My answer, which came during a conversation with one philosophical friend the other day, is only partial. Its scope is limited: today means ‘the modern age.’ And victimhood is restricted to ordinary claims about failure to secure certain goods. So, the discussion does not go so far as to take up the kinds of claims made, say, by those who were oppressed by a colonial power.
What’s a commonly held conception today?
A: The victim conception.
And how did the victim conception gain wide appeal?
A: Because the materialist picture of human flourishing won out in modernity.
My thesis is that the materialist picture of human flourishing assumes that human beings are reducible to material bodies that pursue pleasures and avoid pains. The ordinary goods they seek to secure are (a) security, (b) longevity, (c) health, and (d) comforts. (NB. These goods are quite similar to those sought during a pre-Axial age.)
So that someone who cannot secure (a), (b), (c), or (d) would likely conclude that the world is unjust and, moreover, that he is a victim. What is unjust, according to him, is that everyone else can secure (a) – (d) yet she cannot and cannot hope to. To the extent that it is impossible for him to secure what is good, to that extent is he a victim.
The assumptions the victim makes are (1) that he cannot conceive of or imagine a higher life than the one provided by the materialist picture of human flourishing (e.g., someone with an illness who ascends beyond the corporeal toward communion with the One) and (2) that the modern world has failed to provide her with any suitable alternatives (e.g., saintliness, martial glory, the common good, the tranquil soul, etc.).
The limits of any victim’s conception run parallel to modernity’s failure to move beyond an ‘immanent frame’ in order to supply him with an idea of what is higher. If Socrates is right that we can only desire what is good and if, for him, there is no good left, then the victim shall sooner or later slide into self-pity and nihilism.