Jan 03.

Stefan Molyneux


False Forgiveness

This weekend, my wife asked me my opinion of a particular chapter in a ‘self help’ book she was reading. I did so, and was suitably horrified, because although I know that the world is in terrible shape, and everyone seems to believe false things, I can still be shocked.

The basic gist of the chapter was that if you have been wronged, the highest and most exalted state you can achieve is one of pure forgiveness. The key idea was that everyone chooses the best course of action based on their knowledge and development at the time – and so, the person who wronged you was doing the best they possibly could. Thus it is essential that you ‘not judge’ others, otherwise you will ‘become trapped’ by your own judgments, and become harsh, self-hating and unforgiving.

Of course, not a single shred of evidence or logic was presented to back this idea up. Instead, vague threats about ‘getting stuck’ in anger or ‘refusing to let go’ were made. Plato showed up, as he often does when windy nonsense fills the air.

However, since it is high time that we as a species grew up and stopped indulging in foggy mental obscurations, let’s take this on, shall we?

There are a very large number of mental activities that we can have opinions about, but cannot control in the least. We may be shocked and appalled by the contents of our nightly dreams, but we can’t do anything to alter them, other than engage in the long-term pursuit of wisdom and self-knowledge. We may wish to fall asleep, but it is largely outside of our control if we are light sleepers. We may prefer not to think on a certain topic, but if our brain leads us there, so be it. We may prefer not to be guilty if we have done wrong, but it happens nonetheless. We may desire sloth, smoking, gluttony and good health, but we cannot have them all.

Love, as well, is absolutely outside of our control. Love is like physical health – it exists as an involuntary state, which depends on a number of practical habits. Weight control, for instance, requires exercise and calorie management. Love requires moral behaviour and sound mental habits. If you are good, then you can love and be loved. If you are not, love will never come to you. The state of love cannot be pursued – the actions which produce love can be. You have no control over ‘health’ – only the actions which produce it. You have no control over ‘love’ – only the actions which produce it. Love cannot be produced by words – any more than repeating the word ‘exercise’ constitutes a work-out.

The same is true of forgiveness. Forgiveness arises not from the will of the wronged, but only from the genuine contrition of the wrong-doer. Like health, it exists as an involuntary state, which depends on the actions of another. Obviously, you cannot have a loving – or even friendly – relationship with me if I wish you harm. If I harm you, it can only be through malice, ignorance or accident. If I am going to pick you up in a car, I can either pick you up, run you over on purpose, forget to show up, or hit you by accident. If I pick you up, all is well. If I run you over on purpose, all is not well. If I forget to show up, all may be well, since forgetfulness is a fact of life. If I hit you by accident, all may be well, since accidents also occur – unless this one was due to carelessness or drunkenness on my part.

If I run you over on purpose, then forgiveness is impossible. The purpose of forgiveness is not to repair the past, since that is impossible, but to repair the future. If I run you over because I am angry at you, how could you ever trust me again? Let’s say that I am so horrified by my own actions that I enter therapy and learn why I am so malevolent. Let’s say that I emerge from therapy a kinder, gentler person. In other words, I always had the capacity to stop being malevolent, but chose not to.

This is an essential concept. If I harm you, and then beg your forgiveness by promising to correct my behaviour, then I am saying that I could have corrected by behaviour in the past, but chose not to. If I sleep around on my wife, and then promise never to do it again, then obviously I could have chosen not to sleep around on her in the past as well. I am damned either way. I can only excuse my past behaviour by claiming that it was very hard to remain faithful. But if it was very hard, then I obviously cannot be trusted in the future. I can only be trusted in the future if it is easy to change my ways. But if it is easy to change my ways, then surely it was easy to change them in the past – and so I have no excuse for my past behaviour!

Thus conscious wrongdoing can never be forgiven. It is logically impossible, and vain to even try. If you try, you will only be fooling yourself, like a smoker who pretends cigarettes are not dangerous. It has no effect on reality.

The question of what constitutes ‘conscious’ wrongdoing is often overcomplicated. ‘Conscious’ wrongdoing is simply wrongdoing that is hidden. If a mother beats her son at home, when they are alone, but refrains from doing it in public, where she can be seen, then her actions are malevolent. There’s really nothing else to it. If she refrains from beating her son in public, then she is capable of refraining from abusing him. Because she is capable of refraining from abuse, then she is malevolent. This is how we know the difference between moral evil and mental illness. A schizophrenic cannot stop hallucinating, even if he is offered a million dollars to do so. If offered the same million dollars, a man will stop beating his wife for a day.

