On Philosophy

December 15, 2006

Is Forgiveness Ethical?

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 3:59 pm

The role that forgiveness plays in ethical systems is a topic I have been thinking about for some time. But now I can introduce it with a Bob the Angry Flower comic.

There are basically two kinds of forgiveness. One is the ability to be relived of guilt/sin/bad karma/feelings of failure that accrues from doing something wrong. The other is forgiveness among people, i.e. not holding a grudge forever. Obviously there is no problem with the second kind of forgiveness, how long you choose to hold things against people is your own business, and not really an ethical issue (although this does not include revenge, revenge is an ethical problem). It is the first kind of forgiveness that I find problematic, specifically because, as the cartoon indicates, it has the tendency to encourage bad behavior.

Obviously an idea can’t be ethically wrong or right (it’s not an agent, a person), what can be is an action, specifically perpetuating or spreading the idea, in this case the idea that wrongdoings can be forgiven. It is my thesis that believing in forgiveness causes people to behave worse than they would otherwise, because it reduces the “cost” of bad behavior, and thus telling people that they can be forgiven would itself be wrong, because it would encourage them to act badly.

Obviously this analysis turns on whether forgiveness really does lower the perceived “cost” of acting wrongly, but I think this is easy to show. In general the “cost” of doing the wrong thing (in general terms, the law may apply additional punishments) is the knowledge that one has acted poorly, which often translates into guilt. If you believe that punishments await those who do wrong after death then worrying about those punishments is another cost of doing the wrong thing. However, if you believe that you can be forgiven for doing the wrong thing, then these “costs” basically disappear, and are replaced with the “costs” of seeking forgiveness, whatever they may be (ranging from talking to priests to doing good works). In most cases the “cost” of forgiveness is low enough that people, knowing it exists, become more likely to do the wrong thing, reasoning that they can always be forgiven later.

There is, however, one exception to this general analysis of forgiveness, for spiritual systems in which punishment for wrongdoing doesn’t come in degrees. Christianity is one such system, as you suffer in hell the same amount for killing one person as you do for killing ten people. Thus, if one believed this system and not in forgiveness, after committing any wrong that would bring the ultimate punishment it wouldn’t make sense to do the right thing anymore. After all it’s not like things could get worse. The possibility of forgiveness gives people in this situation an incentive not to continue to act badly. But I don’t think this justifies forgiveness, it simply highlights one of the problems with a system that promises anyone who is condemned for moral reasons to the same fate (another problem being the inherent injustice in such a system).

In any case these thoughts about forgiveness only apply to people who seek to be ethical, because it is only for them that there is a “cost” of wrongdoing in the first place, whether it simply be the cost of failure, or worries about bad karma. There are some who disregard ethics altogether, and obviously whether they believe in forgiveness or not is inconsequential, as they are not concerned with the “cost” of wrongdoing.


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