Forgiveness in Egoism
by Ari Armstrong
originally published on the Objectivism-L list
Forgiveness in its common Christian form is an extension of the altruist morality by which the practitioner overlooks some sin of another person for no other reason than it's good to "do unto others." Of course the practice is rooted in "original sin," for, as Paul writes, "[B]e kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32). So, because God offered us forgiveness for our sins, when we did not merit such forgiveness, we too should extend forgiveness to others even when they do nothing to merit the forgiveness. By the Gospels, we should forgive without measure; "Then Peter came up and said to him, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven'" (Matthew 18:21-2). There is some indication (in Matthew 18) that "brother" is intended to mean "practicing Christian," but the point remains that forgiveness is by and large a matter of Christian duty.
It is little wonder, then, that some egoistic ethics have renounced the practice of forgiveness as a self-sacrificing waste. Anton LaVey writes, "Hate your enemies with a whole heart, and if a man smite you on one cheek, SMASH him on the other!" (Satanic Bible 33).
Of course, Objectivists reject both duty-bound moralities and narrow versions of egoism. We adopt an egoistic ethic that recognizes the virtues of long-range planning and cooperation with others. It is in the spirit of David Kelley's work on "benevolence" that I here undertake to delineate the proper principles of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a decision followed to maintain relations with a person, for one's own betterment, despite a wrong committed by that person. Forgiveness generally entails a gradual emotional subsiding of anger toward the person and a renewal of friendly feelings.
Forgiveness, then, is both a mental commitment and a pursued course of action. It is not merely saying, "I'm not going to worry myself about your offense," it is putting the offense aside and continuing (or starting) a cooperative relationship with the person.
And by "putting aside an offense," I do not mean to suggest that the offense is merely forgotten. Indeed, all significant offenses must be remembered. And in many cases, a condition of forgiveness may well be the offender taking steps to remedy the harm and avoid further damage.
Forgiveness also is not merely the subsiding of anger. For it is possible to stop feeling angry toward an offending person without thereby reestablishing a relationship with that person.
I added in the part about the end of forgiveness being "one's own betterment," not only to establish the practice as egoistic and self-serving, but to distinguish forgiveness from other practices in which relations might be maintained with an offending person. Let us take the example of a tax audit. If an IRS agent is rude and unfair, we will nonetheless maintain relations with the agent, until the end of the audit, precisely because of the power the agent is able to wield over us. Or if we imagine an unjust prison camp, we can see how a prisoner might cooperate with a guard just to keep out of more trouble. Such acts do not necessarily entail "forgiveness," obviously. In forgiveness, we say, "Though you have wronged me, you remain worthy of my respect and my cooperation."
Of course, it is possible to cut off *some* relations with an offending person but not all, to cooperate with a person in some respects while refraining from forgiving the person for their offense. For example, if we have a friend who does us harm within the friendship, we may still choose to interact with this person on a professional level without forgiving the person for the offense. In this case, the friendship is the relationship that is cut off by the offense. Forgiveness would be choosing to renew particularly the friendship, because of the belief that the virtues of the friendship outweigh the damage of the offense and the risk of future similar offenses.
To be counted an "offense" or wrong, to become a candidate for forgiveness, an act must of course involve either the willful intent to wrong or a negligence. For example, if a person punches us in the nose without provocation, that is a willfully intended wrong. On the other hand, if a person carelessly backs into our car without looking, that is an instance of negligence. Cases of accidental harm should not have to be forgiven. For instance, if somebody runs over a large nail and because of that drives out of control and smashes our car, we have to chalk that up to bad luck. Only the emotionally troubled remain angry at a person because of an accidental harm. (Of course, we may all experience momentary instances of inappropriately directed anger.) It goes without saying that a mere honest disagreement is not an "offense," that the ARI crew is crazy to angrily alienate people over intellectual disagreements.
I say that the subsidence of anger *generally* accompanies forgiveness, though this is not a necessary ingredient of the practice. And of course we cannot get over our anger all at once with the act of forgiveness, but rather we must accept our anger and slowly deal with it and grow out of it.
