Friday, December 07, 2007

Blame vs. Forgiveness

Suppose we accept Scanlon's account of blame as a matter of responding to another's blameworthiness by downgrading your relationship with them. Forgiveness may then be understood as involving the same judgment of blameworthiness, but where one's response is to instead choose to restore the relationship. Is this always better? Scanlon ('Blame', p.49) follows Pamela Hieronymi in suggesting that forgiveness is only warranted "provided that the person who is to be forgiven acknowledges the wrongness of what she did and takes steps to reestablish her relations with the injured party on an acceptable footing." He continues:
The complete rejection of blame would amount to unconditional forgiveness... Assuming that one's relationship with a person has requirements that he or she can fall short of, the rejection of blame would either involve denying that the other person's actions can have meaning that impairs this relationship or denying that when this happens some adjustment in one's own attitudes is appropriate. The former involves an attitude of superiority toward the person in question (something like the attitude of a parent toward a very young child) and thus represents a failure to take that person seriously as a participant in the relationship. The latter involves adopting an attitude of inferiority that is demeaning to oneself.

Is this excessively stringent? What if one decides to "let it go" on instrumental grounds, say because the psychological or social costs of blame simply don't seem worth it? I assume Scanlon would be okay with this, since it need not involve either of the problematic denials mentioned above.

In class, Michael raised a really interesting comparison to Nagel's 'Concealment and Exposure' (see my past discussion), and especially the point that past conflicts may be tactfully ignored (i.e. not raised to common salience, even as both parties remain privately aware of it) for the sake of maintaining smooth social interactions in the present. But is this sort of superficial tact a reason not to genuinely blame, i.e. revise one's conception of the relationship, or simply not to publicly express one's blame?


  1. No, it doesn't sound like that's excessively stringent. Rather, it sounds like Scanlon is waving his hand at a prominent French debate over the nature of forgiveness. "The only forgiveness is unconditional forgiveness of the unforgivable" says Derrida, which sounds an awful lot like he is talking down to children in the way Scanlon describes; and in Forgiveness (that likely gave Derrida the idea), Jankelevitch says something like, "the only true forgiveness is miraculous" for both parties--and that does sound like the victim is helpless.

    What's more, I think you're right to think that Scanlon is ok with "letting go" if only because I'm seeing this counteraction to the French. But say I dig my feet in, arguing, "by 'letting go' you're not really forgiving"? You could imagine "letting go" the fact that your partner has cheated on you, and still feel pangs of rancor when reminded of the adultery.

  2. Scanlon's position seems to exhibit a desire to influence us by describing the cultural inferences we should take from our actions. A common tool that bothers me at times.

    1) In practice I don't think people need to have fully formed and consistent thoughts - so I could fail to blame you without either insulting myself or you - even if in theory it logically follows. Or I could have a totally disjointed thought attached to more or less nothing that just amounted to disregard for you.

    2) what if you just failed to ascribe 'deficiency' to their actions - I.e. you fail to blame because you see them as having a right to act in whatever way they will (let's say grow long hair) and you also have a right (or natural tendency) to associate less with them as a result.

    3) There are other values to forgiveness that could outweigh other considerations. One common reason given for forgiving is in order to allow yourself to be happy. One might argue in favor of unconditional forgiveness on the grounds that as a general rule blame will eat you up inside more than any benefit it delivers.

    Scanlon’s definition of Blame bothers me a little. For example, it seems to imply you can't forgive a dead person. Does he mean that? If so maybe he should invent a new word like "fourgive" (or “fivegive”) instead to clarify that he is using a new term, rather like people do in management studies.


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