Forgiveness and Revenge Seminar Retrospective

Whenever I teach an advanced class of thoughtful students, I like to offer a short retrospective at the end of the semester. I sit down without my notes or texts and try to makes sense of what we have done.

Below, you’ll find the retrospective I shared on our last day. (As background, we read five main texts with supporting articles: William Ian Miller’s Eye for an Eye, Susan Brison’s AftermathAntjie Krog’s Country of My SkullJoshua Dubler’s Down in the Chapeland Sara Ruddick’s Maternal ThinkingOther major figures: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Desmond Tutu, Maria Chenowith and Erica Stephan, David Kennedy, Susan Griffin, and Hannah Arendt. (Yes, this is too much! Yet the students were game and actually kept up with the reading, which was pretty satisfying.)

[Content Warning: Sexual Assault, Torture, Violence]

We began the class with William Ian Miller’s book Eye for an Eye on talionic cultures. For Miller (no relation, sadly), the cultures of honor that celebrate revenge and reprisal have a few distinctive features: they recognize the legitimacy of resentments and retributive desires and they try to channel those desires through procedures that limit their harmfulness. Thus they respond to the threat of revenge by quantifying harms and restricting reprisal. These cultures are sometimes thought of as primitive, but in vengeance they show remarkable insight and ingenuity. Miller makes much of the fact that revenge involves parties at odds who are trying to get even, and at times these metaphors suggest a seemingly inexorable calculation in justice, one which legitimates payback and every other possible settling-of-accounts.

One of the most interesting parts of Miller’s book is his account of how Christian theories of forgiveness seem to echo and rhyme with the original accounting that the scales of justice entail. St. Paul seemed to suggest that we forgive because vengeance is for the Lord, and so by repaying harms with kindness, we heap coals upon our perpetrator’s head. It almost looks as if the deprivation of punishment in life is a designed to lengthen the sentence or intensify the damnation to be carried out after death. For Miller, the best account of the quality of revenge comes in our discussion of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, because there we see the demand for forgiveness made by a superior foe, because Shylock seeks revenge as proof of his own humanity, and is denied it as proof of the inferiority of his Jewishness.

The echoes with Coates’ work on reparations struck a chord with the entire class. Ultimately Coates suggests that payback is required for spiritual renewal, that Blacks and whites cannot know forgiveness until we settle accounts. So long as Black children must deal with the legacy of slavery, white supremacy, and the continual plunder of Black wealth by whites, calls for racial justice will be cheap talk. Coates certainly set the bar high, and I don’t know that we have yet found an argument to gainsay him, except that the racial accounting he demands is too difficult for us to bear. But Coates can easily see that we are unwilling to pay what we owe; the question is what hope there can be for equality so long as this debt remains unpaid.

Here, the South African experience ought to be instructive. When philosophers write books on forgiveness, we can never seem to do anything better than refer to Desmond Tutu, whose warm celebration of the strength and power of forgiveness strike us all as somehow worthy of emulation. And it’s in Tutu that we start to see the opposite side of Coates’ argument. Coates sets the stakes very high; for Tutu they were even higher, because his book and his constant refrain was that there can be no future without forgiveness. This is an interesting formulation: it does not promise South Africa an easy path, but rather makes a simple logical point: forgiveness is necessary. It may not be easy, it may not be fair, and it may not even be sufficient. But without it, the country is stuck.

Reading Antjie Krog’s book, Country of My Skull, helped us to see that a process can be inadequate and still work, a little. It can be a part of a reconciliatory project that none of the participants will live to see the end of. Sometimes it seems that even the #rhodesmustfall critique is able to point to colonial harms associated with Cecil Rhodes because the later harms of apartheid have been largely exposed and… not resolved, but rendered less pressing. The problem is that the past contains so many horrors, and even when resentments over recent atrocities like necklacing have been quelled, there is a whole previous century of atrocities to explore.

Forgiveness was nonetheless necessary for Tutu and for Krog, even while for Coates, forgiveness is nigh impossible. Necessary but impossible; impossible, but necessary. Something like that is at the heart of the problem of violence and trauma in Susan Brison’s work. How can a woman survive the aftermath of the crime that almost kills her? What Brison argued was that almost nothing about the experience of seeking justice through the police and courts can be said to serve her interests. Her hope and her healing were so very slow, and partial, and frail that I almost hesitate to mention them here: I worry that I shouldn’t “put them to work” as “conceptual resources” in the same way as many of the other texts we’ve read. Yet Brison offers them to us as evidence of considerable philosophical rigor, and I think the right move is to engage with her.