It is a mistake, then, to conflate "emotional healing" with "forgiveness." One can emotionally heal, in ways described by Dr. Branden and others, without forgiving an offender. Similarly, it is possible to forgive without healing emotionally. Always it is desirable to heal emotionally. Only sometimes is it appropriate to forgive.
"Forgiveness" need not be for an offense against one's self. It is possible to forgive, or not forgive, a person for committing a wrong against one's spouse, even one's pet, or a complete stranger.
(As a minor point, in the case of the deceased or geographically distanced, "forgiveness" would entail the understanding that one *would* renew relations with the offending person, if he or she were around.)
Finally, I will note that there are other reasons to cut off relations with a person besides a choice to not forgive. For instance, I have made the decision to not patronize a certain local bookstore because the bookstore has entered an antitrust suit. I have nothing against the owner, and believe her to be merely honestly mistaken about the merits of such suits, but I'm using my boycott as a way to protest the owner's decision. Here, "forgiveness" is simply not an issue as there has been no offense.
Now that we have some idea of what "forgiveness" entails, we can think about what are the appropriate circumstances in which to forgive.
I can think of two reasons to forgive. The first is that the offense is relatively minor and is outweighed by the benefits of the relationship. For instance, perhaps a friend has the annoying habit of interrupting when we're talking or treating us disrespectfully in some other minor way. Though we might wish the friend's behavior would change, really it is not a big deal and it doesn't greatly interfere with the friendship. We make the decision to accept the minor flaw because of the wider benefits we receive from the relationship. (Dr. Branden deals with such issues.)
The second reason to forgive is that we have reason to believe that the person is repentant. To "repent" is to both acknowledge one's wrongdoing and to take steps to make sure one doesn't commit the wrong again. For example, if a husband beats his wife repeatedly and does nothing to stop the behavior, the man definitely isn't repentant and doesn't deserve forgiveness. On the other hand, if a husband hits his wife in a relatively minor way on but a single occasion, after which he profusely expresses his apologies, does whatever he can to make up for the action, and takes steps to never do it again (like hire a therapist), the wife may well choose to forgive the guy after a time.
With forgiveness, it is appropriate that we look at extenuating circumstances. The husband who hits his wife over spilled milk or something should be dumped and left to rot. However, the husband who just lost his job, crashed his car, attended a friend's funeral, and hit his thumb with a hammer, and who offends his wife only once in a slight way, might be granted a little more leeway. I'm not here looking for excuses; the reason to look to extenuating circumstances is that they might give a good indication of the likelihood of a repeat offense.
I hasten to add, though, that just because a person offends but once and takes steps to never offend again, doesn't mean the person should necessarily be forgiven. If the offense is deemed sufficiently bad, we might choose to cut off ties regardless of circumstances, repentance, and the future likelihood of a repeat offense. The wife might, for instance, say, "You hit me and damaged my person and my emotional sense of self-sacredness. There is nothing that can make up for your action, and I want nothing to do with you forever." I'm sure I would never forgive a murderer of a friend. One purpose of choosing not to forgive is to create a social climate in which certain behaviors are not at all tolerated. Hence, it is even possible to believe a relationship could be beneficially revived, and yet choose to not forgive, just to "send the message" that such behavior will not be tolerated by anyone else.
A related issue is that there is no particular "right time" for forgiveness. For some offenses, forgiveness may come slowly if at all. In some cases, an offender might be granted partial forgiveness but never complete forgiveness. For instance, a close friendship might totally fall apart over an offense, and then years later develop only into a minor friendship.
"Forgiveness," properly understood in its egoistic context, offers us a way to maintain beneficial relationships through the offenses that others will inevitably commit against us and through the offenses that we are likely to commit against others. (As I half-jokingly told my girlfriend, I should be an expert at forgiveness since I do so many dumb things for which I need forgiveness.) Forgiveness recognizes that we all have our bad moments, and that, so long as we and others take great care to make up for offenses and prevent subsequent wrongs, it frequently is appropriate to forgive those who wrong us.