Forgiveness as a Political Necessity

In an age of Twitter mobs and cancel culture, it’s becoming clearer every day that no cultural artifact or icon, no matter how old, banal, celebrated, or grandiose, is safe. One of the latest targets is the smash Broadway hit musical Hamilton. The tragicomedy of targeting a phenomenon like Hamilton is manifest in the reality that the musical actually has much to teach us about how to live, and perhaps even to flourish and prosper, together in the midst of injustice, turmoil, and suffering. 

Near the opening of the show, a young Alexander Hamilton reflects on the prospects for the movement for independence. War, it seems, is a necessity; the revolution is coming and Hamilton is committed to fighting for it. But, he wonders, “If we win our independence, is that a guarantee of freedom for our descendants? Or will the blood we shed begin an endless cycle of vengeance and death with no defendants?”

In these brief lines Hamilton captures the two possible futures for America, one leading to life and the other leading to death. In recognizing these possibilities Hamilton shows himself to be a prescient student of history and the consequences of revolution. The dominant image called to mind by the word “revolution” is that of a wheel (from revolvere, “to revolve”) so that as the wheel turns, the cycle progresses. Those who were on the bottom end up on top and those who were on top are laid low—until the next turning of the wheel. 

The problem with revolutions is that those who were on the bottom and are newly in charge very quickly use that power to tyrannize those who are now on the bottom. Using a complementary image, the Puritan Roger Williams was among those who observed that those who have been liberated from tyranny rapidly become tyrants themselves. Such hypocrites “persecute when they sit at the helm, and yet cry out against persecution when they are under the hatches” of the ship of state.

Thus, as Hamilton recognizes, those who have been wronged will eventually become powerful enough to avenge themselves on their oppressors; in so doing, they will create a new generation of the aggrieved, who will in turn repeat the pattern until it becomes “an endless cycle of vengeance and death.”

The only other option is one of new possibilities for life together, one in which the nation continually seeks to live up to the covenant made in the promissory note affirming the equality of all people before their Creator. Rather than retribution and revenge, this narrower path is opened up by a novel phenomenon: forgiveness. We see this new dynamic at work toward the conclusion of the musical, when Eliza Schuyler Hamilton somehow finds a way forward with her husband Alexander after betrayal and grief. 

Eliza’s sister Angelica narrates their reconciliation, which is accomplished through Eliza’s forgiveness of Alexander. “There are moments that the words don’t reach,” sings Angelica, “There is a grace too powerful to name.” This is the unimaginable grace of forgiveness for those who do not deserve it. This is a grace that allows a relationship to exist in the face of unimaginable suffering and wrong.

Perhaps we can see easily enough how such forgiveness is a necessity at the level of personal friendships and even marriages. But does forgiveness have any role to play in secular, public, and cultural affairs? Can we think of forgiveness as a political reality?

If we make the effort, we immediately meet with an impediment. For if forgiveness has any corporate meaning for us at all, a society still sipping digestifs in the dusk of the long sunset of Christendom likely thinks of it—but only in a vague way—as little more than a relic of ecclesiastical procedure. This churchly association is no coincidence. Indeed, some political philosophers have looked to Jesus as the originator of our notions of forgiveness. In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt remarks that “the discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.”

But Jesus’s putative “discovery” of forgiveness does not, in Arendt’s view, make forgiveness purely “religious.” As she puts it:

The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense. It has been in the nature of our tradition of political thought… to be highly selective and to exclude from articulate conceptualization a great variety of authentic political experiences, among which we need not be surprised to find some of an even elementary nature.

Even if forgiveness had not been explicitly articulated as an ideal before the time of Christ, then, it might nevertheless be basic to the functioning of a healthy society: an “authentic political experience” of an “elementary nature.”

Christian theologians have themselves made the same basic point. The sixteenth century Danish Lutheran theologian Niels Hemmingsen, for example, does so in his Postil, or collection of sermons on the Gospel lessons for the liturgical year, while commenting on Luke 6:36-42, the text for the fourth Sunday after Trinity—a passage that begins, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

Hemmingsen argued that mercy requires that we “forgive the one who has offended us for the injury he has done.” The claim is remarkable in this context because of the justification that he gives: “Since mutual offenses are many, if we did not forgive each other for them, no tranquility would be possible—in fact, the bond of human society would be rent asunder.” For without forgiveness the bond of society becomes the shackle by which we are imprisoned in an interminable series of retributions—what Arendt calls “the chain reaction contained in every action.”

