What’s the Difference between Forgiveness and Self-Deception?

repairing vase

An atheist friend of mine recently posted the following question to Facebook (and gave me permission to reprint it here):

I don’t think I grok forgiveness in the absence of Catholicism.

I keep trying to imagine what I might mean if I asked someone to forgive me. I certainly wouldn’t ask anybody that they purposefully have poorly calibrated beliefs about me, or that they have emotions poorly calibrated to their beliefs.

The best I’ve got at the moment is “please keep in mind that decision theory suggests that societies operating on a modified tit-for-tat model where there is a probability of cooperation following an opponent’s defection are better off than pure tit-for-tat societies”. But that still doesn’t seem quite right.

Ok, never mind, I wrote two more sentences and then realized they were false. That might well be a perfectly good description of “forgiveness”. …Maybe?

Edit: I was insufficiently clear. What I’m really trying to ask is “is there a thing it makes sense to call ‘forgiveness’ that we ‘ought’ to do”.

I want people to be mad at me precisely in proportion to the thing I did and the updates they reasonably make from it, else they’ll be blindsided when I behave in the future as they ought to have predicted from the available evidence. The part of me that seeks forgiveness, I think, *does* want them to have poorly calibrated emotions in the near future, and doesn’t properly believe that distant future consequences are real. It seems bad to let that part of me get the upper hand. Forgiveness therefore seems to me, at the moment, like a vice.

I’m going to paraphrase my friend’s question, since it’s pretty precisely stated in terms of game/decision theory.  She’s asking whether forgiveness is anything more than the deliberate adoption of false beliefs or deluded emotions about the trustworthiness of others.

If someone betrays you, and you “forgive” them, are you just resolutely refusing to improve your model of the world and your friend’s honesty?  Are you changing your expectations of what will happen in the future to be more accurate, but refusing to allow yourself to feel the emotions that come naturally.

My friend’s best guess was that “forgiveness” is a way of reminding ourselves socially that, in game theoretic terms, average outcomes are better when defection/betrayal isn’t always followed by further defection/betrayal/shunning (though it should happen often enough to discourage free riders).

I’d like to see what commenters make of her question, particularly the atheist readers, or Christian readers willing to couch their arguments in entirely secular terms.  (Though, if you think forgiveness makes no sense outside of Christianity or religion generally, by all means, chime in and say why).

spilled milk

I took a crack at her question, and, first of all, I realized I had a much better idea of what it means to have accurate beliefs about someone’s future behavior than “well/poorly calibrated emotions.”  If my beliefs about actions are accurate, I can make decent predictions of what will happen in the future.  If my emotions linked to beliefs are accurate, I… still not sure.  I can think of failure modes (spirals into panic attacks, depression, etc) but to pick out the best of the stable scenarios, I think you need to appeal to a normative theory of ethics.

But, back to the main thrust of the question — I’d make my secular pitch for forgiveness by arguing that people are in a different category than other things I try to have accurate expectations about.  It wouldn’t make much sense to “forgive” the uneven patch of sidewalk that keeps tripping me or the traffic jam that keeps annoying me.  They’ll keep repeating themselves independent of my feelings of “forgiveness” so I really am putting myself in danger of having inaccurate beliefs (and scraped knees, and late arrivals).

But people are different.  My expectations of them is one of the factors that influence their actions.  When we’re willing to forgive other people, it’s a bit like adopting growth mindset for other people.  Growth mindset (cf Carol Dweck) is the opposite of fixed mindset.  It’s the difference between talking about your flaws as set in stone–part of what makes you you, or treating them as mutable.

My parents did a pretty good job teaching me to think this way (“I’m just not athletic!” “You mean you’re not athletic right now, or that you haven’t been athletic up til this point“).  Growth mindset makes it easier to make positive change, and to avoid internalizing poisonous Homeric epithets.

Forgiving others means offering growth mindset to them, too, reassuring you both that, in the words of mutual funds disclaimers, past performance is not indicative of future results.  The past is probably a little more likely to be correlated with the future when it comes to ethics, instead of stock picking, but that is a general trend, rather than destiny for this particular relationship.

Forgiveness is incompatible with indifference (which is often where my emotions end up by default). When I update my beliefs about other people’s competence/caring/etc without incorporating forgiveness, I tend to treat people as static inconveniences to be routed around, no different than a physical obstacle.

But I don’t like what happens (to me or to them) when I think of people instrumentally. Forgiving others, speaking in terms of growth mindset means treating them as growing, living things that can improve themselves, whose wholeness you wish for, both because it is helpful and because it is beautiful.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."


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