning is sometimes an effective means of changing people’s beliefs and character, even if they’re receptive to reasons isn’t rational or free.

    “Nietzsche doubted free will. Hard. He didn’t end up a prophet of compassion. Quite the contrary.”

    I think this is more complicated. He is a critic of treating compassion as a universal moral obligation, more specifically, Mitleid, feeling other’s suffering not to remedy it but as a kind of leveling or self-mortification that pointlessly multiplies suffering.

    He is not a “prophet” of anything–if he endorses any universal moral norm it’s the abolition of prophets. And he is certainly not the contrary of a prophet of compassion. Although I think a better word to describe this article is “sympathy,” since not believing in free will and being less inclined toward resentment is an intellectual state and defined more by an absence of negative emotion rather than the presence of shared suffering or feeling.

    Some examples:

    Zarathustra: “Mistrust all in whom the drive to punish is strong! In their faces the hangman and the bloodhound are visible.”

    Twilight of the Idols:

    “Today, when we have started to move in the reverse direction, when we immoralists especially are trying with all our might to remove the concept of guilt and the concept of punishment from the world and to purge psychology, history, nature, the social institutions and sanctions of them, there is in our eyes no more radical opposition than that of the theologians, who continue to infect the innocence of becoming with ‘punishment’ and ‘guilt’ by means of the concept of the ‘moral world-order’. Christianity is a hangman’s metaphysics.”

    “Morality, insofar as it condemns for its own sake, and not out of regard for the concerns, considerations, and contrivances of life, is a specific error with which one ought to have no pity — an idiosyncrasy of degenerates which has caused immeasurable harm. We others, we immoralists, have, conversely, made room in our hearts for every kind of understanding, comprehending, and approving. We do not easily negate; we make it a point of honor to be affirmers. More and more, our eyes have opened to that economy which needs and knows how to utilize everything that the holy witlessness of the priest, the diseased reason in the priest, rejects — that economy in the law of life which finds an advantage even in the disgusting species of the prigs, the priests, the virtuous. What advantage? But we ourselves, we immoralists, are the answer.’

    “That nobody is held responsible any longer, that the mode of being may not be traced back to a primary cause, that the world does not form a unity either as a sensorium or as “spirit” — that alone is the great liberation. With that idea alone we absolve our becoming of any guilt. The concept of “God” was until now the greatest objection to existence. We deny God, we deny the responsibility that originates from God: and thereby we redeem the world.”

    For a good scholarly paper on this, see Brian Leiter:

  26. collin237

    There seems to be a trend nowadays to namedrop a principle of physics and then “conclude” something from it that has no physical relevance.

    Planetary orbits are deterministic because their smooth motion is so much larger than anything chaotic that might disturb them. A brain, however, operates entirely on chaos.

    The Libet experiment was claimed to have disproven free will, but it’s invalid because it relies on the self-reported timing of a decision, which is impossible. A decision itself takes significant time, and the act of reading a number on a timer takes even more time.

    Anyway, what does denying free will even mean? Sometimes it’s supposed to be about physics, sometimes a philosophical insight, sometimes a desideratum of faith, and wavering between these depending on which sounds best in an argument. The same kind of wavering practiced by deniers of evolution or global warming.

    Nobody is claiming that decisions are uncorrelated with preceding experiences. But there are countless competing influences, and it’s random which of them get manifested. Since that random choice occurs entirely in your own brain, you’re responsible for it, unless you can prove that your “dice” were unfairly loaded.

  27. Zac

    Appreciate the response, Yan

    Regarding Nietzsche, I think it’s fair to call him “quite the contrary” of a prophet of compassion. That’s not because he’s a prophet of anything else or because he doesn’t think it can justifiably exist in a very qualified (if hand-wavy) sense, but because he’s incredibly skeptical of it as an affect. Sometimes he targets more specific kinds of compassion, as you describe, but at other times he doesn’t. At other times, he encourages a thoroughgoing callousness to suffering and to huge swathes of humanity, evincing positions and sentiments that lean decidedly against the “Antidotes” section of Mikhail’s piece. Fred isn’t about totally giving up on praise and blame. He still has lots of people he wants to praise and blame. And he definitely doesn’t want to preach a universal sympathy because everyone is essentially subject to forces beyond their control. We can get bogged down in a game of pin the tail on the Nietzsche, but I don’t think we’ll ever be able to beat him into a shape that comfortably fits him into Mikhail’s claim that denying free will will necessarily lead to Mikhail’s particular brand of compassion.

    Moving on to your point about reason as a force, I’m not sure that preserves any reason worth having. It almost feels like reason ends up floating apart from human activity and from the world, the latter two being whorls of matter that can at best coincidentally align with (participate in? embody? reflect?) reason in some mysterious way. Who’s to say? The Elect align with it, the Damned don’t. But I don’t think that pre-lunacy Fred and lunatic Fred are both blind vectors separated by their alignment with a force. They’re separated by the former being a rational agent capable of deliberation, of the latter not being able to play the game of reason. Reason isn’t a force, but a fundamentally human practice built on normative judgments concerning inference and comprehension. If you flush out the norms, you cripple it, if not outright destroy it. Now you might be confident that this can be done and once adopted by the public at large, we can trust that people will react as we want them to. But when we can only get a niche level of philosophers to even sign on to it, I imagine we’d be in for a much more bumpy ride filtering this down to the masses and who knows what then?

  28. Ken

    Hi, Jonolan. You referred to “a 30+ year-old incident with a single complaining witness whose testimony was refuted by every possible witness to the alleged act.” We don’t know whether the assault happened, but I think we do know that Kavanaugh lied under oath, and this is one of the things he lied about. At least some of those individuals you refer to as “possible witnesses to the alleged act” said that they didn’t know that the assault happened (and one even said that, while she didn’t know, she believed Ford was telling the truth). Yet Kavanaugh testified that they said that it didn’t happen. He’s a judge, so I think we can be sure that he knows the distinction between knowing something didn’t happen and not knowing that it did happen.

  29. […] “The resentment of the left behind” — thoughts on #MeToo and the distribution of compassion, from Mikhail Valdman (VCU) […]

  30. Part of this would be expected, since more professors are leftwing, but it also goes against the “political correctness” rehash that we’re experiencing these days.

    = = =

    Actually, it doesn’t, if what you say here is true.

  31. marc levesque


    Interesting, and lots to think about.

    “(C) Had you been exposed to the same circumstances and causal forces as person P, you would likely have acted just as P acted.”

    I agree, if you mean by “the same causal forces” some thing like : If one is in the place of another person then one will act the same as they did, or that being in the place of another means also taking on their biology, culture, history, etc.

    (I see the idea of freewill not as something we have or don’t have, but as something that exists more at higher levels of behavior and not so much at lowers ones like the biological).