On Forgiveness

How does naturalism inform forgiveness? A presentation for Boston Causality Club.

How does naturalism inform forgiveness?

How can a naturalistic perspective enable us to be more forgiving and encourage others to forgive as well? By

  1. drawing attention to the actual interpersonal causal dynamics of forgiveness,
  2. demonstrating the physical reality of the desire to retaliate,
  3. understanding the evolutionary rationale for the urge to strike back, and
  4. using the causal story to help lessen the desire to punish the offender, and thus lead to forgiveness.

Merriam Webster online:

To Forgive: 1: to give up resentment of or claim to requital for <forgive an insult> 2: to cease to feel resentment against (an offender): to pardon, to forgive one’s enemies.

To Pardon: 1: the excusing of an offense without exacting a penalty; 2: a release from the legal penalties of an offense

To forgive is really to have the inclination to retaliate and punish diminish sufficiently or disappear such that the victim no longer pursues retribution. It isn't to erase the existence of the wrong that’s been done, and it isn't to excuse in the way we excuse a child who doesn’t know better, or someone who’s unintentionally done us harm. It’s to recognize a wrong has been done, but not to pursue retaliation or punishment.

There can be degrees of forgiveness, from a reluctant refusal to punish (you really want to strike back, but don’t), to the complete cessation of the very desire to strike back and complete reconciliation with the offender. Sometimes forgiveness is only possible after some punishment or sanction is meted out, or after remorse is shown. But the more robust the expression of remorse, the less the desire to punish, in most cases. See Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, by Michael McCullough, highly recommended.

It isn't always appropriate to forgive immediately or easily or automatically. Often, we will want to make sure that certain consequences (that is, appropriate sanctions) follow destructive or harmful behavior. So promoting the virtues of forgiveness shouldn’t lead us to suppose that violence, for example, shouldn’t be countered vigorously, or that we shouldn’t protect ourselves.

But why should we want to forgive? What are the virtues of forgiveness?

  • One clear and extremely important virtue of forgiveness is that it cuts short the cycle of retaliation and revenge. This has immense social value, given the cost of conflicts born of revenge.
  • Another virtue is that it frees the victim from being trapped in retributive obsessions. These obsessions – wanting to take revenge - give the offender continuing power over the victim to shape her consciousness. So forgiveness is personally liberating.
  • Also, in forgiving, we demonstrate a moral virtue per se. We are setting a moral example in being better than the offender by not exacting our pound of flesh. We are in a sense sacrificing retributive satisfactions: we rise above them, for the sake of something better, namely cutting short a possible cycle of revenge and perhaps further damaging the offender, not to mention ourselves and others as the cycle continues.

So what does naturalism and science have to say about forgiveness?

Several things:

  • It emphasizes the physical basis of an injury and the desire to punish: Beyond the obvious physical effects, an injury causes psychic trauma, encoded in neurons, that’s quite real and can’t be wished away. It’s there physically in the brain. The same is true of the desire to hit back. This is the neural reality of wanting to exact revenge in response to an injury.
  • The study of evolution shows that the taste for revenge had and still has a function in deterring aggressors and threats. We wouldn’t be here without the predisposition to retaliate. So to forgive is to overcome a very natural reaction, and to have this neural state change in response to various influences, and this takes time and influence.

So how do we encourage forgiveness, from a naturalistic perspective?

By telling the causal story of the offender, we can reduce retributive feelings on the part of the victim. And by paying close attention to the interpersonal causal dynamics of forgiveness.

First, the dynamics of forgiveness:

Sympathy for the victim. First, we must truly and strongly acknowledge the pain and suffering of the victim and acknowledge the desire to strike back. This is natural and understandable, and must not be pushed aside or minimized, otherwise we alienate the victim. But of course retaliation is not necessarily to be encouraged, given what we know about cycles of revenge.