With this comment, then, Hemmingsen makes an important broader point about man as a political animal: we must forgive not simply because there is a dominical command to do so, but because social life, for which man is made in his very nature, is impossible (at least in our fallen state) without such forgiveness. Or perhaps we might say that there is a dominical command to forgive at least in part because forgiveness is a general duty of nature in our present state, and not merely a luxury for the redeemed. We all offend in many ways, and if our only concern were with vengeance, our life together would be a Hobbesian nightmare, bellum omnium contra omnes. We need mercy more than Leviathan, even if we still do need legal justice. (And we most certainly do: “The gospel,” as Hemmingsen puts it, “does not abolish political order.”)

But the command to forgive in the gospel text actually upholds political order in a different way as well. We can return to Arendt once again to further expound why Hamilton’s opening dichotomy is so salient. Without forgiveness, we are left with an endless cycle of retribution that comes (and come it does) for everyone sooner or later.

By denying the past qua past, mere retribution destroys the present as well. Arendt puts it this way: “Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.”

Arendt expands on this idea later. “Forgiveness,” she says, “is the exact opposite of vengeance.” Why? Because forgiving:

is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.

Nothing is more purely reactionary than vengeance. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the only reaction that is also a new action; it makes an end so that it can make a beginning. If vengeance lives only in the past, replaying the original offense on an endless and obsessive loop in the manner of Groundhog Day, forgiveness has the uncanny ability of effecting a genuine and surprising scene-change. The director’s “Cut!” is not a call for violence, but rather an opportunity for a second act. So, too, is forgiveness.

A society without forgiveness is like hell on earth. This is as true for societies on a smaller scale like marriage as it is for larger political communities. Marriages that last all have one thing in common: spouses that extend forgiveness to one another rather than withholding it. This kind of forgiveness is by no means the manifestation of a cheap grace. It is instead a grace, as Angelica Schuyler Hamilton describes it, “too powerful to name.” For Christians, forgiveness is only possible because of the costliest sacrifice imaginable.

As the political philosopher William B. Allen has noted, America itself is well understood as a “love story,” which includes “a moral commitment between the people and the government.” Forgiveness is the foundation of any true love story. Cancel culture necessarily ends either in self-immolation or in reeducation camps and gulags, creating its own kind of hellish existence—documented so powerfully by Solzhenitsyn. Forgiveness, by contrast, forges new beginnings and opens up new possibilities.

Or as that line from Hamilton wonders, “Forgiveness …. can you imagine?” Life together, as it turns out, is actually unimaginable without it.

Reader Discussion

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on July 31, 2020 at 09:18:42 am

Thank you for this hopeful post.
It is Through Salvational Love, God’s Gift Of Grace And Mercy, That Love, Which Is Always Rightly Ordered, “can make all things new again”.

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on July 31, 2020 at 11:04:30 am

Rather than calling this is a morally-useful essay, I should I call it a spiritually-profound homily.

We know from history that forgiveness was an exemplary human reality when Christ as man was among men, tortured and slain by those whom he loved and, as God, traded us our eternity of sin for His eternity of love. Because He loves, lives and forgives, we may pray for the courage to accept the living power of His forgiveness that in turn we may forgive others, and we may hope, thereby, to end our human suffering for want of our forgiveness of others their sins against us.

Yet, today, while forgiveness abounds for those sociopathic forces on the Left who are so deeply-troubled spiritually and psychologically and who are most in spiritual and psychological need both of receiving and of extending forgiveness, it is not possible for them to extend the grace of forgiveness to others. This is so for three reasons. First, these deeply-disturbed sociopaths seek personal revenge now for ancient historical harms done unto others, not to them. So, having not been sinned against, they simply lack the power to forgive others their sins. Secondly, as the authors recognize, forgiveness is both eternal, a God-commanded spiritual obligation of embodied souls, and a long-term political strategy for man in the polis, a matter of sustaining a viable social compact of living safely and with mere civility. In both situations, whether commandment or pragmatism, forgiveness as a virtue is founded on love of others, agape, and as pragmatism is dependent on the courage to risk loving others.

Yet, neither agape nor courage is even an aspiration of the demonic forces now embarked on their revolutionary rampage, driven by the short-term satisfactions of revenge to savage culture at its every point of historical and legal weakness and to attack society at their every opportunity of embedding and spreading moral disintegration. To the contrary, (as Orwell recognized) hatred in a political context is always personalized scapegoating and a matter of promoting ideological solidarity by venting psychological angst. (Winston Smith said, "The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.")

