vendredi 25 janvier 2013

On the (relative) immorality of forgiveness


Every now and then, we meet the recommendation that the only way to find peace and quietness in our hearts and minds is to eventually forgive the offenders who have hurt us through their misdeeds.

I suppose one must have been through some nightmarish experience to tell first hand if the recommendation applies and if it works. Such isn't my case so I can not be assertive on that regard, yet I can imagine some victims finding peace only after they've killed themselves the murderer of their child for example.

As a matter of fact, there aren't that many cases where the issue arises but the rape or killing of children.

So I don't exactly discuss the veracity of the recommendation (let's call it a recommendation) but yet my attention was caught with a specific aspect of it and particularly in association with Kant's teaching re. morality.  

And then I was looking for an image to illustrate the post and I immediately found that one and I knew I was on  something.

I don't know who wrote the sentence in the frame (Ayn Rand?) but it seems indisputable that it posits a very selfish and egoistical basis to forgiveness. One may therefore question the morality of an action which is based solely on the pursuit of personal interest, whatever the circumstances.

Indeed, when we remember Kant' second formulation of the categorical imperative, we cannot but conclude that forgiving for the sake of our own peace of mind is contrary to the formula of humanity as exposed in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Moral.
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.

A maxim is considered immoral if:

  1. its subjective content is such that it treats the humanity in oneself or others solely as a vehicle towards one's ends.
Could he read the text in the frame, Kant would spin in his grave.

Now, it can be argued that the sentence isn't a maxim or the enunciation of a rule to follow, but merely the honest stating of the ultimate intent of forgiveness, that is treating the other as a means but not an end.

So, even if we forget Kant's theory of morality, I find it hard to deny that the end of forgiveness is basically selfish, selfish in the broadest sense of the word, yet selfish.

Finally, this little questioning may be an indication that morality isn't exactly easy to define nor are the criteria that can be useful in order to tell absolute right from absolute wrong in certain extreme circumstances.

Now, if you think all these meandrous Kantian talks about morality are irrelevant, just consider how it was discussed in an Israeli court 50 years ago.

17 commentaires:

Ned Ludd a dit…

There are at least three types of forgiveness: religious, that which you give to friends and vice versa for things you have done wrong to each other, and self-forgiveness.

The latter two are necessary for your social interaction and for your sanity respectively.

Religious forgiveness is bad. You are asked to forgive unforgivable things like murder of someone close. I might put it in the past, or put it on the back-burner, but I wouldn't forgive, but I doubt that I would seek revenge.

That said, Sean Penn's movie with Jack Nicholson, "Crossing Guard", and Dennis Hopper's "Out of the Blue" make you think again and show that things are more complex than we might think.

Flocon a dit…


Forgive me (although it may be immoral) for being late to write this post... Je m'y mets asap.

I haven't seen any of the films you mention but it reminds how good are American script writers when it comes to address serious issues that make people think.

Of the three types of forgiveness you enunciate, each tackles very different situations. The religious one has a global societal impact and span, whereas the two latter are much more limited in their scope.

From the social point of view, I suppose the concept of forgiveness has arisen from the need to prevent endless feelings of retaliation and also the necessity for any collectivity (be that of the Aborigenes) to let the dead bury the dead.

As pertains the religious aspect of the problem, I know absolutely nothing about how religions deal with the notion of forgiveness (except the Christian one), and particularly the two other monotheist ones.

My ignorance extends to Buddhisme and other similar systems.

As a matter of fact, the post will refer to Kant's view of morality.

Ned Ludd a dit…

Flocon, I highly recommend that you watch(rent)those two films, both of which have to do with remembering, forgetting, and (not)forgiving in a personal sense, not a religious one.

In a sense, the (non)forgivers are right and the object of their anger is guilty, but perhaps not entirely wrong. It applies perhaps to your new post.

I agree with you about American screen writers. In my words, they can be astute and subtle. There are scenes in the movies that bring tears to your eyes.

A more cynical movie about self-forgiveness is "The House of Games" by David Mamet. Badly entitled "Engrenage" in French. Another one is "The Player" by Robert Altman.

Flocon a dit…


I had written an answer to your last comment and apparently it has vanished in the haze.

Chuis fatigué, je vais me coucher et j'y reviens plus tard...

Anonyme a dit…

For the Christian believer, forgiveness of others is a duty owed to God. Since God requires it of us, ii is, ipso facto, good.