Cultural issues have absolutely nothing to do with it. If a woman acts differently in private than in public, then she has the ability to control her behaviour. If she does not beat her children in front of a policeman, then cultural matters are irrelevant. She knows that it is wrong to beat your children, and so she wants to hide her crime. The moment she tries to conceal her or her wrongdoing, she reveals her naked malevolence.

Forgetfulness and accidents are a different matter, as long as they are not chronic, and steps are taken to avoid them or reduce their occurrence.

Thus forgiveness cannot be controlled by will, since it is an involuntary state responding to external reality. Forgiveness is a recognition that harm is very unlikely to come again from a particular person, because past harm arose from forgetfulness or accident, and is in the process of being addressed. Forgiveness depends on the actions of the wrong-doer, not the will of the victim.
So why is this view of ‘willed forgiveness’ so prevalent?

As always, simply follow the money.

Religion makes a great deal of profit from forgiveness. An evil man can pay the church for absolution. What would happen to those profits if forgiveness was recognized as the involuntary reaction that it is? Why, then the priest’s god would not have the power to forgive the evil man – and so neither could the priest. The bad man’s money would be forever lost to the church.

That would be unthinkable. The evil man can be neither reformed nor forgiven. Thus the priest goes to work on the victims, telling them that they must forgive the man who has harmed them. They must love him.

Thus the evil man is paying the priest for two services – the first is to pretend that he is not evil, and the second is to retain the false loyalty of those he has harmed.

If one views the economic dependency of old age, then the evil man is making a very sensible economic decision. He pays the priest, who then convinces the evil man’s children to continue supporting him when he gets old. The money that the evil man pays the priest is far less than the support he receives from his children as he ages. Thus it represents a current investment in future exploitation.

And the only way to combat this largely intergenerational corruption is to accept the fact that forgiveness are love are utterly beyond our control. If we are consciously harmed, then we cannot forgive, or love – and any fantasy to the contrary simply rewards those who have harmed us, and corrupts the world even further.

Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (www.freedomainradio.com), the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a “Top 10” Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.
  • Excellent, Stefan. I want you to know that I’ve been listening to your podcasts and they have served as excellent food for thought for me. I have especially been enjoying your morality based lectures and essays, including this one.

    Keep blogging and keep podcasting please. You have a new fan in Los Angeles. 🙂

    Aaron Kinney / 10:51 am /
  • I have a lot of trouble reading your otherwise interesting posts since there are semantic problems. Love and forgiveness in your context are used very differently as used in the book you are critical of or in more common usage, yet confusing the definitions seems to be the only way to make your argument succeed. Conversely, you may be arguing for something which goes by another word and I have to sort out the confusion.

    From m-w.com, forgive – a: to give up resentment of or claim to requital for – b: to cease to feel resentment against (an offender). You are saying your own emotions, including that of resentment, aren’t under your control, but that of another – they are subject to his will not yours. I would also note you cannot read someone else’s mind to determine if they are genuinely contrite, especially a wrong done without identifying the wrongdoer. You will go to your grave harboring deep resentment if you can’t find the wrongdoer and make him contrite?

    I generally accept Merriam Webster’s definitions over yours, and I assume the book in question would be using the MW definition, so you create and attack something by the name of “forgiveness” which has nothing to do with what the book is talking about – so whatever the merits of your argument, it applies to something totally different from what the book is saying.

    First, a note about love:

    The greek word agape means love that comes from the will. You can will yourself to act in another person’s interest. You use the word “love” which means any of several different kinds (unfortunately there are few english specifics, at least in common usage today) and use the confusion to prove your point.

    Affection (storge) is destroyed by being wronged. Friendship (philea) sometimes survives. Charity (agape) always survives.

    And that is the why forgiveness is both possible and important.

    And it is different from justice, which would better fit in the negative – injustice – everything you describe but attach to the word “forgiveness”.

    I don’t know about the self-help book in question as most of them are nonsense and apparently this one is too. The reasons and such they give for forgiving might be silly, but the action is right for the wrong reasons.

    Erroneous premises and faulty reasoning don’t make the conclusion false – they render the truth or falsehood of the conclusion as unknown, at least until you can use correct reasoning on good premises.

