Following a Bloodbath, Some Thoughts on Forgiveness

I don’t know about you, but I am sick of Obama, and I am sick of the Pope, talking about forgiveness for the guilty.

Mass murder on school grounds? More government funding! And ban guns — for the nonviolent! Punish the innocent. And try to  understand the guilty, the twisted and the evil. Tell the victims: Get over it, or go get a government check. As for the guilty: We must show compassion and blame society. It’s the clichto which the “informed” and the educated resort, over and over again … with always the same results.

Adam Smith once wrote, ‘Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent.’

This observation has a wide variety of applications.

Consider a concrete issue from everyday life. A mother sees her son hit his sister for no clear reason. When she confronts him, he defensively replies, ‘It’s not my fault! She wouldn’t share her toys with me!’

The mother does not accept this excuse. She points out that her son might have pursued several other options, including asking for her help. She also points out that nobody is obliged to share their toys unless they choose to do so. Nevertheless, her son shows no remorse until she informs him that he cannot watch his favorite television show that night because of the incident.

‘You can’t do that!’ her son screams. ‘It’s not fair!’ Most parents, if they experience any doubt at all in this situation, will worry about the guilty party. ‘Should I punish him or not?’ will be the central question. ‘If I don’t punish him, I might not teach him the proper lesson. But if I do punish him, then I might just alienate him and harm his self-esteem.’

Notice how both sides of this dilemma focus on the well-being of the guilty party.

What about the well-being of the innocent party—the child who was hit, without any legitimate provocation?

What about her self-esteem, and what about the impact of the decision to punish (or not punish) the aggressor on her life? To refuse to punish the boy in this case amounts to an injustice against his sister. It would influence his sister’s precarious, developing view of the world as either a rational place where justice is possible, or an irrational place where nothing matters so you might as well get by with whatever you can.

The same principle applies on a wider social scale. Consider the growing prevalence of crime. Most debates on the subject focus on the well-being and mental health of the violent criminal. Some claim that rehabilitation is best for the criminal. Others cite evidence that rehabilitation doesn’t work, nevertheless conceding that it would be the preferred option if only it were feasible.

What about the victim? What about the loved ones of a murder victim? Even if a pill were discovered tomorrow to ‘cure’ the murderer of his criminal intent, how fair would it be to the victim and his survivors to focus on rehabilitation instead of justice?

Why talk of ‘rights’ for the murderer once he has violated the most fundamental right of another—the right to life? To talk of ‘rights’ for a convicted murderer represents cruelty to the victim. The murderer forfeited his rights when he chose to wipe out the life of someone else.

Most of us are taught to unthinkingly accept the idea that ‘forgiveness is virtue.’ Not surprisingly, we are taught to accept this edict on blind faith, rather than reason. The notion of forgiveness as always virtuous is fundamentally at odds with reason, and could never survive two minutes of rational analysis. How can you possibly ‘forgive’ someone who assaults,
robs or tries to murder you? Who benefits from a policy of forgiveness—you, or the aggressor? And why on earth is this considered moral?

Events of the past few decades have done great damage to the politically correct hypothesis that crime is caused by poverty or low self-esteem.

As unprecedented measures have been taken to pour billions of dollars into programs to help ‘cure’ criminals, or to ‘address’ the alleged root causes of crime (such as poverty), violent crime continues unabated. The promised Great Society is turning into a nightmare. Clearly, other factors besides family and society (such as individual free will) must be contributing to the proliferation of crime.

Even if it could be proven, beyond any doubt, that poverty or low self-esteem causes crime, it would not matter. Justice is still justice, whether on the playground or in the Supreme Court. If ‘morality’ refers to a set of practical, rational principles to help an individual—and a civilization—survive and achieve happiness, then it certainly cannot be moral to allow a guilty person to go free. If you want to live and be happy, you cannot and should not forgive those who try to destroy you.

Nor will the larger society survive if criminals are allowed to go free. Blind, unthinking forgiveness can only benefit the guilty at the expense of the innocent. In fact, if the guilty were smart enough to develop a philosophy to promote their own interests, they could not have devised a more suitable ‘ideal’ than the notion of forgiveness as a virtue.

Unearned forgiveness disarms the innocent and forces them to pay homage to the evil, the irrational, the guilty. Instead of platitudes about forgiveness, parents should teach kids the principle of justice. How can justice be applied to everyday life? First, decide if the guilty party deserves a second chance. If he does, then make sure he provides objective evidence that he is remorseful. ‘Objective evidence’ refers to consistent behaviors, over a lengthy period of time, which prove regret by the guilty person.

Words without actions do not constitute proof; nor do inconsistent, half-hearted behaviors designed merely to ‘look good.’ In the case of minor theft, objective proof of remorse refers to returning the stolen object (or equivalent) with interest (financial or otherwise) as defined by the victim or a court of law. In the case of marital infidelity, if the victim decides a second chance is possible, then the guilty party must be willing to accept the burden of winning back the trust of his spouse over a reasonable period of time. A similar approach can be used with dishonesty, provided—once again—the victim of dishonesty has some very good reason to believe that a second chance is possible.

Providing a rational second chance is not the same as granting unearned forgiveness. Forgiveness in the sense of ‘turning the other cheek’ implies pretending that the transgression never happened. This is not the same as earning back the trust of a person you may have victimized.

Beware of false alternatives. Advocates of the forgiveness ‘ideal’ (most therapists and clergy) will try to tell you that you must either be blindly forgiving, on the one hand, or filled with unresolved anger and unhealthy rage, on the other. In the real world, no such choice is necessary.

You can demand justice, in the objective sense, without becoming consumed by anger. If the person is objectively guilty and you cannot forgive him, then you prosecute him (either legally, if appropriate, or morally, by terminating your relationship with him). If a person has earned forgiveness, because the offense is moderate enough and objective proof of remorse exists, then you continue in your relationship, neither obsessing on the incident nor ignoring the fact that it happened.

Beware of the idea that unearned forgiveness is a virtue, or that you should ‘turn the other cheek’ and invite the guilty party to victimize you yet again. Such a viewpoint represents a ticking time-bomb in your life, a time-bomb that will sooner or later explode in the form of mistaken decisions. Judging others fairly and accurately constitutes virtue. Sacrificing your own well-being spells disaster.


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