Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Naturalism and Forgiveness

It’s always interesting to see those on opposite ends of the political spectrum agree with one another. In this case, Boston Globe columnists Jeff Jacoby (conservative) and James Carroll (liberal) agree that the Amish were out of line – weird, misguided, perhaps morally defective – to forgive the killer that so cruelly took the lives of five girls, along with his own. That Jacoby in Undeserved Forgiveness takes this position is what we’d expect; after all, conservatives, as a matter of temperament and ideology, tend on balance to be less forgiving than liberals when it comes to crime and punishment. But to be fair, Jacoby raises an important question about forgiveness that I’ll return to at the end of these remarks: is it appropriate to automatically absolve an offender, absent a clear indication of remorse? In this case, the killer’s suicide prevented such considerations from arising, and Jacoby assumes that the Amish would have forgiven him whether or not he showed contrition. But of course we can’t be sure about that.

Carroll (Monsters in Our Schools) notes that this killer, as well as others involved in school massacres, “escaped retribution” by suicide, and asks “how are we to think of them?” Carroll (much like David Brooks here) strongly suggests the killers are, in some sense, self made:
One hears it said that every monster is someone to whom, at some point in the past, something monstrous was done. Because it affirms a principle of order, however perverse, the idea has appeal, and may be discernibly true in some instances.
The Colorado shooter, Duane Morrison, left behind a letter making an explicit connection to his sufferings as a child. But it is wrong to draw a causal link between a person's former experience of victimhood and his subsequent role as a victimizer.
This is most obviously so because the majority of victims, across a range of horrors, do not go on to inflict like suffering on others. Those who have encountered life's vicissitudes, even when inflicted out of cruelty or malice, are at least as likely to be marked by special magnanimity as by callous self-centeredness.
Carroll casts doubt on the sufficiency of a killer’s past, including abuse inflicted on him, to account for his becoming a killer. After all, he says, others have suffered as much, and not become killers. So, one wonders, what does account for the fact that some become callous and self-centered, and others magnanimous? If, as Carroll claims, we can’t draw a causal link from past life experience to one’s character, the clear implication is that character is ultimately self-originated. In which case, of course, the killer has willfully made himself a monster, deserving of retribution, not forgiveness, at least by us. Thus:

[S]ometimes forgiveness can seem properly left to the Almighty, while we humans yield to a visceral burst, an imagined clenching of the fist in the faces of our newest enemies: You don't storm a school, fellows! You don't line up children for grievous exploitation! You don't execute them!
Thinking of those children, how is it possible not to hate their executioners?
It’s true of course that our initial response to such atrocities is likely to be visceral hatred, which all too often results in retributive excesses. But should we give in to our punitive instincts? To his credit, Carroll says we shouldn’t, that “Defense of the moral order from the deeds of monsters requires a refusal to become monsters in return.” Nevertheless, he ends up refusing the possibility of forgiveness:

[B]efore empathy [for the killer], there must be truth. The slaying of innocent girls in the sacred precinct of a school is a self-excluding act. However the crime is adjudicated, the man who commits it has banished himself from the human family.
Banishment – being beyond forgiveness – is, according to Carroll’s truth, a self-excluding act. As Carroll implied earlier, the killer banished himself by choices that were not a function of his past, but of his own free will. But on a naturalistic understanding of ourselves, this can’t be the case, since there is no ultimately self-constructing freedom that operates independently of the various factors - genetic, familial, and social - that shaped the killer. (I take Alan Dershowitz to task for making the same incoherent appeal to self-origination in Explaining Moussaoui.) Carroll’s case against forgiveness, his common cause with Jacoby, thus depends on an implicit notion of a contra-causal and therefore supernatural free will. Withholding forgiveness leads him, finally, to accept the killer’s suicide as an appropriate response to his self-inflicted banishment. When liberals and progressives start condoning suicide, we see the moral hazards of supernaturalism.

Now, as both Jacoby and Carroll rightly point out, forgiveness shouldn’t be automatic, and nothing in a naturalistic, deterministic understanding of human behavior requires that we instantly forgive those who trespass against us, even if that’s what the Amish did. As Jacoby says “I cannot see how the world is made a better place by assuring someone who would do terrible things to others that he will be readily forgiven afterward, even if he shows no remorse.” Indeed, authentic forgiveness must be contingent on authentic remorse: the acknowledgement that what one did was terribly wrong, accompanied by deep regret, contrition, and a determination never to repeat the offense.