Secular forgiveness is empty of any ethical value other than that of utility. Your quotation at the beginning of the post sums it up accurately. Forgiveness is something we do wholly for ourselves. We do it for us because, and only because, it benefits us.

But, if the benefit calculus is different, we don't forgive. If we are happier in taking our revenge, then we should do that.

If we are happier in forgetting it and "moving on," then that is the good thing to do.

If we are happier in walling our enemy in with the cask of amontillado, then that is good and that is what we should do.

For the secularist, it is simply a choice about what action makes us feel best.

Both views have the virtue of providing clear guides to action.

Of course, guides to action are only pertinent if we have the free will to follow them.


Ned Ludd a dit…

Flocon, in your first link to Kant, he talks about suicide,

"A man reduced to despair by a series of misfortunes feels sick of life, but is still so far in possession of his reason that he can ask himself whether taking his own life would not be contrary to his duty to himself. Now he asks whether the maxim of his action could become a universal law of nature. But his maxim is this: from self-love I make as my principle to shorten my life when its continued duration threatens more evil than it promises satisfaction. There only remains the question as to whether this principle of self-love can become a universal law of nature. One sees at once that a contradiction in a system of nature whose law would destroy life by means of the very same feeling that acts so as to stimulate the furtherance of life, and hence there could be no existence as a system of nature. Therefore, such a maxim cannot possibly hold as a universal law of nature and is, consequently, wholly opposed to the supreme principle of all duty."

There are difficult cases to generalize about. In the news today is the suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz He was accused of infringing a law like Hadopi. Though the state prosecutor was going to let him off with a warning, a Federal prosecutor filed more serious charges and hounded him to his death.

Kant's "Now he asks whether the maxim of his action could become a universal law of nature. But his maxim is this: from self-love I make as my principle to shorten my life when its continued duration threatens more evil than it promises satisfaction." judgement seems short-sighted. Swartz doesn't seem to motivated by a threat of more evil, except by the government, but he more seems like a victim of murder by the government. Did he deny his "the supreme principle of all duty."?

Flocon a dit…


The problem with Kant's Categorical imperative is that it inevitably leads to contradictions and absurdities so it is hardly defensible in the end.

You remember how philosophers' system must be understood with regard to their historical background. Kant epitomizes the period known as Enlightenment (a term he himself created).

In an age where science and knowledge were finally helping men to get a firm grasp on reality (for better or for worst) philosophy needed to get real an definitively free itself from obscurantism and unreasonable ways of thinking.

That's what Kant achieved (after Descartes, Bacon and all the other English empiricists), with his Critique of Pure Reason which was the golden crown of human reason. A golden crown that is now wholly accepted (save by Ayn Rand and her objectivism which she is the only one to believe in).

Problem is that Kant wanted to apply the same method to the field of morality where he thought it possible to posit a set of rules that would be as intangible as the scientific rules of nature (that's why he calls his categorical imperative a rule of Nature.

Just, it doesn't work and inevitably leads to endless debate regarding the feasibility of actions according to the prescriptions Kant has set up.

Hence your questioning re Aaron Schwartz (" Did he deny his "the supreme principle of all duty."?") which is one among the innumerable examples where Kant's theory collides (and crashes) against reality.

The Critique of practical Reason is very much admired because of the audacity and cleverness of it and the historical position it occupies in the field of Western morality (and it keeps teachers of philosophy busy), but very soon after the book was published critics appeared and basically underpinned how unrealistic Kant's prescriptions were.

For what I know, Benjamin Constant was among the first to highlight how unworkable was Kant's theory. But mainly, it was Schopenhauer who demolished nearly completely the Critique of practical Reason.

All in all, this little post wasn't a defense of Kant's theory but I found it amusing to show the contradiction there existed between "forgiveness" as it was presented in the frame and Kant's formula of humanity.

SemperFidelis has solved the contradiction in his manner by cutting the Gordian knot and I must answer him now.

Billet un petit peu technique I admit so all the more thank you for taking part.

Ned Ludd a dit…

Flocon, at least you can see that besides reading you, I read your links. How many brownie points does that get me?

Flocon a dit…


Cela ne m'a pas échappé et je pensais le relever and then I thought that would appear too overtly flattering (there exists another word for what I mean but it currently escapes me) and a wity woman such as you wouldn't have missed the opportunity to make fun of me...

