Open Concept :: Forgiveness

by Alice MacLachlan and Alexis Shotwell

Alice writes:

We began with what we take to be a fairly provocative statement by Hannah Arendt about the limits of forgiveness: namely, its inapplicability to contexts of suffering beyond recognizable human agency:

“Because [forgiveness]… can function only under the condition of plurality, it is very dangerous to use this faculty in any but the realm of human affairs. Modern natural science and technology, which no longer observe or take material from or imitate processes of nature but seem actually to act into it, seem, by the same token, to have carried irreversibility and human unpredictability into the natural realm, where no remedy can be found to undo what has been done. Similarly, it seems that one of the great dangers of acting in the mode of making [is]… one is bound not only to do with the means of violence necessary for all fabrication, but also to undo what he has done as he undoes an unsuccessful object, by means of destruction.”  – Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition 2nd ed. (Chicago, 1958) 238.

Arendt’s remarks are so provocative because so many of our actions bring us into relationships of suffering and responsibility with non-human others. How might we think about our capacity to respond to wrongs and responsibilities either without forgiveness – or in ways that challenge Arendt’s refusal to extend it?

Alexis writes:

In my comments I simply dwelled with Donna Haraway’s thinking about suffering and forgiveness.

Haraway begins the chapter “Sharing Suffering” in her When Species Meet with a character from a Nancy Farmer novel who experiments on guinea pigs. As he subjects them to the bites of the tsetse flies, he puts his own arm in range of the painful bites, and in range of the danger of sleeping sickness – the disease he is attempting to stave off. Baba Joseph figures the lab worker who attempts to stand in a relationship of response with the animals he causes to suffer. Haraway quotes his assessment of his own action: “It’s wicked to cause pain, but if I share it, God may forgive me.” I, with Haraway, am interested in what it means to stand in need of forgiveness – and in whether it’s possible to think about forgiveness without an appeal to religion. Should God forgive Baba Joseph? Should the guinea pigs? The flies? The protozoan parasites who might sicken the biting flies and then die? How are relations of use navigated when we try to nurture a capacity to respond and an attitude of sharing the suffering we produce?

The broader questions involve what it means to stand in unforgivable relations, to be positioned such that our existence causes pain, degradation, and suffering to others. This is, arguably, the condition of life for everyone, at every scale: for any one to live, someone(s) die. But it the reality that life involves suffering is particular salient, though perhaps peculiarly difficult to apprehend, for those of us who benefit from or are directly responsible for the suffering of others. Recipients of breast cancer treatments tested on oncomice, for example. Eaters of lobsters recently cooked. Wearers of clothes made at low money-cost and high life-force-cost. People who live on land expropriated from indigenous peoples in ongoing relations of genocide. Buyers of airline tickets through prison-based call-centers where inmates are paid, if they are paid, pennies an hour.

“Baba Joseph’s bitten arm,” Haraway writes, “is not the fruit of a heroic fantasy of ending all suffering or not causing suffering, but the result of remaining at risk and in solidarity in instrumental relationships that one does not disavow.” So, three things from this:

1.     Remaining at risk involves recognizing that response will be required, that what we cultivate in recognizing how we are situated in relation to other beings – lab animals and otherwise – will put us at risk of being called on to be responsible. This involves nourishing our capacities to respond and, significantly, our capacities to transform ourselves through remaining available for response. This is one reason possessive individualism, arising from “entities with fully secured boundaries” will fail as the moral unit involved in circumstances in which we are implicated in suffering. We will need something much more like Karen Barad’s understanding of the intra-action, involving always onto-ethico-political questions. The shape of this morality will be necessarily non-anthropomorphic: human exceptionalism and human reference as strategies for feeling safely absolved, entitled to dominate the natural world, or safe from transformation in virtue of our capacity to reason, won’t fly.

2.     Being in solidarity involves holding difference as primary; relations of self-sameness don’t produce solidarity. Rather, in thinking about lab animals, animals we eat, bugs we kill while growing vegetables, and so on, it is precisely the recognition that there are relevant differences along with relevant samenesses that provokes both the material situation of the guinea pigs (and so on) and the need for ethical response. But to think about solidarity is always to think about the sites of difference while in the same breath standing with the needs, goals, and pleasures of the beings with whom we are entangled in our practices. We are thus aiming for nonmimetic understanding of well-being, suffering, death, while simultaneously seeing ourselves as constituted in the relations we produce.

3.     Not disavowing instrumental relations involves facing up to the fact that we use others: we experiment on them, we cause them pain, we kill them. Normally these kinds of actions, if you did them, are sites at which you would beg forgiveness. And to be forgivable, we might very much expect also that you would pledge to not continue doing the things you wish to be forgiven for. But Baba Joseph wants to find a way to have fewer cows and people die of sleeping sickness, and so those guinea pigs will continue to suffer. He is using them, as all of us are using lab animals somewhere for something we want from them in ways that cause us to ask, even indirectly, for someone to cause them pain and death.

Haraway writes: “The moral sensibility needed here is ruthlessly mundane and will not be stilled by calculations about ends and means. The needed morality, in my view, is culturing a radical ability to remember and feel what is going on and performing the epistemological, emotional, and technical work to respond practically in the face of the permanent complexity not resolved by taxonomic hierarchies and with no humanist philosophical or religious guarantees” (75).

I don’t have a word for how we might systematize this kind of ethics. Haraway explores other people’s practices in labs that point to promising practices for working with this kind of unresolvable, permanent complexity. This will mean being painstaking – taking pains to be response-able, in the moment and its specificity, with the understanding that there is not really an endpoint or a permanent closure, but instead something more terrifying.

