Unrequited Love, Self-victimisation and the Target of Appropriate Resentment


In “Tragedy and Resentment” Ulrika Carlsson claims that there are cases when we are justified in feeling non-moral resentment against someone who harms us without wronging us, when the harm either consists in their attitude towards us or in the emotional suffering triggered by their attitudes. Since they had no duty to protect us from harm, the objectionable attitude is not disrespect but a failure to show love, admiration, or appreciation for us. I explain why unrequited love is the wrong example to use when arguing for the possibility of justified non-moral resentment—and why, therefore, Carlsson’s claim remains unsubstantiated. Pace Carlsson, people who fail to return our love are not best described as harming us, but as merely failing to benefit us by saving us from harm. Moreover, their role in the causal chain that results in our coming to harm is insufficient to warrant our resentment; more plausibly, we ourselves play a greater and more direct causal role in this process. This is a welcome result: Responding with (non-moral) resentment to someone’s failure to return our love indicates that our love has not taken the form of a genuine gift. When we put conditions on successful gifting by allowing for justified resentment if the gift is not returned we are not in fact giving gifts but making a bid for an exchange: I love you so that you love me back.

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  1. 1.

    This is my reconstruction of Carlsson’s thesis, followed, on the next page, by my reconstruction of her argument for her thesis.

  2. 2.

    I am grateful to Jake Wojtowicz for drawing my attention to the fact that Carlsson’s claim is open to two different interpretations. The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.

  3. 3.

    Wolf’s theory of this kind of responsibility may be controversial. I don’t take a stand on the soundness of this view, nor on the accuracy of Carlsson’s interpretation of it. My aim here is to evaluate Carlsson’s own view. My major concerns in this paper are not related to identity-responsibility.

  4. 4.

    This could mean that there is an agent of justice that is called to do something to ameliorate the situation: For instance, states may bear a duty to create the conditions in which romantic love can flourish, such as ensuring that all are educated, from a young age, about the virtues and perils of personal relationships; and that people have sufficient free time to dedicate to the cultivation of loving relationships. In addition, it may mean that states bear a duty to create social environments sufficiently inclusive to optimise the chances that everybody is able to give and receive romantic love (Brownlee 2020; Gheaus 2017). But it could also mean that we are dealing with a failure of justice understood in a purely evaluative sense, as the description of a state of affairs, rather than in a directly normative sense—that is, as generating a duty for a particular agent (Gheaus 2013).

  5. 5.

    Although, arguably, there can be a breach of duty if the reason for failing to return love is an objectionable attitude towards the lover. For instance, suppose the beloved was inclined to reciprocate, but that would not allow themselves to reciprocate because the lover is black and the beloved is racist. I am open to the possibility that in this case the beloved is in breach of a duty—but it consists in their specific reason for resisting love, rather than in the mere lack of reciprocation. Alfred Archer kindly drew my attention to this possibility.

  6. 6.

    This account is in line with the our frequent employment of a moralised concept of harm. It is intuitive to say that harm can be inflicted by the mere failure to act when it is morally required to bestow that benefit, and, at the same time, to resist the claim that harm can be inflicted by blamelessly failing to act. Imagine that a small child in a mall runs away from her father, who is distracted by a gadget. A passer-by notices, but fails to run after the child and return her to her father. The child gets lost and is terribly scared: she suffers harm. On any of the currently endorsed conceptions of harm (Rabenberg 2015) it is counter-intuitive to say that the passer-by harmed the child. But it is intuitive to say that the child has been harmed by her father, who had a duty to look after her. The reason why it seems proper to say that the father has harmed the child is that he owed the child protection from that particular harm.

  7. 7.

    There can be cases where the lack of reciprocation of romantic love is motivated by the appreciation, and unwillingness to jeopardise, an existing relationship—a friendship for example. Such cases show that failures to reciprocate love can express an optimally positive attitude, assuming that the beloved, in this case, sees the risk to an existing friendships as coming entirely from their inability to sustain romantic relationships. (Granted, this is not Ashley’s case.) Thank you to Alfred Archer for noting this possibility.

  8. 8.

    This is a big “if”, since the notion of causation by omission puzzles philosophers. See, for instance, Dowe (2010).

  9. 9.

    For a detailed and critical account of not only the Stoic’s, but also other hellenistic philosophy schools’s, take on how to acquire control over one’s emotions, see Nussbaum (1994).

  10. 10.

    For different concepts of causation in assessing causal responsibility see Blustein (1997).

  11. 11.

    This is not to deny the stoic point. Wellbeing here is to be understood as not mere absence of suffering. And the fact that my life goes better for me in one way if my gift is well-received does not contradict the belief that my suffering at having my gift turned down would depend on my interpretation of this fact. Further, some people seem able to love others without becoming vulnerable in this way. I leave aside the question of whether such love is better than the regular, vulnerable kind.

  12. 12.

    On why genuine—that is, disinterested—love is not conditional on being reciprocated, see Sara Protasi (2014: 218) and Pilar Lopez-Cantero (2018: 691); both discussions concern, specifically, cases of unrequited love. Love can remain unconditional even if it is not entirely freely given in the sense outlined above; but attaching the penalty of resentment to a failure to return one’s love pollutes the ideal gift-like unconditionality of love.


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I am grateful to James Lenman, Alfred Archer, Fiona Woollard, Jake Wojtowicz and an anonymous reviewer for helpful feed-back on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Correspondence to Anca Gheaus.

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Gheaus, A. Unrequited Love, Self-victimisation and the Target of Appropriate Resentment. J Ethics (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10892-021-09368-0

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  • Love
  • Unrequited love
  • Resentment
  • Gifts