You have now gathered enough brownie points to have your pic posted on Wikipedia (whatever language) :-)

Où ça en est cette affaire?

I suppose the Brownie points must correspond to the French cadeau Bonux (another link), expression que tu as certainement déjà entendue.


Some months ago you asked me which were the philosophers who opposed what you called "my thesis" (à propos the existence of the world depending of consciousness, it was Kant's idealism as a matter of fact) and I answered that I couldn't think of any since the case was close since Kant had made the demonstration that Time and Space were the necessary conditions that permit the world to appear to the brain and that Time and Space are a priori forms of our sensibility.

Thanks to your information re Ayn Rand, I've discovered there was at least several persons (her and her followers) who believe that reality exists independent of consciousness.

The fact that a person of such exceptional philosophical merits as Rand created the notion of objectivity and thus opposed Kant and the rest of Western philosophers, may help you to understand what I meant in the post were I developed the idea (not mine) that the word exists only as long as there is a consciousness in which it can be recreated.

I better understand now why Rand was so popular with her "philosophy" in the U.S. La certitude que le monde existe indépendamment de nous est aussi spontanée et naturelle aux hommes que la croyance que la Terre est plate et que le Soleil tourne autour. All wrong of course but it needs a mental revolution to understand the opposite is true.

Rand came and apparently gave intellectual autority to what people naively believe.

Weren't it for you, I still probably wouldn't know about Rand and objectivity and by contrast you helped me further understand idealism.

Ned Ludd a dit…

Flocon, I wrote you an email. If you don't receive, let me know.

A slight mistake in your explanation made me laugh(no offense)"the word exists only as long as there is a consciousness in which it can be recreated" In that formulation, some might say it is religious. :)

Flocon a dit…


I leave aside the religious aspect of your position re forgiveness.

"Since God requires it of us, ii is, ipso facto, good."

In the Quran as well as in the Bible and all these holly books, there are thousands of orders by purported gods who call for massacre, tortures, killings, slaughtering, slicing throats, cutting hands, stoning of women and homosexuals etc. and you state that it is ipso facto "good".

Leviticus 20:13: If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death.

I leave these good deeds to you then.

"Secular forgiveness is empty of any ethical value other than that of utility.

What Kant tried to achieve was a rule which would be universal and independent of any religious basis since there could be as many religions that there are individuals on earth.

The categorical imperative is precisely that: act in such a way that the maxim of your will could always hold at the same time as a principle of a universal legislation.

One of the examples you provide ("If we are happier in walling our enemy in with the cask of amontillado, then that is good and that is what we should do. ") as an illustration of utilitarism is akin to lifting all restraint on individual acts of revenge, whatever the amount of sadism it entails.

I'm not convinced, all the more since the reason why Montresor walls Fortunato in is that he says he has been insulted by the latter.

So Montresor is entitled to act the ways he does just because it makes him feel better, therefore he's in his right?

I'm not convinced and I would refuse you to be a member of a jury which would be in charge of judging me.

You apparently make a distinction between religious forgiveness which would be "moral" because it is a religious duty and secular one which is devoid of morality by the simple fact that it is secular.

This position is indeed that of the religious minds and also basically an open door to fanaticism.

The Islamists who destroyed the Malian mausoleums performed their act in the name of the commandments of their God. To them it was a moral duty to destroy these monuments to immorality as well as the ancient manuscripts.

it was required of them by God, therefore it was ipso-facto good.

Allow me to disagree with your notion that what is ordered by god is ipso-facto good. (Hint: I'm against stoning of infidel women)

Anonyme a dit…

Flocon: Your thought-provoking post deserves a response in kind. I ask for your patience. I can't do it justice until later in the week.

Anijo a dit…

Still waiting for SemperFi to offer up his thoughtful response.

In the meantime, I think that we all do things that we would wish to be forgiven for, so it makes sense to likewise forgive others.

Alas, what is so tragic about the tale of Romeo and Juliet was the unwillingness of the two households to forgive one another.

Flocon a dit…

SemeprFi warned that it would take some time.


we all do things that we would wish to be forgiven for, so it makes sense to likewise forgive others.

I don't remember something for which I'd be relieved to be "forgiven".

The bad things I have done are too petty to require forgiveness. Elapsed time has done the job if it really needed to be done.

Religions as well as ancient philosophers tried to work out rules of morality which would serve as universal guides and yet there are as many criminal codes that there are societies (though the Golden Rule is universal).