Many, of course, will be unable to forgive even if such remorse is tendered. It will be beyond their psychological capacities, especially if they believe people just choose to become evil-doers. But if they do forgive, this isn’t a mark of weakness, or an inability to appreciate the gravity of the offense, or a refusal to make moral judgments. Nor is forgiveness, as Minette Marrin recently argued, an inhuman quality. From a naturalistic perspective, it’s the profound, and for the victim, liberating acknowledgement that even the very worst among us, those badly used by the vagaries of their genetic endowment and their life experience, are still part of the human family, and there but for circumstances go you or I. With forgiveness, the victim might let go of her hatred; the offender might, possibly, be reclaimed in some meaningful sense, even if he never walks free. If we count forgiveness, properly bestowed, as a virtue, then naturalism can help us be more virtuous.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, I don't have anything to add. Just wanted to say it is wonderful to see someone writing about this. If there is anything positive to be taken from those horrible murders of Amish children it is precisely the Amish stance on forgiveness.

I'm reminded of a line I heard from a Buddhist teacher (and naturalist): "forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past." To me that does not mean some kind of passive acceptance, but rather an active engagement in what life and living is about. It takes courage to be a naturalist.

Nov 5, 2006, 2:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the line from Andy's comment about giving up hope of a better past. I wonder if brains can ever do that, totally, when great harm has been done to one's loved ones. Forgiveness is related to anger, which is the body's response to hurt. As long as there is hurt and anger, total forgiveness can't happen. Having some strong feelings of forgiveness however is compatible with feelings of unforgiveness. To encourage and declare one's forgiveness is not necessarily a bad idea, even if one is unable to completely and consistently feel it.

I also wonder if the Amish's declaration of forgiveness stems from a need to underline their belief that we are not of this world, so taking their loved ones is not as serious as it might be for naturalists. The ideal may be total forgiveness but as animals we have limited control over our bodies.

Nov 24, 2006, 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger Terry Thompson said...

Thank you for this blog, I have never heard of naturalism before I have believed for as long as I can remember in its tenants.

These Ideas are very new to me, and I need help understanding how you have gotten from A to B hear. Thinking of everyones actions as casual is a new idea to me, but I think I believe it. I would say that there are many actions that are effectively random that make people who they are (chaos theory or butterfly effect). But the idea will have profound impacts on my thinking.

I do not as yet understand how from naturalism you have gotten to forgiveness or not supporting the death penalty. It seems to me that in the end the correct course of action in dealing with murder, or any other crime for that matter, would be the course that would most reduce unwanted suffering over time. Understanding that the person did not have free will has dramatic impacts on how you feel about how I think about the criminal, but it seems that how I feel would not be the issue to society in general but rather developing methods to reduce or prevent similar things happening in the future. Setting up an environment (and maybe genetics - whole other discussion) that lead to reducing the likelyhood of these events happening in the future would be the best reaction.

That leads me to understand the desired outcome, but the method of achieving this result would be a sociological issue dealing with how humans interact and react to their environment. While I believe in forgiveness and am open to debate on the dealth penalty, I am not sure that the science of sociology has determined difinitively that forgiving or not killing the convicted murderer are the best ways to stop in from happening in the future.

Either way, whichever the answer, is it really prudent to come up with the conclusion on how society should proceed rather than trying to frame the question so that sociologists can to research in a naturalistic context to find the best solution?

Maybe you are a Sociologist and maybe this research has already been done, if so, could you point me to references to this research as it would make me understand how you got from A to B here.

Thank you.

Dec 13, 2006, 12:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As we see things, there is a cause for all aspects and every detail of our behavior, including the most monstrous of acts. There is then a cause for our compassions, towards victims, and sometimes, forgiveness towards victimizers. And of course, there are also causes for the collective actions of the people in establishing laws and punishments for law breakers. The question in my opinion is, given all of the above, how can we see all fitting a single consistent, natural philosophy?

The answer comes easily to me now, although it was not always so. Some machine parts may fail to function in cooperation with the rest of the machine, through no mystical sin of their own. We must, if the machine is to continue, replace or correct such parts. In a society, people must function, as determined by their history and environment, so as to not jeopardize others, or that society as a whole. We must then correct or replace failing people, as we would a machine part, for our own survival. I don't think deliberate contrived punishment is the best way, but some way must be employed. But punishing or otherwise correcting the problem of offensive people does not imply the need to hate them, or to act out of revenge. I don't condemn such feelings, I'm simply suggesting that they are not necessarily or relevant to taking the most rational corrective action in response to hostility.

We can be completely sympathetic to a person who finds himself driven to murdering innocent people, recognize the loneliness that must exist inside a person devoid of empathy, and still do what must be done. There is no conflict here, any more than in the heart of a parent who must correct the child. And we can be full of hate if that is the case, being driven as the murderer is driver, then again there is no conflict in our natural beliefs, we feel in the short term, and act according to the more long term of rationality and civility.


Jan 13, 2007, 7:41:00 AM  

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