In short, the true believers in the new Revolutionary Democrat Party (RDP) who would destroy us seek the revenge of scapegoating as a political expression of hatred and a means toward the ideological goal of group solidarity. They need to hate, not love. Further, to observe the RDP mob in action (whether the RDP's followers rioting in Portland, Seattle or Lafayette Park or the RDP's leaders throwing morally-untethered tantrums during Congressional hearings) is to be overwhelmed by the evidence of their utter cowardice. The RDP's members and adherents are emotionally unbalanced, psychologically-ill and spiritually-empty. They are T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men (and Women)" who lack all courage and high purpose and are devoid of all love but love of self.

The deranged followers of the RDP have nothing to forgive, and even if they did, the RDP's true believers lack the spiritual capacity, psychological strength and the political wisdom to forgive. They are a lost cause; the third of three generations of American minds and God's souls wasted.

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on July 31, 2020 at 15:04:35 pm

The thesis presented in the above essay is doctrinally sound and philosophically appealing, but is confronted with a practical obstacle that must be recognized and overcome. This obstacle is central to much of our current political upheaval. There is a fundamental misunderstanding, exemplified by the quotation of Hanna Arendt, that "forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance," that the agitating left exploits. Forgiveness is not the exact opposite of vengeance, for the simple reason that an asymmetry exists in the way the two concepts apply to collective, as opposed to individual parties.

The crucial distinction is that a single person cannot take it upon himself to forgive others on behalf of a discrete group, but he can take it upon himself to engage in acts of vengeance on its behalf. This is the fundamental concept that is ultimately the basis of critical race theory and other such post-modern perils. Modern progressive activism is based on this concept. It relies upon the creation and maintenance of groups on behalf of whom agitators may claim to seek "justice." This justice implicitly refers to the Old-Testament "eye-for-an-eye," lex talionis version. This is then used by the justify aggression against other groups, also defined by the progressive ideologues, in the interest of having an object of revanchist activism. This is the ultimate goal of identity politics.

Explanations for the phenomenon of revenge can be made on psychological, evolutionary, and spiritual bases. In its most basic form, revenge is an emotional indulgence, a pursuit motivated by fantasies of existential satisfaction, and the fallacious belief that this satisfaction represents a vindication of an injured virtue. In practice it serves only as a dead substitute for the lack of virtue. It is instructive that, even when it realized it no longer had the capability of military victory, the Third Reich nevertheless produced vergeltung, i.e. vengeance, weapons, that served no practical purpose other than emotional compensation for total defeat. This is the common characteristic of all vengeance that is sought on behalf of discrete groups, against other groups. That it is amoral at best is beyond question.

Forgiveness ultimately will win out. To paraphrase John Paul II, the outcome has already been decided. But forgiveness is a personal virtue and a personal strength. It requires rejecting group grudges, and dealing with people the way they were made: as individuals, with their own dignity, flaws, grace and humanity

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on July 31, 2020 at 21:02:28 pm

This is interesting. You are suggesting that rather than being opposites, these actions are unrelated to each other or at least not as related as is commonly thought, which is relation often deployed by Arendt in her essays. Could you elaborate on what this asymmetry is?

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on July 31, 2020 at 22:28:39 pm

Could you elaborate on what this asymmetry is?

Sure. As specifically intended in my comment, this asymmetry arises from the idea that someone may take revenge on behalf of another without that person's approval, but may not forgive a wrongdoer on behalf of another without that other's consent. This is because revenge and forgiveness do not belong to the same class of objects. Forgiveness is something that requires a moral right on the part of the one doing the forgiving. Revenge, being an emotional rather than moral imperative, does not. For example, a concentration camp inmate might take vengeance on a guard due to the deaths that occurred in the camp, but could not reasonably forgive that same guard on behalf of the same deceased inmates. Although revenge can sometimes be understandable, perhaps in some circumstances appear justifiable, it need not be either. Forgiveness, being a personal prerogative needs no justification.

Another way to look at is that revenge and forgiveness are not direct opposites because the goals of the two are not direct opposites. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the goal of revenge is emotional satisfaction, or perhaps more nobly, a sense of justice, it is difficult to see how forgiveness has the opposite objectives. This again results from revenge being an emotional, and more primitive phenomenon , and forgiveness being a more comprehensive, and moral one.

