Forgiveness for atheists…
Naturalism and Forgiveness
by Tom Clark
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.
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.
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.