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Early thoughts on forgiveness, justice.

I found this short essay in a journal. I believe I wrote it in 2010. I have made no attempt to modify except for spelling errors. It is interesting to compare my earlier views on justice and forgiveness to my views now. Most amusing is my discovery of the ego which I define as 'personalization'. The influence of Kant, Nietzsche and Enright seem obvious.

An injustice indebts the moral proprietor to the victim. The victim has the choice of holding that person responsible for their crime. The victim also (hopefully) has the choice as to allow the same transgression to occur again. If the victim has any respect for themselves they will not allow such behavior to continue. This is key to the concepts of justice, punishment and forgiveness. The best method of justice is preventative. The second best is punishment. But often times this isn't possible. Past transgressions are in the past. They cannot be altered. Requiring restitution from the aggressor not only indebts them to you, but you chain yourself to the past. This causes resentment, negativity and emotional stagnation or regression. You are predicating your self-respect on the actions of people around you.

We live in a society built around obligations, yet people routinely break the "social contract". Not requiring justice from people just gives them permission to continue their behavior. Or does it? A victim can always change their future behavior in order to prevent another instance. They can always change their expectations of people or a specific person.

Irrespective of another person's behavior, they should always be treated with dignity. They should not have the opportunity to reform revoked from them. People must still earn trust and loyalty, but always treat people in such a way that you can respect yourself afterwards. This is not compassion, but the "veil of ignorance". This is respect.

It is interesting that there can ban such a strong emotional response and attachment to a past injustice. An injustice is a lowering of a person. They occur under circumstances which the victim has no control. However this lowering is not permanent. It occurs only during the time which the injustice is actually occurring. Any lowering of a person afterwards is caused by the victim themselves! It would seem to me that it is acceptable to feel pain during a moral transgression, even a brief recovery period. However, after that point a person should be restored to their normal complete self. This does not mean forgiveness.

Can a person feel good about themselves and have self-respect if the injustice has not been resolved? It would seem to me to be perfectly acceptable that a person could a) have knowledge of the transgression, b) understand that the victimizer should offer reparations for what they've done, but c) not expect reparations or predicate their self-respect and happiness on things external to them, and d) restore emotional normality.

Moral transgressions are a function of the victimizer and reflect the moral status, goodness and mental health of the transgressor. They do not reflect the morality or value of the victim. I would go as far as to say that the victim and victimizer in all moral transgressions are mutually exclusive and making any assumption that they are is personalizing the situation (where personalization is defined as the belief that causality exists between an external event and yourself when in fact none exists).

I fear however, that this may lead to a rather detached or emotionally empty state of affairs between a victim and their victimizers, or even between a persona an all peoples. I think it is wise and healthy to be connected to other people. It both preserves and affirms your humanity. Compassion is the tool which allows you to place you in other people's shoes and to understand why they do the things they do. It allows you to piece together a person's thoughts from the actions they take and the context in which they think they are in. Compassion is necessary because we are finite beings. Still, this is not forgiveness.

Forgiveness as I understand it is defined as "relieving someone of their debt to you for a past moral transgression or injustice after reparations have been made to the victim by the victimizer."

Enright asserts that justice and mercy are compatible. I find this difficult to buy into. Perhaps being merciful implies moving on from an injustice, but not pretending or dismissing it. Like he says in the book, a person could forgive someone, but still prosecute them. In other words, reparations are still in order, are not expected to be delivered, but would accept them if they were. In the meantime the victim has understood the situation, learned from it and focused on being a good person in their present and future selves rather than trying to "get back what's lost". I think love and friendship should be offered towards our victimizers. The world is not black and white, all or nothing. These people should be treated with the love to the extent that they be be trusted with it and no more.

It almost seems as if forgiveness has less to do with justice as it does a change in how you see the victimizer. It is a change from seeing a person as a one dimensional thing, a constant reminder of the painful memories they gave you and install seeing them as a person with all their complexities including the fact that they are capable of a very wide variety of behavior not all of which is immoral.

Major takeaways from this discussion:

  1. Manage your expectations of the external. Don't predicate your self-respect on people.
  2. Self-respect comes from inside, nowhere else.
  3. Injustice is never personal. It is purely a function of the victimizer not the victim.
  4. It's important to consider how you treat yourself after an injustice.
  5. A victimizer may be able to do things to your body, but not your mind. Even so, any effects on the mind should be temporary. What happens to your mind is only what you do to it.
  6. It's important to treat all people with dignity. They aren't black or white.

It's understanding what can and cannot be taken from you and never getting them mixed up. Ideally a victimizer can take what's physical, but never what's in my mind. And that means never wanting revenge or discounting another person (including the victimizer). This would be a lowering of myself. That's the only thing that is important. Injustice is never personal, therefore my self-respect is completely independent of the things that occur to and around me.

When you can't do the right thing someone is adversely affected. Period.

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