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On getting even or esle being played for a sucker...

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Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits

Jeffrie G. Murphy, Oxford University Press, 152 pages.


Reviewed by Daniel P. Moloney in First Times, February 2004 (see Taming the Vindictive Passions)


Moloney, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, reminds us that in 1995, at ceremonies marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the liberation of Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel made the following prayer: "God of forgiveness, do not forgive those who created this place.  God of mercy, have no mercy on those who killed here Jewish children."


I can understand that, but it still troubles me.


When I arrived at my first teaching post, at an exclusive private school in update New York, a "country day school" no less, I found Elie Wiesels Night on the required reading list for seniors getting themselves ready to depart for Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Brandeis.  Now, many decades later, I don't recall how as a na´ve new English teacher I taught that book, but I don't think I took a moral perspective.  I probably did my usual textual, rhetorical thing - what is the fellow saying, how does he construct his arguments, how can you construct a clear, coherent detailed response?  I wasn't there to discuss moral issues.  I was there to get these kids to read carefully and write with force and coherence, even if Stewart, one of my better students, had parents who had their wrist tattoos from Auschwitz.  I guess I played it safe.


I might have assigned essay questions raised by Wiesel and covered in this Murphy book on forgiveness.  Are there any unforgivable acts?  Isn't there some point after which Germany and the German people can be forgiven?  Is hate ever a virtue?


But then we're talking about teenagers full of raging hormones and worried about which school would accept them, and which would imply they were doomed to failure as second-class losers, in spite of their parents' fortunes.  They might have worked those topics with vigor and diligence, but somehow I sensed they had other things on their minds at the time - sex, for example.


But yes, now, were I back in Rochester, I suspect I would raise the issues of what this reviews calls the costs of forgiveness and the dangers of cheap grace.  Perhaps I grew up.  And after all, I got these kids all excited about Dickens' Great Expectations and Butler's The Way of All Flesh.  Perhaps moral philosophy would not have been a stretch, but then, I'm not sure teaching that was in my job description. 


This book, Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits, was written, the reviewer notes, by a man who began his career in philosophy of law as a leading defender of retribution as the primary justification for criminal punishment, and he is seems he still retains an appreciation for the retributive idea and its supporting emotions of anger, vindictiveness, and resentment.  I'm not big on retribution myself as it seems to me more often than not seeking retribution just diminishes you.  But it also seems that in 1988, Murphy coauthored a book with Jean Hampton, Forgiveness and Mercy.  He also changed his mind.  Jean Hampton, who died in 1996, was a young political philosopher at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers, and she turned him around.  The reviewer notes that as a Christian, Hampton had always assumed that forgiveness was a duty and thus an unqualified good.  Writing a book with her forced Murphy to defend his positions.  And he got "softer."  This book is a sequel to the first.


The reviewer notes the change:


Murphy announces that he has left behind his "militantly secular worldview" and has become a practicing Anglican.


As the subtitle of the new book suggests, Murphy still thinks there ought to be limits to forgiveness, even for Christians.  His main argument relies on the idea that too-hasty forgiveness can show a lack of respect for oneself, as in the S. J. Perelman quip, "To err is human; to forgive, supine."  When we are the victims of evil, it is natural and even likely that we will resent, be angry with, and even hate the person or persons responsible.  Murphy calls these "the vindictive passions," and in the first part of the book, he argues that they play a morally valuable role in our laws, our personal relations, and our psyches.




Yes, we are usually vindictive when someone fails to grant us the respect or regard that we are due, or think we are due.  We react.  Of course we do.  Murphy says this is just fine - we are angry at the injustice that their actions represent, and so our vindictiveness reflects an appropriate sense of justice.  When someone unjustly attacks our person or our society, we ought not to like it; indeed, not to have these emotions shows "an inadequate love of the good."


But there is not liking something (appropriate), and there is being gleefully vindictive.  Think Martin Luther King, and then George Bush.


But the "the vindictive passions go further" though - demanding vengeance, the infliction of suffering on the offender.  A vindictive person is not satisfied until he knows that the person who wronged him has suffered appropriately, or even more than is appropriate.  Punishment then is not about deterrence or the chance to rehabilitate the person punished.  "Its about making that guy suffer for what he did to me and mine, as in Wiesels prayer for divine vengeance," as the reviewer notes.


