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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Reconciliation and the Politics of Ressentiment

William O’Neill, SJ, Ph.D.

William O'Neill is Professor Emeritus of social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology and a faculty scholar with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.


Oscar Wilde was right: “Nothing succeeds like excess.” In the wake of the election, civility seems a lost art as politics succumbs to polemics. We are a house divided. Yet must it be so? Is there any prospect of rapprochement, of reconciliation for our troubled polity?

Elsewhere, I’ve argued that social reconciliation is less an event than a complex process entailing recognition of the nature and scope of what divides us; systemic redress of the underlying causes of division; and specific redress for victims. Reconciliation, moreover, plays out in different registers: the ethical demands of integrating justice and peace are seldom fully realized in the political/legal/juridical order. Neither does restoring the rule of law imply love of enemies: a religious “duty” of forgiveness presumes the victim’s moral and legal right to forgive (or withhold forgiveness).1

Yet however complex, the process of reconciliation must begin with recognition. For it is here that the nature and scope of our differences emerge. But to make sense of our differences we must first share a great deal in common. If “language is to be a means of communication,” Wittgenstein famously observed, “there must be agreement not only in definitions but also (queer as they may sound) in judgments.”2 Communication is fatally compromised if we differ, fundamentally, about the very meaning of our differences.

But is this not precisely what we face today? Lost is what John Courtney Murray once called our “reasonable disposition to argue our many disagreements in an intelligent and temperate fashion.”3 Think of this as the loss of a discursive common good: a civic good that binds citizens in their political deliberations. Today, though, claims and counter-claims are made as if they were vindicated by the mere vehemence of their assertion. It is not so much that might makes right, but that we have abdicated the very grounds of determining what counts as right in a pluralist polity.

There is, we might say, a willing suspension of belief—belief, that is, that can be vindicated or verified “in an intelligent and temperate fashion.” What remains is the shell or simulacra of belief. Politics becomes performance of what Nietzsche called “ressentiment”: the self-vindicating exercise of grievance, rage, or indignation.4 And yet, I think, we often know better. We willingly accept the acceptable lie, recalling Machiavelli’s epithet that those of who desire to deceive will find those who desire to be deceived. Perhaps, too, we take a perverse comfort in our bad faith, thinking that Machiavelli’s is the only game in town. I’ve often wondered if behind Trump’s penchant for lying is his simple conviction that everyone is as corrupt as he is.

Now recognizing our bad faith, ironically, is a first step in making sense of our differences. Only then can we recover some semblance of a common good, i.e., criteria we can agree on that let us argue our many disagreements in an intelligent and temperate fashion. In modern Roman Catholic social teaching, the rhetoric of basic human rights plays this role. For if we cannot agree upon a univocal conception of the full political good, e.g., perfection in virtue; we can agree about what the theorist Henry Shue calls the “morality of the depths.”5

Recognizing that persons have value or worth and not mere price, in Kant’s terms—that equal dignity implies equal rights and corresponding duties to preserve and protect a rights regime—this is the ethical substance of the political common good today. We need not agree all the way down. But we must agree about suffering, about atrocity. To say “black lives matter” is not a particular truism of the left, but a claim resting on a discursive common good. Policies and programs will follow, but we must seek first that righteousness that binds us even in our differences: Whose equal dignity is unequally threatened, whose equal rights unequally denied?

Just politics begins here. And certainly, the Catholic Church aspires to this degree of catholicity or universality. Appeal to the civic common good is a leitmotif of the social encyclical tradition, belying a politics of ressentiment whether of the left or of the right. We are more than the sum of our grievances. In his most recent encyclical, Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis invites us to imagine otherwise:

It is my desire that, in this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. Fraternity between all men and women. “Here we have a splendid secret that shows us how to dream and to turn our life into a wonderful adventure. No one can face life in isolation… We need a community that supports and helps us, in which we can help one another to keep looking ahead. How important it is to dream together … By ourselves, we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there. Dreams, on the other hand, are built together”. Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.6

1See William O’Neill, “Imagining Otherwise: The Ethics of Social Reconciliation,” in The Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 2002.

2Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, third edition, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1958), pt. 1, par. 242.

3Henry Shue, Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980), 18. 

4See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, First Treatise, trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1969.

5John Courtney Murray, “The Bad Arguments Intelligent Men Make,” America 96 (November 3, 1956): 120–23, at 120.

Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, par. 8,

Nov 23, 2020