When Should a Humanist Forgive?

When Should a Humanist Forgive? January 16, 2017


In “The Ashes“, I wrote that we should stop trying to help Trump voters who are about to suffer the consequences of getting what they voted for. This drew a rejoinder by Dragoness Eclectic:

And this, I fear, is the difference between the compassion preached by Jesus, and secular humanist compassion: “We’ll only be kind and compassionate to our friends and allies” vs. “Love your enemies; for even sinners love their friends. You are called to do much more.”

I thought this critique deserved a longer answer than I gave it in the comments, so I’m going to respond at length here.

To begin with, let me say that I reject the idea of compassion as taught by the character of Jesus in the New Testament. It’s a deficient ethic, and here’s why: it rewards bad behavior. If you love your enemies and forgive them when they harm you, what incentive do they have to stop harming you? How does this discourage evil and wrongdoing in the world?

The Bible’s answer to that question is that it doesn’t, and it doesn’t matter. Christians have always believed that God will sort everything out in the afterlife, dispensing the justice that’s absent on earth. Therefore, a Christian’s job is to “resist not evil” (Matthew 5:39), be meek and mild under oppression, and persevere until Jesus shows up to set everything right.

Obviously, this consolation isn’t available to an atheist. We can’t take comfort in the thought of an afterlife we don’t believe in. But it goes farther than that because, just as I said in my recent post on anti-theism, this fatalistic ethic encourages injustice to prosper. It gives good people a reason to do nothing in the face of evil, and as we all know, that’s the only thing evil needs.

But just so we’re not accused of debating angels dancing on pinheads, let’s take this debate down to earth. Let’s talk about what these conflicting ethics would mean, concretely, for people who are alive right now.

The incoming Republican Congress has given every sign that they want to immediately repeal Obamacare and drastically curtail other safety-net programs like Medicare and Medicaid. And they have no alternative on offer: they want to gut these popular, lifesaving programs and replace them with nothing.

This is no abstract policy debate. Obamacare has helped tens of millions of Americans, protecting them from arbitrary denials of coverage and skyrocketing premiums. If the repeal succeeds, millions of people are going to suffer and die. People I know personally may wind up homeless, bankrupt or dead.

This is monstrous – there are no other words to describe it. How can anyone urge with a clear conscience that we forgive the people who cheered on this massive cruelty, and not even retrospectively, but preemptively, before the damage is even done?

As Kara Brown puts it on Jezebel, love is not the answer. No social justice movement ever succeeded on the strength of love alone, not even the famous ones:

Those who ask us to face hatred with love find an easy champion in the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But King never offered love as the only way, and simply being kind to white people who hated him certainly wasn’t a cornerstone resistance tactic…

The rights of the minority have never been granted simply because the majority finally came around and changed its mind. Racism and bigotry are not the result of unfriendliness nor will they be undone by the opposite.

To suggest that we can love our opponents into forsaking their evil ways is a noble moral for a fairy tale, but it doesn’t work that way in the real world. If it were that simple, human-wrought evil would have been ended long before now. Cruelty, bigotry and malice have to be resisted, not patiently tolerated.

As I’ve written before, in the “game” of morality, I play the tit-for-tat strategy. I strive to be kind, compassionate and forgiving toward those who treat others the same way. But people who promote greed, cruelty, and hate, who bully the defenseless or promote injustice – I believe they should be treated with the same consideration they show others. And I won’t feel bad for them when the ethic they espouse rebounds on their own heads.

This is the only morality that gives wrongdoers an incentive to stop the harm they’re causing. It sends the message that they can expect consequences for their misdeeds. Handing out forgiveness for free not only cheapens the notion of forgiveness, it actually encourages immorality. It means you can freely and gleefully harm others, cheat and break the rules, and when the time comes, just utter the right magic words and you get off scot-free. Why not be as bad as you please, under a system like that?

This doesn’t mean that a secular humanist can never forgive wrongdoers. What it means is that forgiveness has to be sought – and, more importantly, paid for. Before you can be forgiven, you have to recognize the harm you caused, express your contrition, and then, as far as it’s within your power, make amends. And even if you do all of this, the people you’ve harmed have no obligation to grant forgiveness, if they don’t think your regret is genuine or if the harm is so severe that there’s no way to make up for it.

Seeking forgiveness is an arduous process, and it’s supposed to be. It should be harder to obtain forgiveness than to just refrain from committing the wrong in the first place. Again, this is a matter of getting the incentives right. The would-be destroyers of the safety net, the defenders of bigotry and brutality in America, haven’t taken even the first step.

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