These factors can be observed in other attempts to distinguish vengeance and forgiveness. To take a semantic example, changing the form of the word slightly for purposes of illustration, we would say that the opposite of forgivable is unforgivable, not "revengable." It is possible to seek revenge for both forgivable and unforgivable insults. If one chooses not to forgive, he may simply bear a grudge without seeking revenge. The opposite of forgiving is "not forgiving," and this does not require revenge; therefore revenge is not the opposite of forgiveness. They are however related, but the relationship is a little more complicated.

Some philosophers ponder the difference between forgiveness and mercy, and between vengeance and justice. These concepts do not have an easy consistent relationship to each other. Sometimes vengeance may be regarded as justice, other times the opposite. The same may be said of mercy. In some circumstances it is reasonable to say that "in this case, vengeance is the opposite of forgiveness," but it is not axiomatic.

Just to reiterate the main theme, progressive activists use identity politics because of the perception that they seek vengeance, or artful interpretations of "justice," on behalf of groups that they define and presume to speak for, but they could not plausibly do the same with forgiveness. Forgiveness is understood to be an individual, moral decision; vengeance need not be so.

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on August 01, 2020 at 08:44:29 am

In my 1st comment I said this, "...these deeply-disturbed sociopaths seek personal revenge now for ancient historical harms done unto others, not to them. So, having not been sinned against, they simply lack the power to forgive others their sins."
Is that the point re the invalidity of seeking both forgiveness and vengeance under the guise of social justice? If so, I suspect that the demand for reparations is intended to fill that gap, so that he to whom no forgiveness is due may yet demand that those who need not seek forgiveness must, nevertheless, appear to have sought and bought it of necessity.

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on August 01, 2020 at 13:09:44 pm

While I admire this essay, my prior comments (and those of Z9Z99) question an implicit false assumption of its authors, that today's social justice warriors ought forgive contemporary members of society (white people) for the purported sins of their slave-holder and Jim Crowe predecessors and for the alleged racist laws and institutions of today and in the past. No such forgiveness is possible since nothing requiring forgiveness has been done to those from whom the authors would require forgiveness and those who would forgive are not the moral agents of those who allegedly were or are being wronged. Hence, what, in actual political fact, is being sought is vengeance or retribution by and reparations payments to those who are entitled to none of it and what, as a matter of moral principle, is being asked is that this unentitled mob forgive those who have done no wrong.

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on August 01, 2020 at 15:03:18 pm

I think this is correct. To carry the discussion further, I would offer the following observations:

1. Forgiveness and vengeance exist on different moral planes.

2. The moral aspect of historical events and their relationship to current grievances cannot be dismissed by the assertion that morality is subjective. This would confront the currently aggrieved with the argument that there is no moral basis to basing current grievances on past wrongs.

3. Presenting a moral dimension to current grievances is essential for two reasons: people respond to moral arguments, and this seems to be an innate characteristic of psychologically healthy humans; and secondly it is a necessary step in connecting current demands to past events.

4. Because the persons accused of past wrongs are no longer around, and there are moral, logical and philosophical objections to holding descendants liable for the offenses of ancestors, the modern activist resorts to a accusation of ratification, that the descendants ratify, and therefore assume guilt for their ancestors by enjoying "privilege." The half-baked and logically flawed argument is that the current defendants of social justice accusation are better off than they would have been had not a remote group of people committed offenses that benefited other people centuries and decades later. Also, there is a group of people who are currently worse off for the same reason. Therefore, the argument goes, that by not actively repudiating their "privilege," the defendants are ratifying the remote offenses and are morally liable for them. Furthermore, skepticism of this tenuous argument is "fragility" that also invokes a moral argument against the defendants.

5. These arguments erroneously try to elevate the moral plane of vengeance to that of forgiveness. This effort does not withstand scrutiny, and for this reason the tactics of bullying, cancellation culture, virtue poaching, and divisive race-baiting are used to cover the fact. In a comment to Dr. Dalrymple's June 11, 2020 post, "The Era of Moral Thuggery," I claimed "Forgiveness will be shown to be more powerful than resentment, although this notion will be fanatically resisted by a loud and panicked elite." The real problem for the political opportunists is that, even in the case of contemporary wrongs, forgiveness benefits the aggrieved more than does resentment and vengeful scheming.

6. The notion that offenses against historically remote people have been usurped by people having no, or only a tenuous connection to them, for contemporary political advantage is not going unnoticed by those who will not be better off, and may even be harmed by the activists who presume to act in their behalf.

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on August 01, 2020 at 17:32:05 pm

To explore the idea that "privilege" imposes moral debts on descendants for the actions of ancestors, I submit the following. I am not making an argument one way or another, just soliciting ideas as to what the principles are that affect the moral decision making.