In my opinion, there are acts that cannot be forgiven.

We in the West are prone to believe our criminal laws are the best but one example is an invitation to think again.

I'm all but knowledgeable in Muslim law but I've read that the Sharia, while very much in favor of the death penalty (like all religions which are neurosis born out of childlike immature stages of development), accepts that the death penalty be commuted into a life in prison sentence if the family of the victim so requires at the last minute.

In the US or in China, the family of any victim may forgive as much as it wants, hen the State has decided the convict will be put to death, he (she) will be executed.

China isn't a religious country but the US is a Christian one, and very much so. If jesus Christ had any message, it apparently didn't reach its believers.

Anijo a dit…

Hmmmm... still wondering if SemperFi will return to address this topic. I know that he has always had a desire to take the logic of this train of thought to its logical end.

Flocon a dit…

Semperfi hasn't paid a visit for days now and I doubt he's that much interested in pursuing an exchange where his beliefs are put at test and where his final "arguments" sum up to "God said so" or with insane quotes from the Bible.

And I'm not really interested in reading lines from the Gospels or the ancient Testament as well...

There was a time where I would have been interested in discussing with intelligent believers whatever their denomination (specifically Jewish since I already know what Christians are up to and as pertains Muslims they're hopeless) until I found out any serious exchange is impossible with people who risk losing all and everything in such debates.

Should their gods tell them that 2+2 make 5, they would go and recite 2+2=5 like creationists who read the Bible at face value (from the quote Semper delivered last time he posted

["In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." Genesis 1:1]

As you've noticed, I'm on the side of reason, not faith and the two are not compatible in the end, quite the opposite. Childish faith is an insult to intelligence and since intelligence doesn't wander around without an owner, being answered with religious "arguments" is an insult to me personally.

You know Anijo, I'm through with the religious issue ever since I'm 15 which is a long time ago now. Just Ned apparently had an obsession with this topic so I answered every time he would raise the issue since, indeed, we're on the same side but actually I'm not more interested with debating religious beliefs than I would be discussing with children about the adventures, veracity, virtues, whatever of Harry Potter.

Religions eventually belong to the insane asylum of history and I have no desire to exchange with lunatics about their favorite lunacies whatever their merits in other realm of activity.

Beside, in said mental asylum, there are three main departments (Xtians, Jews and Muslims) who each pretend their respective god is the best, the unique, the only one, the creator of the world, the universal standard of the universe and blah blah blah ad nauseam.

It provides and endless opportunity for laughter but I've got no time to waste there except for the good laugh.

Now, there's a great philosopher in your country whom I have much, much, much, more to learn from than
any religious crackpot.

Flocon a dit…

re morality, which was the main issue of this post, you have three main points of view here about what makes an action moral (in the positive meaning of the word of course).

- The intention (that is Kant)
- The consequence (Mill's utilitarism)
- Excellency (ancient Romans and Greeks who held that trying one's best in every circumstance was the ultimate guarantee that an act was moral.

All positions are debatable of course.

And now, there's the religious point of view which SemperFi eloquently summed up some time ago: Whatever god requires is ipso facto good. Hmmm... need I develop?


I return to the fascinating question of the existence of the word independent of any consciousness (see Idealism).

The one and only answer that I ever received was no, no, no, no, no, it ain't so wich you will admit is rather frustrating intellectually wise.

The funny thing is that it made SemperFi side with materialists like Marx and Rayn rather with thinkers of his own denomination...

As Schopenhauer wrote, materialists forget themselves in their calculation (that the world exists even when I'm not here to witness its existence).

Anijo, the one question you must ask to people who pretend that the world exists independent of their consciousness is:

How do you know? (which also is another formulation of the Cartesian ego).

At the end of the day, people know because they have a brain therefore they possess consciousness. They may check all they want, their knowledge comes from their brain, not from their ankle or hair.

Believers who posit hard as rock that their god is eternal and created the world and it works miracles etc. how do they know save through their brain? And how can they tell but with the words that their brain fabricate for them?

And the consequence is that the existence of their god depends on the existence of their brain (which is blatant to non believers) and that had they no consciousness like animals, there would be no god of course and no world either.

No wonder believers cannot accept the sheer evidence idealism unveils: it ruins the basis of their raison d'être.

There is no world to animals even if we see them because we lend them our representation of the world that we possess though our consciousness. We think for them like we state the existence of the stones for which there is no world.