Forgive and Forget


Review of Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, by Martha C. Nussbaum

New York: Oxford University Press, 2016

Suppose that your spouse wrongs you. Suppose that she shows up late for a dinner date. Or, more drastically, she cheats on you with your best friend. You will get angry and upset. She, in turn, will show remorse and make amends. You then will forgive her, and the two of you will move on. At least in theory.

But even in theory, Martha Nussbaum argues, this entire dynamic is morally dubious. It’s “transactional,” Nussbaum says: Your anger, essentially, is the desire for your spouse to receive some kind of payback, a hurt in return for the wrong she did you. And the forgiveness that you ultimately extend is a reward for her remorse, and other efforts she might take to make things right. Each step is a quid pro quo. And quid pro quo, Nussbaum argues, is a profoundly misbegotten framework for dealing with the moral and emotional fallout of being wronged.

For one thing, no matter how angry you get, you in fact can never gain payback for the wrong done to you. You can’t, Nussbaum notes, reverse your spouse’s tardiness or infidelity by venting your anger at her; you can never recover what you lost, however small or large. And while her behavior might have exhibited a lack of respect for you, and while your anger might seem like a vehicle for asserting a compensating self-respect, you are simply satisfying your own amour-propre by expressing it, which is hardly edifying. Nor, all too often, is the promise you hold out of granting forgiveness – in return for your spouse’s remorse and amends -- anything other than manipulative, a way, however subtle or obvious, of extorting her repentance and apology. Your power to forgive simply allows you to enjoy an extended period of unattractive moral superiority before deigning to let her off the hook after sufficient groveling has occurred.

Better, Nussbaum argues, that we try – at least to the degree that we can -- to avoid anger, the desire for payback in response to the wrongs we suffer, and abandon the very idea of forgiving, conditioned as it is on receiving remorse and contrition in exchange. Better, whenever we can, to follow the example of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. His love “surges up” at the sight of the long-lost offspring who caused him so much suffering, drowning any anger he might have felt toward – and sidelining any demand for a show of remorse from – his wayward child. For the prodigal son’s father, generosity trumped any need for emotional quid pro quos. His conduct is a model, Nussbaum says, for all of us when we are wronged in our personal relationships.

Nussbaum argues her position with lucid insight and emotional sensitivity; Anger and Forgiveness richly rewards the reader. It’s easy, too, to sympathize with what’s motivating Nussbaum and others who’ve argued a similar position, whether from a religious or a secular starting point. And yet there is something subtly off about the definition of anger that grounds her entire argument. Anger is not so much the expression of a “desire” for payback – a wish that the wrongdoer experience some kind of hurt in return for the hurt she inflicted -- so much as it is the payback. Anger is not the vehement and turbulent vocalization of a wish that the wrongdoer be hurt in return for the hurt he has inflicted, although it might sometimes take that form (“you bastard, I hope you rot in hell!”). Instead, anger’s vehemence and turbulence are themselves the hurt, and are meant to be the hurt, inflicted on the wrongdoer.

In this way, the victim’s anger is crucial morally. It levels the playing field between victim and wrongdoer: not, as Nussbaum says, by re-elevating the victim to her pre-wrong level of self-respect but, in fact, by lowering her own post-wrong normative status. Anger, as Nussbaum herself says, is a “vice,” and so by being hurtful in return for the hurt she has suffered, the victim establishes a commonality, a point of contact, with the wrongdoer. That is why, when we wrong someone, we often want him to be angry with us; his anger begins to place us back on the same plane. By the same token, if our victim fails to show anger, that comes across as manipulatively martyrish: unfair, actually, to us, the wrongdoer, precisely because the victim seems to be trying to draw forth from us an additional amount of remorse and abjectness beyond that to which, given the magnitude of the wrong, he is entitled. It’s the withholding of anger, much more than the promise of forgiveness, that’s extortionate. And it’s the refusal to get angry, much more than the power to forgive, that endows the victim with an unattractive air of moral superiority. In this way anger plays a vital role, a moral role.

