Under The Sun

Tuesday, February 25, 2003



NDPR: Forgivability

"Govier rejects what she takes to be the conventional view that some moral wrongs are so egregious that their perpetrators are absolutely unforgivable. According to Govier, there are no "moral monsters": "It is both dangerous and unethical to write off a human individual or group as permanently and incorrigibly evil.""
--Mary Sigler, Arizona State University, reviewing Trudy Govier, Forgiveness and Revenge

Sigler notes some theoretical difficulties with this position, but she does not note the essential practical difficulty: not writing off certain individuals may also be dangerous and unethical. An individual's capacity for reform is, like any human capacity, finite; furthermore, it is not controversial to note that for any given individual it tends to decrease over time (old dogs and new tricks). Therefore, it may under some circumstances be the case that no reasonable expenditure of resources (time, money, care, etc.) could rehabilitate a certain offender. If that is the case, then prison for life is a just response, regardless of one's moral attitude toward retribution. Obviously there is room for argument about whether any *particular* individual is practically unredeemable in this way. But there is also room for argument about how much effort is "reasonable". The question is too empirical to be left to philosophers.

My other comment is more theoretical, but based on a similar empirical calculus. The capacity of a group is, in general, much greater than the capacity of an individual. Specifically, the capacity of a group--e.g. the Nazis--to wrong, may be far greater than the capacity of any wronged individual to forgive. Therefore, it is humanly impossible for the individual to forgive the group: a Holocaust survivor can't forgive the Nazis without help. However, no individual Nazi--even Hitler himself--has committed super-human wrong; such a thing is definitionally impossible, unless one believes in an active Satan. Therefore, an individual survivor can forgive any member of the group that wronged him, if the survivor's personal capacity for forgiveness is greater than the member's individual moral wrong. To forgive an individual SS officer, as Simon Wiesenthal was asked to, is much easier when one recognizes that the individual was not the sole perpetrator of the wrong, and that forgiving the individual is different from, and does not--could not--require forgiving the group.

It follows that only a group can forgive a group. Govier's discussion of "distributive" and "collective" responsibility is perhaps illuminating, but not really necessary: no metric of apportionment is needed; the mere fact of apportionment is enough. Thus, only "the Jews" could forgive "the Nazis"--we haven't yet, but in time I think we will. I can't speak for African-Americans, but I suspect that they will feel more able to group-forgive whites once they feel that their grievances have been sufficiently redressed. (Some people believe that sufficient redress has already occured, but most of them are white.)

There is one other important point to consider. "It is humanly impossible for the individual to forgive the group": but God can help. God is not human, not mortal, not finite; thus for any individual, {God and I} can, potentially, forgive any mortal wrong. Such forgiveness cannot, I think, justly be mandated by any mortal organization, even though it is always possible; only God can call for it. But as a wise man said: "that's His business".


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