Remorse. To help elicit forgiveness, the offender must show genuine remorse if possible. Naturalistically understood, remorse – the expression of regret – shows the victim that the offender is not likely to repeat his offense. He seems to have learned a lesson and doesn’t pose a threat any longer. So forgiveness – not exacting punishment - is easier once genuine remorse and regret are expressed. This is to say that the desire to punish or strike back tracks the situation – it is responsive to what the threat is perceived to be. As the threat is perceived to diminish, the need and desire to punish lessens as well.

Restitution. Similarly, it helps greatly if the offender can offer restitution of some sort. This paying back helps to balance the scales, and helps to heal the wound. Restitution substitutes in a way for the damage in kind we’d like to inflict, and it doesn’t actually further damage the offender, but might actually help to rehabilitate and heal him.

Non-exclusion from the moral community. But also, for the offender to feel remorse and express it, there has to be some hope that this expression will be accepted and have an impact on how he’s treated. If the offender feels completely excluded from humanity, with no hope of rejoining the human community, then there’s less incentive to feel or express regret – he’s simply an outcast with no hope. (See the film Dead Man Walking about this.) So having the community see the offender’s humanity is key, and of course naturalism helps with this: there but for circumstances go I. Of course, some are incapable of feeling remorse (for instance due to defective neural structures, either congenitally or from brain damage), which is often why they commit unjustified violence in the first place.

Understanding how all this works will help us greatly in setting the stage for forgiveness. But the most direct contribution of naturalism to forgiveness is in telling the causal story of the offender, which ultimately allows the victim to empathize and perhaps forgive.

The Mitigation Response

By showing the victim the causal story behind the offender, naturalism says that the offender didn’t just choose to be the way he was. The individual isn’t the ultimate source of action and therefore ultimately to blame, he doesn’t deserve to suffer in the way you might have supposed on the assumption of free will. Rather, he was fully caused to become that way, and act as he did. And so would you, had you been in his shoes. Having this story affect one’s desire to punish is what might be called the “mitigation response”. Understanding that people don’t simply choose to become bad helps to mitigate our desire to punish, since we see 1) that external factors are responsible for how that person became who he was and for how he acted, and that 2) we would have been them, but for circumstances. Our response to being hurt - that is, the desire to punish or take other action - tracks the perceived causal responsibility for harm, and this responsibility gets distributed outside the perpetrator on a naturalistic understanding of ourselves.

Answering the rhetorical question. To help the victim understand the causal story, one tactic is to answer the rhetorical question that often comes up: how could the offender have done this? How could he have treated me so badly? Well, let’s really try to answer that question.

So we try to show vividly the causal story of how the offender got to be the way they are, and show that had the victim been in the same circumstances, she would have acted similarly.

M. E. used the example of genocide in illustrating how to get people to forgive:

  • First, point out to the victim how rare it is that people actually resist pressure to conform to genocidal norms, to go along with blood lust.
  • Then ask them: have you ever collaborated with others in persecuting or ostracizing someone? Usually the answer will be yes. Then ask: why did you collaborate, or stay quiet, or in other ways fail to resist? Usually the answer will be some sort of peer pressure.
  • Then, show them the continuum from what they did (fairly minor, let’s assume) and genocide or other major persecution. In Rwanda, the failure to join in killing usually meant death. Would they have resisted this? If so, why didn’t the killers? Again, show that there is a causal story here, not free will.

This is all meant to show the person who can’t forgive that the offender was fully caused to act as they did, and had they been in the offender’s situation, they would have done the same thing. This may help them to forgive.

So, by understanding the physical basis of retributive feelings, their natural function, the interpersonal dynamics of forgiveness, and by using the causal story to elicit the mitigation response, naturalism can help people to forgive. It can help them to not strike back, and thus to end cycles of revenge and retaliation and liberate victims from what’s often a dehumanizing obsession with retribution.

So this is one virtue of naturalism, of taking a scientific, causal perspective on ourselves and our behavior.

TWC, September 5, 2004

Sunday, September 5, 2004