There was and will be no question of forgiveness for Brison; she showed us how irrelevant her attacker even was to these questions of survival and flourishing after violence. But revenge, too, seemed inadequate to her. What she needed was safety and respect, what she needed was to be restored to power and security. As a result, she focuses on a curious paradox: victims who blame their attacker feel much less safe than those who blame themselves. Even though the self-blame is in some sense obviously fictional and inaccurate, it is therapeutic and the source of the strength to grow and change beyond the trauma.

And in her dual conclusions, Brison seems to set up a very different and non-relational account of the aftermath of violence: that the goal of the survivor was to bend and not break, to cultivate in herself and in her child the openness to novelty and sociality that trauma and violence take from us. When I set up the syllabus I hoped this moment in Brison would set up a useful echo for the work of Sara Ruddick in Maternal Thinking with which we ended the class, because that’s where I put my sometimes dwindling hope: not in the promise of forgiveness from victims, but in the sense that revenge may be just as irrelevant to survival, no matter how powerful the impulse sometimes feels.

We began to learn just how irrelevant paybacks have become in our society when we read about the prisoners at Graterford in Pennsylvania. Much of what matters in Dubler’s discussion of faith in American prisons is in the background assumptions of the way his book is written, not often clearly stated or remarked upon: that the prisoners there are intelligent, good, and even wise; that they are not being punished, but merely waiting, living under conditions of arbitrary interference and capricious abuse. What Dubler found in Graterford’s chapel were men who are struggling to figure out how their own past acts have come to define them, and how to survive the evil that they have done and that is done to them. This suggests that one of the worst elements of revenge is the way we see perpetrators as irredeemable, the way we reduce those who harm us to those harms. Graterford makes me wonder what it could mean to love the sinner and hate the sin when we never stop thinking of them as sinners, and never let them forget that they have sinned.

Perhaps this “waste management” of criminals would be more acceptable if there weren’t so many of them. And indeed, I think Dubler’s book on Graterford starts to show us the problem with a world where we simultaneously treat some members of our society as if they are unworthy of our attention or support throughout their lives, subject to constant violence and depredation, until they lash out or misbehave–at which point we become desperately retributive. The men and women in prison are disproportionately poor and poorly educated, and yet the only injustices we’re willing to punish are the ones they commit. This asymmetry of responsibility is a kind of massive structural violence that undermines the entire project of criminal justice, and hampers the reprobative role of punishment in our society.

This is usually the place in the course where one would turn to restorative justice approaches. Instead, we turned to the literature on violence prevention, a transition that requires explanation. The criminologist John Braithwaite often tells the story of two US servicemen in Japan who raped a young Japanese woman. The rapists were called to a private reconciliatory meeting, where the woman read a letter indicating that she was willing to forgive them and ask that they not be punished. The servicemen did not understand, and when it was their turn to speak they told the judge, “We are not guilty, your honor.” This shocked everyone involved; had they been–or pretended to be–repentant, they would have been freed. As a result, they were sentenced to the legal maximum period of incarceration rather than freed as had been planned.

Now, Braithwaite tells the story as an example of a failure of reconciliatory norms in the US: confessions and repentance have been trained out of Westerners by the the procedural safeguards we have created to prevent coerced confessions. But I see the story differently: a young woman was raped by two foreign men, and the male authority figures in her society demanded that she absolve them of the crime for diplomatic purposes. They were only stymied by the rapists’ failure to make the proper ritualized speech acts in a crucial moment of the ceremonial subordination of the victim’s needs and interests.

This is not a story of frustrated reconciliation or failed forgiveness, but frustrated impunity. It’s not an indictment of the refusal of repentance rituals, but of the demand for them. I find myself sympathetic to the Black South African mothers Krog reports on, who argued that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a fancy way for powerful men to smooth over their own transgressions, leaving the mothers no less bereft of their sons and daughters than before.

But this too, is too simple, which is why we ended with Sara Ruddick. Ruddick is my kind of care ethicist: she resists gender essentialism while defending care ethics, and roots the phenomenology and ethics of care in practices of caretaking and peacemaking and the skills and competencies required to succeed in those matters. What’s more, Ruddick acknowledges the tension between the different modes of care, of holding safe, welcoming change, and attentively loving our children and vulnerable dependents, and shows that mothers (who can be men but have tended to be women) develop their skills and competencies in the difficult thinking through of those tensions in contexts and situations. It’s a powerful book of philosophy, and I’ll be teaching it again at JCI this summer.