Consider two people. One has end-stage renal disease and is on hemodialysis, as well as on the kidney transplant list. The other is a motorcycle rider who has signed an organ donation card. One evening the motorcycle rider is killed in a crash, and per the organ donation procedure, one of his kidneys is transplanted into the dialysis patient. The dialysis patient thus has benefited from the motorcycle accident. Does this fact, by itself, make the dialysis patient morally responsible for the crash? If not, are there any facts that might make him so?

Consider that the kidney donor was drunk when he crashed, or not wearing a helmet. Does this change the answer? What if the motor cycle rider was blameless, and was instead hit head-on by an impaired driver? Does this affect the responsibility of the kidney recipient?

Now assume that the kidney donor leaves a small child, who is thus worse off because the accident has claimed his or her father. Does the kidney recipient have an obligation to the child? Does the child have standing to forgive the kidney recipient for the accident? How about the impaired driver? What if the impaired driver was the kidney donor? Does the child have an argument that he or she is entitled to seek vengeance against anyone else because a father has been lost? Against whom?

Does it matter if the person needing the kidney does so because of his own lifestyle choices, say neglect of diabetes and high blood pressure? Do the circumstances of the kidney transplant have any affect at all on the moral liability related to the donor's death?

What if, two years after the kidney transplant the recipient has his own child? Does this offspring have any responsibility for the accident, or obligation to the offspring of the donor? If so, does this obligation dilute over subsequent generations?

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on August 02, 2020 at 11:40:34 am

Hmmm! Not keen on the hypothetical. It brings back bad memories of law school. Loved being a lawyer for 50 years but hated 3 years of law school for the inferior nature and constrained focus of its teaching method, so heavily reliant as as it was on the case method, contrived hypotheticals and academic word-games played under the guise of engaging in the Socratic method.

Using an Hohfeld's analysis of rights, it seems that "'privilege' "imposes (no) moral debts on descendants for the actions of ancestors'' because there is an absence of "right" on the part of the descendants of slaves/Jim Crow victims and an absence of a correlative "duty" on the part of descendants of the oppressors. Like Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor of 19th century, over 60 years ago American society officially rejected God and replaced Him with Man as God, so that in postmodern America the Imago Dei, the Judeo-Christian tradition and its natural law grounding, are no longer seen by the privileged elite, their dutiful minions or their suffering servants as the foundation and source of moral obligation. Hence, in secular America, positive law is now the foundation of moral obligation. We Americans no longer expect men to be moral because of God, but we are determined to make men moral by force of law, all-pervasive and intrusive and restrictive law; positive law that creates rights which natural law abhors; positive law which creates duties that impinge on and restrain liberties protected by natural law. In postmodern America if there is no positive law "right" there is no moral debt because "right" in our society rests on the moral foundation of positive law.

Yet, giving both groups of "descendants the benefit of natural law and the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is still no "right" and hence no "duty," no "moral obligation" toward contemporary descendants of slaves and those oppressed by Jim Crow. Under natural law (as well as Hohfeld's analysis) a right means that one is legally protected from interference and from the withholding of assistance. That right imposes a correlative duty on another person to abstain from interference with the rights holder and to extend to the rights holder the assistance required by the right. The right-duty legal relationship is between individuals, not classes and groups and is not transferrable one group or generation to another. An attempt using positive law to make the right-duty relationship a matter of group/racial identity or to make the right-duty relationship transferrable down the generations would be contrary to natural law and thus no law. Further, under American positive law as now conceived by the Supreme Court it would be unconstitutional.

Surely under natural law each slave had rights which were violated and each slave owner failed in his duties toward his slave. Because there was a right there was a duty and thus a moral debt was owed the slave by his owner. That individual right/ correlative duty died with the slave. Under Jim Crow there was no such individualized right-duty relationship and thus no moral obligation, even though Blacks were denied natural law rights and their unacknowledged constitutional rights to vote, serve in public office, associate, work, travel, marry and live as they choose. Further, rights not denied Blacks, like access to public education, services and accommodations, were provided on a separate and unequal basis. Clearly, under Jim Crowe those serving as agents and officials of state and local government denied myriad rights to millions of individual Blacks, rights that created duties which were ignored. Under positive constitutional law and under natural law, those individual rights and duties died with their holders.

