Changing Words Doesn’t Change Things

Max Scheler writes about “ressentiment”  by which, most basically, he refers to a certain inversion of moral values.  We see this in Nietzsche.  His anti-Semitism produced not just an inversion of values but an intellectual inversion: hate becomes love (of race and country) and the “master morality” of the Übermensch overturns the “slave morality” of Christians.

Karol Wojtyła, a student of Scheler, invokes ressentiment in Love and Responsibility to write about chastity.  When sexual love is seen through a lens of use rather than love, chastity is rejected as a virtue.  It becomes a vice, slurred as “repressive” or at least “naïve.”

A Catholic philosopher might explain ressentiment through the prism of our orientation to the good.  Because human beings are hardwired for the good, they even choose evil under the appearance of good.  And because that hardwiring also structures the human mind, the person who persists in evil must redefine reality so that down is up, and evil is good.  Ressentiment is very much the spiritual rebel’s philosophical response to “Did God really say. . . ?”

Ressentiment also seems to have a parasitic relationship to nominalism, the belief that names are mere conventions.  The ease with which ressentiment reshuffles the “labels” of a real order creates, especially for the woke, a new order of being. For example, abolishing the dreaded “gender binary” becomes absolutely compelling.  It’s not just a “label.”  It’s a mandatory new “value.”

Recently, I’ve observed ressentiment in the Constitutional order, especially following two Supreme Court decisions last term, involving value inversion on religion and race.

The Supreme Court has been attacked for restoring free exercise of religion as a right, any abridgment of which needs to be tested by strict scrutiny.  Because the Court has spent roughly 75 years confusing “freedom of religion” with “freedom from religion,” (leading, as Fr. Richard John Neuhaus observed, to bifurcation of the First Amendment religion clauses and the emergence of the “naked public square” as a secular ideal), we have an ad hoc religious jurisprudence, held together by transitory five-vote blocs.  Moving away from that after four generations towards a principled treatment of religion as a right was bound to elicit reactions.

Take the Groff case (a Pennsylvania postal worker fired for not working Sundays) and the 303 Creative case (a Colorado web designer who wouldn’t design for homosexual weddings).  Both cases implicated free exercise of religion.  The Court turned the latter into a free speech case, but critics saw where things were headed.  Writing in The New York Times, Kate Shaw claimed that the “court’s elevation of religious exercise above all other principles poses a genuine threat to the ability of our businesses and institutions to make arrangements that account for the competing demands of America’s diverse population.”

The Framers of the Constitution distinguished between “rights” and “interests.”  Religion was a “right.”  Commerce was an “interest.”  Religion might also sometimes implicate “interests,” but rights trump interests.  The competition of interests facilitated compromise through their mutual checks, but rights were generally inviolate.

Supreme Court religion jurisprudence since 1947 largely turned religion from a “right” into an “interest.”  In that process, a certain “ressentiment” set in. Not only was “religion” just an interest, it was actually a tainted or evil interest.  Its presence triggered “establishment” dangers.  One atheist’s right to “freedom from religion” overrode a majority’s right to “freedom of religion.” But the whole process was “democratic” because the religion skunk might befoul the public square.

The diminution of religion from right to merely (or even primarily) interest tainted whatever it touched, so the exclusion of religion from public life was – at least to elites – desirable.  It was, in fact, a degradation, as Shaw’s quotation shows: by leveling religion to a mere “interest,” one could then balance religious workers’ claims to Sabbath observance against the necessity of the atheist’s need for Sunday delivery of his vegan tofu ranchero wheatberry salad.  Free exercise is clearly “a genuine threat to. . .businesses. . .[serving] diverse population[s].”  Now we know the really important “interests.”

On the flip side, “ressentiment” rehabilitated race as a selection category.  In light of the Fourteenth Amendment, Brown v. Board of Education, and the 1960s Civil Rights Acts, Americans had grown accustomed to thinking of colorblindness as a national goal.  You know, judging people by the content of their characters rather than the color of their skins?

Then came ressentiment.

The Supreme Court’s striking down of race in college admissions provoked a firestorm and will likely generate creative efforts to circumvent the decision.  As Justice Clarence Thomas pointed out, a novel reading of the Fourteenth Amendment has gained ascendancy in certain circles, according to which race per se is not a tainted category.  What taints race is what you do with it.  If you use race to repress somebody, that’s wrong.  If you use race to advance them, it’s OK.

The upshot of this all is obvious: racism itself is not intrinsically evil.  What makes it evil is the race applier’s motives.  But framing the question in that way requires a further clarification: what is “good” racism versus “bad” racism?  Who are the “victims” and the “victimizers,” and how long do those designations last?

All these questions are necessarily entailed by the process of ressentiment that inverts race from a suspect, prohibited category for differentiating people into a useful tool for divvying social benefits in the name of “social justice” or even “equity.”

Human beings cannot escape value judgments.  And because they cannot escape value judgments, they cannot escape the good as the human default position for moral decision-making.  They can deform the good by reconfiguring their values to match their inversions of right and wrong, but they cannot escape the first principle of practical reason: “good is to be done and evil is to be avoided.”  Even – maybe especially – when we switch the labels.


*Image: Mephitis macroura, Licht, Large Tailed Skunk. Male. Natural Size. by John Woodhouse Audubon, 1846 [Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas]

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John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.