“My suspicion is that the kind of forgiveness that we fellow mortals living with other animals hope for is the mundane grace to eschew separation, self-certainty, and innocence even in our most creditable practices that enforce unequal vulnerability” (75).

Alice writes:

I tried to raise some of what I take to be the most puzzling and promising challenges and questions in my research on forgiveness thus far – especially as these relate to atypical or non-paradigmatic contexts of responsibility and suffering:

In my research, I try to think through the ethical and political implications of concepts that are, at once, socially embedded, constituted and negotiated practices for navigating the aftermath of wrongful harm and, also, have – or seem to have – the status of virtues, that is, moral or rational ideals that transcend the social contexts from which they emerge. This second aspect suggests that the logic of forgiveness and its conceptual cousins can tell us something about the content of our obligations and duties, or the claims we might make on others, while the first pushes us to acknowledge that forgiveness or its refusal may only ever make sense within the cultural and social context from which it emerges or is absent.

For many in my field (analytic philosophy) the conceptual double-life of forgiveness can pose a bit of a puzzle, and the temptation to ‘bolster’ the concept with non-contextual, universalistic conditions that, taken together, teach us what ‘true’, ‘genuine’ or ‘moral’ forgiveness might be.  I want to theorize forgiveness while resisting this move. Claudia Card’s talk of a ‘moral power’ in The Atrocity Paradigm seems promising, as it allows us to recognize how the power to forgive arises out of shared understandings of roles, capacities and abilities, and suggests that such ‘power’ is vulnerable, even fragile – since it may well depend on another agent’s recognition of that forgiveness. Card’s approach also allows us to value refusals of forgiveness as appropriate acts of power. But ultimately, her construct may not do justice to the ways in which we practice forgiveness, and how practices of forgiveness may vary widely in powerful and problematic ways, particularly when viewed politically.

I take up (promising yet questionable) practices of forgiveness as a way to focus on the roles and relationships that are created by wrongful harm, and the implicit norms, guidelines and calls that together structure these roles and relationships. We can acknowledge Arendt’s cautions about plurality by asking whether the practice of forgiveness is limited to contexts where roles of ‘victim’ and ‘wrongdoer’ make easy sense, when our responsibility for wrongdoing seems to extend past such contexts. Central to my investigation is the question:

How can one person’s responsibility for suffering ever create a call or an obligation on the part of the sufferer? What are we to make of this transmission of responsibility? And how might we turn this call on its head, by thinking about practices of unforgiveness or refusals of forgiveness – as ways of taking and retaining responsibility?

I look to the implications and tensions raised by the metaphors and imagery through which forgiveness is most often articulated: what does it mean to speak of forgiveness as a change of heart? Turning the other cheek? Wiping the slate clean? How can we make sense of seemingly contradictory economies of forgiveness – that, on the one hand, forgiveness concerns the economy of (moral) debt relations and distribution and also, on the other, that forgiveness is an act of generosity, a spontaneous gift? Some have described forgiveness as a way to relieve suffering wrongdoers from the burden of their guilt – but are such burdens ever simply lifted, or are they rather taken on and absorbed by the already-suffering victims of wrong?

I suspect that our rich, implicit, overlapping understandings of forgiveness reveal the choices we make about a number of ethical movements following wrongdoing. I think of these as the possible functions of forgiveness: namely, relief, release and repair:

  1. Release: Does forgiveness release the agent from responsibility or culpability for her action? How can we make sense of such a release – let alone endorse it? Can we see practices of forgiveness in other, more problematic practices of release for wrongdoers: waiving of corporate liability for ecological and human costs of business, political pardons for cronies, unjust practices of imprisonment that excuse those with power or privilege, or national refusals to take responsibility for historic wrongs of internal and external colonialism? Who is empowered to offer such release – and what kind of agency is required to do so? And finally, we might consider whether release from wrong is always, or ever, symmetrical, and what it means when a forgiven wrongdoer refuses to let go. Here I am struck by Alexis’s remarks about instrumental relationships, and what it means to stand at what would ordinarily be a site of forgiveness. Does acknowledging the limits of forgiveness to which Arendt alludes mean conscientiously refusing to release ourselves from these non-instrumental relationships and our role within them? Should we see and understand ourselves as importantly unforgiven?
  2. Relief: Can forgiveness offer relief from the often viscerally physical, material and present harms created by violence, negligence, instrumentality and apathy? How can we make sense of symbolic or social relief for material harms – and for whom and by whom is this relief experienced? We might consider the truism that victims who forgive feel better themselves, and what truths stand behind it. Who else benefits from the relief of forgiveness – besides, potentially, victim and perpetrator – and what kinds of choices should we make about whether relief is deserved or merited?
  3. Repair: Many theorists have argued, convincingly, that forgiveness is valuable because it repairs relationships. What relationship does – or can – forgiveness repair? I think here of Alexis’s account of our entanglement. Thinking about forgiveness may require us to acknowledge relationships that require transformation rather than repair – and to resist assuming more relationality is always better, and dis-identification and distance are always worse – even as we realize we cannot always un-relate ourselves from our entanglements:  they are present in our food, our homes, our lives.

We can ask about the dimensions in which forgiveness takes place – whether it is ultimately a kind of social performance or, on the other hand, the emotional transformation of resentment and anger – and how forgiveness is connected to related practices of apology, reparation, punishment and reconciliation. Ultimately, exploring these functions leads us into broader conversations about when and how to place, withhold, or negotiate responsibility for suffering and the very real consequences of our roles in it.