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Ressentiment and Reconciliation. Alternative Responses to Historical Evil

Heyd, David
June 4, 2015

Source: (2004) In, Lukas H. Meyer, ed., Justice in Time: Responding to Historical Injustice. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft. Pp. 185-197.

As David Heyd notes, the Biblical story of Lot’s wife is well known. God warned Lot and his family to flee Sodom and Gomorrah, and not to look back toward the cities as they were destroyed for the sinfulness in them. Lot’s wife did look back, and in that moment she turned into a pillar of salt. Jewish tradition offered many interpretations of why she looked back, but the text is silent on her reasons. Hence, Heyd feels free to add his own interpretation – namely, that the act of looking backward at a past trauma, when one is trying to escape it, is in itself a petrifying act. In contrast, Lot is forward-looking; he is a survivalist. Against this background, Heyd in this essay reflects on the bi-directional axis of our temporal consciousness – the backward- and forward-looking – and he asks where morality lies on this axis. On the one hand, moral judgment is future oriented; on the other hand, it is reactive to past behavior and events. He extends this reflection with the observation that distributive justice tends to be future oriented, whereas retributive justice tends to be past oriented. With all of this in mind, Heyd then discusses Jean Amery and the moral power of ressentiment – “resentmentâ€? as a moral sentiment insisting on remembering and reminding so that people will not forget historical injustice – and the issue of reconciliation within the context of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


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