On my view, Ruddick helps to spell out both the background attitudes required for forgiveness but that we can also only start to think of the role of forgiveness in a society and in a relationship when we foreground the purposes it serves. Women and men who mother understand that transgressions and injuries will occur, and they train their children to forgive them. They do this because resentments are unhealthy; they do this because revenge is unsustainable. But mostly they do this because maternal thinking is a kind of disciplined, cognitively-loaded thinking-through-emotions.

Anger is one of the most pernicious emotions a child must confront, and so mothers prepare themselves and their children for that confrontation. Mothers know that anger always presents itself as immediate, urgent, and correct, but that a child can only survive, thrive, and succeed when she can resist its pull. Mothers teach their children to master their anger; they train them to restrain it and to let it go. And they do the same for themselves: they learn that their anger and sorrow at the loss of one child must be subordinated to the safety of their other children, and other mothers’ children. And so they act out of anger but with reason, they force themselves to put their anger and revenge to use. Sometimes they harness their grief for peacemaking.

A mother’s anger can become violent, of course. But if it remains maternal in the way Ruddick describes, it will preserve the goals of preservation and cultivation, of survival and growth. Ruddick and Brison thus end on the same note: that the meaning of a trauma is ultimately the way it shapes us as mothers. The measure of our revenge or forgiveness is not whether it slakes our revenge but whether it makes the world a safer space for our children. Talionic cultures know this; they limit payback just because they want to settle accounts for the next generation. Reconciliation and forgiveness, too, work only to the extent that they settle old scores, that they bury the implements of violence in places where new generations will not dig them up.

I ended the semester significantly less hopeful about forgiveness than I began. Individual acts of forgiveness have a power to transform people and relationships in a way that still seems sublime, in the technical sense of “sublime:” a phenomenon that challenges our faculty of understanding. And precisely because it has this status, I worry deeply about the demands that we craft policies in such a way as to require that forgiveness become mundane, a quotidian part of the working of a system. Because in those cases it always seems to be the powerless who must forgive, and the powerful who use the rhetoric of forgiveness to demand that their victims ignore oppression and systematic violence.

This is not the hopeful ending I planned. And indeed, it’s not an ending at all; Martha Nussbaum’s new book Anger and Forgiveness came out too late to include in the syllabus, but it’s been helpful to my own thinking, and I shared a few useful passages with the students. Like Brison, Nussbaum treats our relationship to anger, resentment, and revenge as one that we must manage, one that we must prevent from gaining too much control over us. She treats anger and resentment as imprecise heuristics for pointing out injustice, but argues that both justice and individual happiness require the subordination of those passions to capability-expanding outcomes. She brings the literature on survivors together with the philosophical and theological scholarship on forgiveness, and uses that to frame the problems of mass incarceration and transitional justice. So there’s a lot in this book to be excited about, even as I worry that she’s put too much of her emphasis on South Africa’s “success.”

In particular Nussbaum worries about the status-degrading and payback moments in revenge, like when Paul uses forgiveness to get payback. What’s particularly good about the book is that Nussbaum is bringing together so many disparate strands of this problem, so that, for instance, she can show that these hyperbolic payback and status-lowering elements of our retributive impulses have contributed to the American problem with mass incarceration. It’s a big, sophisticated, and difficult text, and while I’ve read most of it, I don’t think I’ve fully digested it yet. So the semester is over, but the true retrospective is always forthcoming.

The Problem of Natural Evil, Charity, and Free Trade

I’ve recently been arguing for the comprehensible beauty of theological fatalism. The standard response to the problem of evil is that evil is the result of human willing: thus the Holocaust or American racism cannot be laid at the feet of an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly benevolent God. But I think this seriously ignores the problem of natural evil.

In a world that is literally full of unexplained and uncontrolled phenomena, there’s something sensible in taking the attitude that God’s will requires submission and respect in the face of suffering. If the best guess you’ve got about the fundamental truths of the universe is that nature (and Nature’s God) is capricious and inexplicable, then your attitude to that caprice is going to matter a lot. Can you love your fate without understanding it? Can you avoid telling just-so stories of desert and blaming the sufferer for her suffering? Non-karmic theological fatalism has the major theme that the world is love-able despite the fact that it is full of mysterious natural atrocities.

The predominance of human-caused evils like genocide and slavery have only rivaled natural evils for a few centuries; the long human time span is overwhelmed with misfortunes that could not be understood or even effectively planned against, only endured. Today, it makes sense to try to give a different account, one that enables intervention and prevention. But that modern perspective is rooted in our relatively limited success in rendering explicable and changeable the tremendous amount of suffering that surrounds us.