    Onto forgiveness:

    If you are wronged, you can’t normally undo the evil act. You can’t have your wife unsleep with her lover. You can only conceive of a dozen ways to inflict pain on her or murder her and/or wallow in the injustice in a private pity party and seek vengance, in your mind if not with overt acts – but your mind has a way of leaking into your actions.

    Even if you do divorce and otherwise make her miserable your thirst for vengance might not be satisfied and when you’ve reached the point of objective justice (in the sense of equal misery, not any repairation) and still crave more, what do you do? Or you can determine that you will, if only for your own sake, clear the noxious and toxic emotions out of your mind and forgive her. Whether you also stay married or will trust her in the future is an entirely different question.

    When you are wronged, you normally get angry and seek vengance – you desire to inflict some misery on the other person, not rational and objective justice which would attempt to restore you as much as possible or otherwise undo the act.

    Forgiveness in the sense used by the book, and the Christian understanding is the rational and willfull act to remove the former bad desires.

    The previous pope noted that justice and forgiveness are not mutually exclusive – he forgave his assassin, but didn’t even suggest his release.

    The alternative is to go through life accumulating a list of injustices suffered, many that cannot be avenged – the car that cut you off today. The salesman that gave you bad advice. You can decide to dwell on these and destroy yourself.

    thomas / 10:51 am /
  • Forgiveness has nothing to do with the wrongdoer. It’s about letting go of resentment, letting go of the desire for revenge. The burden of resentment is on the victim and represents a continuing harm. If you forgive someone, you just let it go, and that person’s wrongdoing no longer has any power over you. You don’t have to be friends with the wrongdoer or anything, and you probably shouldn’t. You don’t have to forget the wrong that was done, just think about it differently.

    Vache Folle / 10:51 am /
  • It is because forgiveness is the least understood concept in the human experience (something to which Jesus alluded time and time again) . . .

    That most, likewise are ignorant of its benefits.

    Your article confuses repentance–“metanoeo”–with “agape,” and places the need to act in forgiveness upon the very one most needing forgiveness.

    That eliminates the whole concept of forgiveness, which is to release the charge of guilt against the one who has offended you.

    It is a simple concept which requires a strong internal constitution to overcome the sense of having been wronged, which is perhaps why so many go to such great lengths to redefine the simplicity of forgiveness.

    You can either forgive the one who has wronged you, or you cannot.

    Anything else is not “forgiveness,” but fruitless commentary avoiding the actual goal.


    Anonymous / 10:51 am /
  • Brilliant points about forgiveness all. I do agree with the semantic points made by Thomas – but alas – they are semantic points only. I believe they are mostly distinctions without a difference. If I might do, I’d like to share from a personal perspective on this topic. I have experience in forgiving very difficult things (physical and sexual abuse as a child by multiple predators, abandonment, cheating spouse) and spent a good deal of time with various self help techniques aimed at reducing my resultant suffering. What Stefan gets at is a fantastic insight in that he distinguishes that a key part of forgiveness is a rational assessment of the persons actions, motivations and – in the case of actual animus – their contrition and evidence of changed future decision making. Thomas says you can’t know whether someone is contrite or not. Rubbish. If someone were to lash out angrily at me for no reason and then went into therapy to learn how to control their anger, was honest and responsible about their faults along with attempting to redress the harm done to me perhaps with a kind deed, I’d be much more convinced of their contrition than if they approach me sheepishly saying “i’m sorry”.

    I found relief from suffering about my abuse by understanding that my father was one in a long chain of abused people. My angst about it – self loathing and anger – were resolved as I saw that it didn’t have to do with me personally, I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But I don’t forgive him. I don’t walk around angry at him – but I don’t pretend he didn’t do what he did. I’m a realist. If he were to ask my forgiveness, I’m not sure I would grant it as I’m not sure what he could do to redress the harm done. But I do not hate him. I only grant forgiveness after a careful assessment along the lines that Stefan lays out. I think one needs to be very careful not to assume that one is at the effect of ones resentments emotionally just because one has resentments. I deeply resent my fathers abuse of me but I’m not walking around as a victim or full of rage.

    Glenn Donovan / 10:51 am /
  • Why would you want to forgive someone who hurt you on purpose. This is like denying you like someone because they were nice to you. I don’t know about you but I can’t help but be tense and worried around someone who has repeatedly hurt me. I would try not to be angry at them, for my own sake, but why would I try to forgive them. If it were an accident that’s one thing, but on purpose? Get real.

    Anonymous / 10:51 am /
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