Any assertion of a moral obligation of descendants must be based on law, natural or positive, which is the moral foundation of a right-duty relationship. Fortunately, law provides no right of retribution or reparation to the distant descendants of Black victims and no duty to the descendants of their oppressors.

Further, the assertion that one is born with a moral or legal obligation toward others based solely on the color of his skin is repugnant to natural law and to positive constitutional law (So far. CJ Roberts and Company are still in the business of making positive law.) It is the vain search for a moral foundation (as public relations cover) for such a legally repugnant assertion (and other, similar legally repugnant political assertions) that has led to the endless demand for rights and the proliferation of specious rights on behalf of any group eager to advance its personal interests by claiming the prized status of "victim" and levelling "j'accuse," especially against white males. Hohfeld's analysis properly sees this as a power-liability, not a rights-duty relationship. In effect, it's a political power grab asserting a non-existent right while masquerading as a demand for social justice. The faux-right of reparations and retribution will remain unrecognized until such time, in the not too distant future, as the modern Congressional and Judicial forgers of positive law step forward and create a "right" which does not exist under natural law and the Judeo-Christian tradition on which it is founded, which are the ground of all moral obligation.

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on August 02, 2020 at 15:56:00 pm

I must apologize for my cryptic comment about the general use of hypotheticals. I intended no criticism of your rather ingenious hypothetical re motorcyclist and organ transplant. Rather, I preferred to reply directly to the merits without answering your specific hypothetical questions, and in my rush to get to the substance of my reply I too quickly passed over your factual hypotheses.
Sorry, no offense was intended. Careless of me, though.

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on August 02, 2020 at 19:53:17 pm

No offense taken and no apology needed. No vengeance contemplated.

The purpose of the hypothetical is to to provide a mechanism for identifying and assessing the principles that guide particular moral decisions. This then allows distinctions to be made between these principles, with the most significant distinction being the one you made in your comment. You identified this as a difference between natural law and positive law. Others may, in different contexts, refer to inherent and constructed, organic and artificial, descriptive and normative, malum in se versus malum prohibidem, etc. The basic distinction is between intrinsic and volitional, i.e. those things that are the way they are because that is the way the forces of nature shaped them, and those things that are the way they are primarily because of human choices.

These distinctions are important because, as mentioned previously, psychologically healthy humans respond to moral arguments, and this appears to be innate. As such, progressives, revolutionaries, idealists, ideologues, etc. have no choice but to contend with it, and how they contend with it depends largely on whether their moral arguments derive from innate rather than human-constructed principles. For example, the assertion that slavery is wrong can be advocated either as a matter of natural justice, or as a human innovation that makes no reference to a natural order. The latter view however, is the weaker, in that it cannot establish that slavery is wrong, only that it is considered wrong. Obviously the moral and intellectual appeal of the two premises also differs. The moral argument that slavery is an affront to human dignity is of an entirely different quality than the philosophical notion that it is a point on a spectrum of power politics.

A practical matter arises when a moral claim is based on a natural principle, but the remedy is based on a "constructed" or conventional one. Such is the case, for example, with genocide and generational guilt, or slavery and collective guilt. If the assessment of slavery as wrong is based on natural law, consistency suggests that any remedies therefore should also be based in natural law. If, conversely, the claim for "justice" is based on positive law, the liability for slavery could plausibly invoke the state of positive law at the time of the offense.

There is another distinction to be made as well, and this bears on the original essay's discussion of forgiveness and vengeance. In Eichmann in Jerusalem Hannah Arendt makes the remarkable observation, regarding the personnel that committed atrocities, "the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering." She recognized that humans have both natural, instinctive responses, as well as cognitive and moral ones to the same actions. This helps explain why vengeance and forgiveness are options to the same insult. It also illustrates that forgiveness and vengeance exist on different moral planes.

So as not to get too far afield, I will just summarize my point: Moral reasoning can proceed based on the world as it is, i.e. as determined primarily by nature including human nature; or moral reasoning can proceed with reference to how humans wish it to be, based on subjective considerations of perfection, or insular ambitions, or political advantage, etc. Arguments that switch back and forth inevitably run into contradictions. People who wish to change the world, for good or ill, must make moral appeals and must contend with human nature at some point.

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on August 02, 2020 at 20:57:26 pm

You are in good company. James Q. Wilson in" "The Moral Sense" agrees with you, as does Solzhenitsyn. From "The First Circle:"
"We are born with a sense of justice in our souls; we can’t and don’t want to live without it!”

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on August 02, 2020 at 08:05:31 am


“Penance, Penance, Penance”

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