The counterargument is clear:


If we forgive too easily or grow too lenient in our criminal justice system, we may ignore the genuine harm done.  Psychotherapists frequently encourage victims of abuse to forgive their abusers rather than hate them, believing that hatred will only eat away at their fragile psyches.  Murphy warns that this advice can be dangerous if it encourages such people to lower their guards and allow themselves to be victimized again.  Hate and anger can also get out of hand, of course, but they can strengthen us and help us muster the emotional energy to resist evil, thereby recovering our sense of dignity when we are humiliated or treated without respect.  And if the vindictive emotions help us to hold on to our innate dignity, then it makes a certain sense to think that the vengeful behavior following on those emotions would also be in the service of justice and human dignity.


Yes, I suppose it makes some sense.  But things can get too easily get out of hand, and vengeance can be counterproductive is so many ways.  Bacon did say something about the unchecked desire for vengeance "keeping old wounds green."


What it comes down to is Murphy offering a defense of hate.  He does go into the curious idea that we think its right to punish murder more severely than we punish attempted murder.  If our goal in punishing were simply to deter future crimes, if follows we should discourage people from attempting crimes, and not just from accomplishing crimes.  So it ought to be irrelevant to the sentence that, say, the bullet accidentally missed its target.  But we do regard it as relevant.  This suggests that behind our laws there is a spirit of vindictiveness, a desire to pay back the criminal for the damage he actually causes.  It is easier to forgive someone if there is no serious harm done.


Ah, that makes my head hurt.


Now in the second part of the book Murphy defines forgiveness as "forgoing vengeance and overcoming the vindictive passions."  And he actually says that's good too - it's just damned hard.  True forgiveness is just hard work.  It's not the difficulty of controlling a strong passion like a bad temper; it's the difficulty involved in making a complex moral judgment, the difficulty of "knowing how far one can go in the direction of forgiveness without compromising values of genuine importance."


Yep, that is hard.


Murphy claims that if the vindictive passions can be "instruments of our self-defense, our self-respect, and our respect for the demands of morality," then in forgiving we make ourselves vulnerable and we risk losing our respect for ourselves and for the common good.  We also risk the sin of scandal, suggests Murphy, because "failing to resent (or hastily forgiving) the wrongdoer runs the risk that I am endorsing that very immoral message for which the wrongdoer stands."


Well then, what's the answer to THAT?


Ah, Murphy says we should demand that the wrongdoer repent before he is granted forgiveness. 


Say what? 


The idea is that by repenting, the bad guy "comes to share the appropriate vindictive attitudes towards his own wrongdoing."  If he is truly remorseful he will "inflict more suffering on himself due to his guilty conscience than could be exacted from him were he defiantly unrepentant" - and all of this happens of course without the difficult and costly work of punishing him.  We can forgive him because he can't forgive himself.


Yeah, that works with Saddam Hussein.  Sure.  Make him feel really, really sorry he had all those weapons of mass destruction and wouldn't let any inspectors in, as our president notes.  He weill repent.  And then we "release ourselves from our righteous anger and restore our relationship with the wrongdoer."  After we execute him.


I don't think so.  Of course if this statement of repentance is sincere, and we're flat out sure it's sincere, then this may work.  We just need foolproof sincere-o-meters.  I don't know where one gets one of those.


The reviewer notes Murphy is interested in exploring what the philosopher Herbert Morris has called "the paternalistic theory of punishment," which claims there is something intrinsic to punishment that can lead a criminal to genuine repentance and moral reform. 


Just as punishing a child teaches him that mommy really doesn't like it when he does that to kitty, so criminal punishment communicates to the criminal that society regards his action as wrong.  In other words, it communicates something about the nature of the wrong, and it gives him a chance to consider (and hopefully accept) the content of this communication.  If it works, punishment can lead to repentance.  This theory is heavily criticized - in some circles, "paternalistic" is synonymous with "oppressive" - but Murphy, for reasons left implicit, finds it fairly attractive.  I suspect he finds it attractive because if it works, it allows him more easily to defend punishment to Christians.


Hey, wait a minute!  Christians don't like punishment?  Remember the Inquisition?  Think of Mel Gibson whose new film is about little else.


Putting that aside, it sometimes seems Christianity does teach that even criminals are precious children of God, who (it can be hoped) might undergo a conversion.  Well, they might.


Here's how the reviewer unpacks that Christianity thing -


And it reminds us that the universe is providentially ordered, and that God will bring good out of evil. This last point is most important because so much of the earlier justification of vindictiveness and punishment rests on the assumption that since everything in the struggle against evil depends on us, we cannot let down our guard.  Murphy writes, "If I think that I alone can and must make things right, then I risk taking on a kind of self-importance that makes forgiveness of others difficult if not impossible."  Trusting in God's providence, on the other hand, guards us against overreaching in our sense of responsibility.