All of which suggests an alternative to Nussbaum’s interpretation of the entire cycle beginning with the wrongdoer’s wrong, continuing with the victim’s anger, leading then to the wrongdoer’s remorse and finally allowing for the victim’s summative forgiveness. Anger need not be seen, as it is in Nussbaum’s version, as the victim’s desire that the wrongdoer experience a quid pro quo payback for the wrong he committed, hurt for hurt. Nor must the victim’s forgiveness be seen as the quid pro quo reward for a show of remorse and amends from the wrongdoer, good for good. Instead, the victim’s forgiveness is a good act that allows him to make up for, to neutralize or cancel out, the hurt of the anger he previously inflicted. And that leaves the wrongdoer’s remorse and reparation free to be just what it should be: a good act whereby the wrongdoer himself makes up for, neutralizes or cancels out, the original hurt, the wrong, that he himself inflicted. What Nussbaum sees as a series of tit-for-tat exchanges – anger for wrong, forgiveness for remorse or amends – can just as easily be interpreted, and is often experienced by the principals themselves, as a series of personal self-corrections: forgiveness making up for anger on the part of the victim, remorse/amends for the wrong on the part of the wrongdoer.

What, then, of the Prodigal Son’s father, who showed no anger and required no remorse but instead expressed only love toward the child who wronged him? It’s not the best example, if it’s meant to support Nussbaum’s argument that there’s no point in anger because it cannot repair the wrong; it cannot give us back what we have lost. For in the parable the father did get back what was lost. The son was lost -- but then he was found. And of course love and gratitude, not anger, was the right response.

All of this has to do with personal life, with family, lovers and friends. Nussbaum also provides engaging and illuminating discussions of anger and forgiveness in what she calls the “middle realm” (the realm of strangers, casual acquaintances, and workplace colleagues); in the justice system (the realm of criminals, victims and survivors); and, finally, in public life, in the dealings between political opponents, oppressors and oppressed. I will focus on the latter here.

Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, Nussbaum says approvingly, “repudiated” anger as a proper response to the wrongs they, and the people they led, had for so long suffered. Anger, the three believed, would simply have caused their oppressors to grow fearful and clamp down further. Nor were Gandhi, King and Mandela going to expect from their oppressors expressions of remorse or repentance. Any such expectation would risk annoying and alienating those oppressors, whose resistance they were trying to overcome, when the point was to move them beyond the status quo to a new relationship. Instead, these leaders remained resolutely forward looking, signaling a ready willingness to treat their opponents in whatever ways would foster reconciliation.

Nussbaum here incisively identifies a central feature of Gandhi’s, King’s and Mandela’s general stance. But it’s not the whole picture. The three moral giants were also politicians. They recognized that shows of anger, depending on shifting political circumstances, could furnish a serviceable means of eliciting remorse-based concessions, and that contrition and reparation could be coaxed forth from their oppressors as a way of heading off threatened displays of mass anger by the oppressed. “When you cut facilities, slash jobs, abuse power, discriminate, drive people into deeper poverty and shoot people dead whilst refusing to provide answers or justice,” King said, “the people will rise up and express their anger and frustration if you refuse to hear their cries. A riot is the language of the unheard.” As King’s close friend Harry Belafonte said, “Martin always felt that anger was a very important commodity, a necessary part of the black movement in this country.” The relationship between the victims’ anger and the wrongdoers’ remorse or amends was thus, for King, strategic and dialectical – sometimes anger was better withheld since it would only place redress and reparation further out of reach; sometimes it could usefully draw them forth. At times Nussbaum seems to acknowledge King’s pragmatic appreciation of anger, but it’s not clear how such acknowledgements comport with her claim that King “repudiated” it.

As for Mandela, Nussbaum writes, his “legacy is often described…as one of forgive­ness. But in reading his published writings I find no use of that word or those ideas.” This is not entirely an accurate characterization. Mandela did say that “Forgiveness liberates the soul; it removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.” He also declared that “[i]f there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”

Nevertheless, Nussbaum is certainly right that Mandela was not nearly as prone as others, such as Desmond Tutu, to talk about the virtues of forgiveness. But this wasn’t simply because, as Nussbaum says, Mandela was more concerned with moving forward than looking backward, or that he wanted to express a generosity of spirit that would lead to reconciliation without rubbing his oppressors’ noses in their guilt in the way that forgiveness can do. It was, as well, because in politics certain past wrongs are simply such enormities that they're unforgivable eloquently marks that brute and brutal fact. As Mandela said of the 1993 murder of anti-apartheid activist Chris Hani, “[t]oday an unforgivable crime has been committed…a crime against all the people of our country.” Certainly there was a mechanism for forgiveness, had Mandela chosen to use it that way, in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But although particular victims appearing before the Commission forgave their oppressors, one cannot imagine an official forgiveness of wrongs that were so horrific that they lie beyond forgiveness. All one can do is move on in a spirit of reconciliation.

