Forgiveness, Free Will, and Materialist Theories of Personhood

Those who hold to materialist theories such as Democritus in ancient Greece, E. O. Wilson in biology, and B. F. Skinner in psychology would argue that free will is an illusion because we are formed not by our free-will choices, but instead by forces that are strictly composed of matter such as atoms colliding or natural selection, or by social forces outside the individual person such as economic structures or rewards and punishments. See Consilience, by E. O. Wilson, 1999, New York, NY: Vintage, and Beyond Freedom and Dignity, by B. F. Skinner, 1971, New York, NY: Bantam.

I acknowledge that matter and social forces influence us, but they alone do not or even primarily shape us. If there is no free will, then you cannot sayDNA made me do it whether one thing is morally right and another morally wrong. If you reflect on it, you cannot say someone did wrong, moral wrong, if he is not responsible for his behavior. The legal system, for example, implicitly rejects materialism every time it says, “The defendant is guilty.” The defendant is not guilty if his genes or the principles of operant conditioning made him behave as he did. Would any materialist continue to be a materialist if his or her daughter was raped and the defense attorney said, “Rape is not morally and legally wrong. Society reinforces men for being aggressive, and he was only responding to this conditioning. My client therefore is innocent of all charges, and I ask dismissal of them all”? Either you accept free will as legitimate (and morally condemn rape, for example) or you lose your moral voice in standing up against moral atrocities.

Footnote 3, Chapter 1, The Forgiving Life by Robert Enright (APA Books, 2012)

Forgiveness and the Conflict between “Either/Or” and “Both/And” Thinking

“Either/Or” thinking is important in many cases: Do I jump into the raging river to save the drowning dog (even though I cannot swim) or do I call for help instead? I have added the numbers 10 + 11+ 12 and have gotten answers of 33 or 34. They cannot both be correct and so I better add again.

“Either/Or” thinking helps us avoid contradictions or, in the case of the drowning dog, unwise decisions. Thus, we cannot look on this kind of thinking as the bad guy in many situations.

Either-Or ThinkingYet, in other situations, it is untenable and can lead to distortions. One such instance concerns the understanding of forgiveness. Some people reason that if they forgive, then they cannot seek justice. It is an “either/or” choice between two moral virtues: either I forgive or I seek justice. Yet, as Aristotle reminded us over 2,000 years ago, we should not be thinking of the moral virtues as existing independently of one another. For example, courage by itself might lead the person mentioned above to jump into the river even though he cannot swim. The practice of courage without wisdom can be dangerous and even destructive.

The practice of forgiveness with “either/or” thinking could lead to the forgiver being exploited by those forgiven. After all, the offenders might reason, we can keep up the abuse and even ask our victim to forgive us, because that victim will keep coming back for more. Forgiveness needs justice to balance the forgiving response to one that offers compassion and mercy and at the same time stands in the truth that unfair treatment must not and will not keep happening: forgiveness and justice.

Both-And Graphic“Both/and” thinking allows forgiveness and justice to grow up side-by-side, allowing the forgiver to be soft-hearted in offering mercy and tough-minded in asking for change in the offender’s behavior. Sometimes, “either/or” thinking is beneficial. At other times, it distorts and can be unhelpful. We need “both/and” thinking when we forgive.

Robert

What is the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation?

One of the best and most succinct explanations of the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation was included in a blog post on this website two years ago. It was written by one of my fellow forgiveness researchers, Dr. Suzanne Freedman, a Professor in the Educational Psychology department at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Here is a link to that post: Spring into Forgiving: Differences Between Forgiveness and Reconciliation.”

Is it possible to forgive someone who is deceased? If so, what would the forgiveness look like?

Yes, you can forgive someone who is deceased. Forgiveness includes thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. One can think of the other person as possessing inherent (unconditional) worth. One can cultivate feelings of compassion for the person, not because of what he or she did, but in spite of this. Even behaviors can be a part of the forgiveness.  For example, one might donate to the deceased person’s favorite charity. One might say a kind word about the deceased to family members. Depending on one’s religious beliefs, the forgiver can offer a prayer for the one who died.

I am 46 years old and I celebrated my 20th wedding anniversary last August. Last year was a difficult year for me. My husband travels for work. When he travels, his job includes ‘wining and dining’ his clients. He recently hired a young, female college graduate. He planned a week long trip with the ‘new girl’ to introduce her to their clients. He never shared or told me that he would traveling with her. I happened to ask him who he was traveling with, one day prior to his departure. I was completely shocked that he would go away with this young, single girl and never tell me. He admitted to keeping this information from me so that I wouldn’t worry. At first, he had a hard time admitting that there was anything wrong with planning such a trip without telling me about it. I do not feel that he had or has a sexual relationship with the ‘new girl’; however, I am incredibly hurt and disappointed by his choice of not telling me. I cry frequently about it. I don’t trust him. He is known to avoid difficult situations. I am tired of his ‘avoiding’ personality and I have developed an intolerance toward it. He has a history of not communicating important events and details of his life. If I ask the ‘right’ question, he will answer the question; but, he will not be forthright with information. He has apologized for his recent bad choice with the ‘new girl’; but I can’t let it go. I am very critical of everything he says and does. I want to forgive him, but I truly do not know how….

Perhaps a first step is to see your husband’s weaknesses. We all have weaknesses and so this is not saying that your husband is weak.

Here is a first step: You say that he has an “avoiding” personality. Why might that be? Has he been hurt in his past, even as far back as childhood? Sometimes people avoid conflict because they have been deeply emotionally wounded by others in conflict situations. If this has happened to your husband, then he, too, carries a wound from the wounded ones who hurt him.

If this is true, and when you see your husband’s inner wounds from others, how is your heart doing toward him? This is the beginning of forgiveness.