And there’s still quite a lot of it. I usually only discuss global poverty in the context of utilitarian arguments for rich-world charity obligations. But in fact there’s good reason to think that these rich-world obligations extend infinitely further to an imnipotent and omniscient God. If I can and should save a child in Pakistan or Nepal by forgoing a cell phone upgrade, think how much greater the obligation would be for an omnipotent God.

In 1990, the global under-five mortality rate was 12.7 million annually. Today it is 6.3 million. Because it’s hard to think in terms of such large numbers, I often describe that change this way: every day in 1990, 34,000 children under five died, mostly from easily-treated poverty-related diseases; today it’s more like 17,000. Nearly half of these deaths are directly attributable to undernutrition; other causes include malaria, diarrhea (from unsanitary water,) and asthma (from dung-based indoor cooking fires.) This is pretty obviously evil.

It is probably the case that the contemporary rich could alleviate much of this through charitable action (although this is significantly less effective than we’d like.) In any case, these child deaths could be attributable to human willing, specifically the inaction of rich countries. Yet, even to the extent that that is true today, humanity has not been rich enough to afford to address poverty-related disease for the vast majority of human history.

While it’s hard to measure historical child mortality, estimates suggest something like 300 to 500 child deaths per 1000 live births in pre-industrial societies. That means the 1/3 to 1/2 of all children born would die before their fifth birthday; this even extends to newly industrializing societies: that’s the rate that was observed in Europe through the 19th Century. For every person born under modern conditions, it’s likely that about 15 were born and died in pre-modern times. So roughly 100 billion people have been born and died before the currently living 7 billion. Probably 30 to 50 billion of them died before their fifth birthday. (It’s somewhat surprising that anyone could believe that their God would deplore abortion, given God’s role in this mass infanticide.)

What’s more, it turns out that even if our newfound global wealth enables charitable alleviation of natural evil, these efforts are themselves quite difficult and expensive, and often have very bad unintended side-effects. Often it seems we are forced to respond to this tremendous evil with very imperfect efforts: gifts tend to be less effective than economic development, and competitive global trade has done more than anything else to reduce under-five mortality.

Here’s a sentence I think most of my readers will reject, but I’m never impressed by their reasons: we’ve never found a compassionate system that is as effective as competitive markets for alleviating the specific evil of child mortality, even if it comes with a host of other evils.

In 1969, China alone had 2.3 million deaths for children under-five. In 2012, only 0.2 million children under-five died. That’s directly attributable to US trade with China. Yet we are frequently reminded of how much disruption and inequality that has caused without celebrating the benefits. These policies are described as “off-shoring” or “exporting American jobs.” It’s almost certainly driven massive domestic inequalities that are currently disrupting our democracies. Yet the role of trade in reducing child mortality strikes me as often ignored in these debates.

This is supposed to be something upon which Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump agree: that we should massively reduce trade with countries like China, not to mention Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet those five countries are the ones with the highest child mortality. India and Nigeria alone account for half of the 17,000 under-five deaths each year. Even newly-rich trade-enemy China is still the fifth largest source of child mortality, with twice the under-five mortality rate of most industrialized societies.

Thus, the problem of natural evil strikes me as good evidence that the omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God does not exist; such a God would never force us to choose between the evils of capitalism and the evils of watching our children die. Yet if we truly live in such a tragic world, I doubt we should countenance trade protectionism until we can identify an alternate way to address child mortality.

Links, Aggregated

  1. Happiness studies say parenthood is bad for youProbably this tells us more about happiness studies than happiness.
  2. Lisa Feldman Barrett: What Emotions Are (and Aren’t)
  3. Five Philosophy Books for Children
  4. Emily Oster: Everybody Calm Down about Breastfeeding (But see also)
  5. Knowing whom to ask and also how to ask is also often more valuable than a detailed knowledge of a cuisine per se.”
  6. Peter Levine stands with Ukraine: “The reason that liberals are influential in Ukraine and vanishingly marginal in Russia is not that Ukrainians are superior to Russians. No people is superior, and in any case, the differences in their current situations can probably be traced to local and recent contingencies, such as the greater efficiency of the Russian security and media agencies and the flood of petrodollars that fund them. But the fact remains that Ukrainians who are cosmopolitan, liberal, and republican hold considerable power in their country, and there is nothing similar right now in Russia.”