Of course, as Nussbaum says, Gandhi, King and Mandela shone in situations of “revolutionary” politics. But what about everyday democratic politics? In everyday politics, there are no mechanisms – no equivalents of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions -- whereby citizens could ever grant forgiveness to an elite that has committed political wrongs even if they wanted to. But nor are democratic citizens generally the victims of harms that rise to the level of wrongs for which forgiveness might reasonably be sought or given. Forgiveness of the “one percent” for the harm they have perpetrated on the ninety-nine is not a possibility because there would be no instrument to grant it. But nor is the harm uncontroversially a wrong that the one percent inflict, rather than the outcome of an economic system that needs reform. Perhaps this is why political apologies, when they are offered in situations of ordinary politics – see Bill Clinton on lying to the American people – are so cramped and hedged. Why apologize if there’s no mechanism through which you could be publicly forgiven, and if the harm you might have inflicted isn’t clearly a public wrong?

Forgiveness, then, is central to neither revolutionary nor ordinary politics. But that’s mainly because in revolutionary politics, while mechanisms may well emerge that could offer forgiveness, such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, the harms inflicted rise far beyond the level of wrongs for which forgiveness would ever be possible. In ordinary politics, meanwhile, not only are there no mechanisms whereby forgiveness could ever be granted, but the harms generally fail to reach the level of moral wrongs for which forgiveness makes any sense. And yet there is this similarity between what Nussbaum identifies as the dual realms of revolutionary and everyday politics: In both, the relationship between anger and amends or remorse is strategic and pragmatic: The anger of the ninety-nine percent is what will ultimately elicit concessions from the one percent, and rectification by the one percent will emerge, if it does, in order to palliate the anger of the ninety-nine: much as the dialectic between victims’ anger and wrongdoers’ remorse played out in King’s America and Mandela’s South Africa. But that is how politics works: anger can be a precious political resource for those who have precious few others.

And so what, finally, is forgiveness? In the philosophical tradition in which Nussbaum writes, the most popular view is that the victim eventually comes to forgive not the wrong but the wrongdoer. He comes to detach the sin from the sinner, no longer holding it against her and recommencing whatever relationship he previously had with her as if it had never happened. That doesn’t mean of course that it actually never happened. The victim doesn’t forget the wrong, he simply forgives the wrongdoer.

Meanwhile, from the wrongdoer’s perspective, the process of incurring the victim’s anger – and then expressing her own remorse and making amends -- is supposed, on the popular understanding of forgiveness, to have changed and improved her as a person in some way. Indeed that’s why she, as a person, can now be viewed as no longer connected to the wrong she previously inflicted and so can be forgiven. Although Nussbaum questions the value of forgiveness as she understands it, this is in fact very much the process that she herself equates with the generosity of spirit she advocates: the victim coming to detach the wrong from the wrongdoer, the wrongdoer enabling such detachment by changing into the kind of person who would no longer commit that particular wrong.

But both of these maneuvers that Nussbaum and many other philosophers recommend – the victim coming to detach the wrong from her view of the wrongdoer, and the wrongdoer changing and improving as a person – are not easy to accomplish psychologically. They are, in many cases, simply unrealistic given who we are. And so I wonder if it’s more the reverse. When we forgive someone, we don’t necessarily detach the wrong from her as if, though we remember it happened, we no longer associate it with her in any way. That kind of judicial mental compartmentalization is a tough call, especially in personal relationships. Instead, while we fold the wrong into our sense of the wrongdoer, we also fold in our subsequent expressions of anger and her ensuing efforts to show remorse and make amends. All of which often, if not always, changes and improves, even deepens and enriches, our relationship with her. But in forgiving, what we are saying to the wrongdoer is that she now has our permission, from her perspective, to forget about the wrong, to remove it from her conscience, to detach it from her view of herself, to relinquish entirely whatever moral burden it might still have for her – whether or not our anger and her remorse have really changed and improved her as a person, which is often a tall order.

Generosity is vital, Nussbaum says. But then, if we are being truly generous, we should not expect or require ourselves to be saints. We should not expect victims to henceforth exclude the wrong from their view of the wrongdoer. Nor should we expect to see some kind of permanent personal improvement in the wrongdoer as a result of her having gone through the process of incurring the victim’s anger and expressing her remorse or making amends. At most what we should reasonably aspire to is the converse: a genuine improvement in the victim’s personal feelings about the wrongdoer as a result of the victim’s having expressed his anger and received the wrongdoer’s remorse and amends, and a subsequent exclusion by the wrongdoer of the wrong from his view of himself. That kind of forgiveness – or generosity, in Nussbaum’s terms – is more suited to who we are. It’s a more forgiving kind of forgiveness.

Posted on 15 August 2016

ANDREW STARK is a professor of strategic management and political science at the University of Toronto and the author of The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death, (Yale University Press, 2016).