At the same time, Christianity can be quite compatible with criminal punishment and even capital punishment, given certain qualifiers.  Christians clearly ought to oppose punishments that are motivated by hate or by indifference to human life.  "Love does not forbid punishment," Murphy argues.  "What it forbids is punishment out of hatred."  Christians are called to visit prisoners in jail, not to abolish jails - the former acknowledges the humanity of the prisoners while still recognizing that their being in prison helps to control crime, promote the common good, and respect justice. 


The idea is "we ought to punish reluctantly, with humility and great caution, aware that zeal for punishment often turns out to be a mask for cruelty."  We ought to be especially reluctant about capital punishment; Murphy defends a view (which he attributes to Augustine and the encyclical Evangelium Vitae) that while the state has a right to execute, it is almost always wrong for the state to exercise that right.


Tell that to Antonin Scalia - see Scalia's Gods Justice and Ours in this same journal a year earlier.  His reasoning goes like this: since the death penalty was "clearly permitted when the Eighth Amendment [which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments] was adopted," and at that time the death penalty was applied for all felonies - including, for example, the felony of horse-thieving, "so it is clearly permitted today."   Justice Scalia is seems has no doubt that if the crime of horse stealing carried a death penalty today in the United States - he would find that law constitutional.  And if we study history, we could extend the death penalty to those people who practice witchcraft, adultery, homosexuality and, say, heresy?  All we need to do is find those particular death penalty laws existing as of November 3, 1791, and re-instate them.  Scalia derives his ideas also, it seems, from Romans 13 - government authority is derived from God and not from the people; he asserts his view was the consensus of Western thought until recent times - "a democratic government, being nothing more than the composite will of its individual citizens, has no more moral power or authority than they do as individuals."  Democracy, according to Scalia, creates problems, "It fosters civil disobedience."   Screw it.


It seems there are Christians, and then there are other Christians like Scalia and Ashcroft.


And even Murphy digs his own holes:


Getting Even is probably the best book to date on the costs and benefits of forgiveness.  But its argument is limited by its schizophrenic nature.  For over half the book, Murphy lays out arguments based on secular premises that he more or less abandons by the end.  And to the degree that he does retain his views about the virtues of vindictiveness, he pulls back from the radical nature of the Christian view.  Murphy is certainly right that Christians don't need to assume na´vely that the enemies they love are not their enemies, and so it is permissible to be prudent and defensive when dealing with them.  But he is not persuasive when he claims that Christians ought to treat the vindictiveness that follows upon righteous anger as respectable and even as a virtue.  If respect for one's self is rooted in being a child of God, then even the great humiliations of rape and torture should not cause one to lose that self-respect.  If one believes that the people who do such things are created in the image of God, it is clear that they have obscured that image by their sins and ought thus to be pitied rather than hated.


Murphy mentions another purpose of vindictiveness, the affirmation of common moral values, but even this is not available to the Christian.  The vindictive reaction to injustice, the desire to right the wrong, is inappropriate, a form of meddling, whenever one doesn't have responsibility or jurisdiction to take that action.  Each person clearly has responsibility for his own behavior, and some very limited responsibility for the behavior of those he can influence, and so he ought to desire to make amends for his own wrongs.


Cool.  We are fools of we think we are God's tools for vengeance on this earth, for we are flawed and fallen - "no fallen man is able to restore justice to the world" - and we are only responsible for ourselves, but then again, we ought to do something when we're wronged.  Quick a pickle!


Get it straight!  For for someone who believes in a "provident God," then, vindictiveness is presumptuous - it presumes that one has the ability and the permission to set the world right and fine and dandy (see George Bush) - and presumption is a species of pride.  This reviewer points out that if this is the case then vindictiveness is not one value to be weighed against forgiveness in a prudential judgment, but rather "a sin that is always wrong for one who trusts in God." 


He concludes Christians have to judge Wiesel's prayer at Auschwitz ...


... to be absolutely wrong.  The understandable product of a life scarred by great evil, certainly.  A forgivable wrong.  But wrong nonetheless.  And if even that anger and those vindictive passions are unacceptable, then hate and vindictiveness cannot ever be a virtue.


Back to how I opened this?  What was Elie Wiesel's Night doing on that high school reading list?  These are not questions for sex-crazed, worried, scatter-brained teenagers.  Well, maybe they are.  But I wonder how I would teach the Wiesel book now.