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.