Better filled half-full than not at all.
Johann Adolph Hasse’s opera “Siroe, Re di Persia” – mentioned in my last blog – is full of anger but it ends with forgiveness. Also Martha Nussbaum’s book that I discussed there is not only about anger but also about forgiveness, as the title of the book, Anger and Forgiveness, already shows. Nussbaum distinguishes three kinds of forgiveness. First she considers “transactional forgiveness”. It involves that the offender of the act to be forgiven “must approach the other person directly, confess the fault publicly, express regret and commitment not to do this sort of thing again – to change the course of one’s life in regard to that whole area of sin. And then the victim must accept the apology.” There is “a change of heart on the part of the victim, who gives up anger and resentment in response to the offender’s confession and contrition.” (p. 63) Transactional forgiveness seems to restore the cosmic balance, as some people think, but actually, so Nussbaum, it involves the errors of anger discussed in my blog last week, since it contains the idea of payback: “the victim’s pain somehow atones for pain inflicted.” (p. 74). In my words, it’s a sort of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Transactional forgiveness does not involve transition to the future in the sense of restoring what went wrong. It looks only back on what happened.
Although transactional forgiveness has been widely accepted, there is also another model, so Nussbaum, which she calls “unconditional forgiveness”: “forgiveness that rains down freely on the penitent, without requiring an antecedent confession and act of contrition.” (p. 75) According to this model “we should ... forgive those who wrong us even when they do not make any gesture of contrition.” (p. 76) Although unconditional forgiveness is to be preferred to transactional forgiveness, it “is rarely free from some type of pay back wish, at least at first. [Moreover,] it remains backward-looking and not Transitional. It says nothing about constructing a productive future. It may remove an impediment to the future, but it does not point there in and of itself. ... [S]ometimes the forgiveness process channels the wish for payback.” (ibid.) This can make that the person who forgives feels him or herself morally higher than the offender. Then unconditionally forgiving “is itself a punishment of the offender”. (p. 77) Moreover, it “is still about the past, and it gives us nothing concrete with which to go forward.” (ibid.)
Nussbaum prefers to call her third kind of forgiveness not forgiveness but “an ethic of unconditional love”. “[I]t departs altogether from judgment, confession, contrition, and consequent waiving of anger.” (p. 78) This love is unconditional and needs no apology by the offender. It “is a first response, not a substitute for a prior payback wish.” (ibid.) The model case for Nussbaum is Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 in the Bible, where the father accepts his son in unconditional love despite what the son has done to him. In the case of unconditional love, so Nussbaum, “there is no allusion to a past of anger. Not only is there no structured ... penance process, with its multiple conditionalities, there is also no forgiveness in any recognizable form at all, even unconditional. There is just love, silencing anger.” (p. 85)
Nussbaum sees this unconditional love as an ideal of forgiving, but is it realistic? Could it be put into practice, not incidentally but in some institutionalized way? Just then where the discussion should have to start, Nussbaum says: “This theme cannot be fully developed at this stage.” (ibid.) How disappointing, for now she avoids the fundamental problem: how to deal with unconditional love in practical cases. Recently in the village where I live a young woman has been violated and murdered. The murderer has been caught and then he has cooperated with the police in solving the case. He has also shown regret. So far, so good. But then? Even if the family of the murdered woman would give the murderer unconditional love – which I seriously doubt, but Nussbaum mentions such a case – what practical consequences will this have for him? No sentence? Not in prison? Note also that this man was already in a psychiatric institute for another crime but that he was on leave when he committed his act.
Nussbaum’s ethic of unconditional love assumes that we behave like saints, but there are only a few people among us who can. Saints do as saints are but humans do as humans are. Look around and ask yourself: Can we ever succeed to build a society on an ethic of unconditional forgiveness? I am afraid that the answer is “No”, if it were only because there’ll always be free riders – people who consciously will commit crimes with the thought in mind that if caught unconditional love will be the punishment. I have ideals but not illusions. Let’s keep the ethic of unconditional love as an ideal to be strived for. Try to practice it where it may work, and the more often it will work so the better. But remain practical. Practice comes often not farther than halfway our ideals, but it’s already ideal when it comes that far.
ReferenceMartha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.