OPPRESSION, FORGIVENESS, AND CEASING TO BLAME.

Author:Brunning, Luke
 
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WRONGDOING is an inescapable fact of life. We all do wrong and are wronged from time to time and in response we often blame one another. In the broadest sense, moral blame is a personal response to wrongdoing or wrongbeing, which can manifest in a variety of mental states-e.g., judgments, desires, dispositions, and emotions--as well as in behavior. We blame for a variety of wrongs, in a variety of ways, and with a variety of consequences: one expresses disappointment with an unfaithful partner who then apologizes, another rants about injustice thereby alienating part of her Facebook community, a third turns inward in frustration with a neglectful parent who in turn mistakes her withdrawal for indifference. Such conflicts are not the whole or even the greater part of our shared social existence, but they are a defining feature of it.

But if blame is a defining feature of our social lives, so is ceasing to blame. And we cease to blame in a variety of ways, too. Depending on the circumstances, we might excuse, justify, or forgive an offender, or we might simply let the offense go. Each of these ways of ceasing to blame is a social practice with characteristic norms, whether formal or informal, that influence when and how we do it, as well as how it is received. We are wary of those who let go too easily; we find it difficult to forgive an offender who has yet to show remorse; and sometimes learning more about the offender demands that we excuse their offense. In short:

Claim 1: Whether and how we cease to blame depends on a variety of circumstances, not all of which are under our control.

While not obvious, we think this point is plausible. However, it has some surprising implications. Like any norm-governed practice, one can cease to blame appropriately or inappropriately, successfully or unsuccessfully. Indeed, one can fail altogether to overcome blame. This suggests that:

Claim 2: Social and material circumstances can compromise one's ability to successfully cease to blame in the manner one would prefer.

Moreover, the possibility of failure implies that one may lack access to particular ceasing-to-blame practices, because one can be in a position to be regularly prevented from successfully overcoming blame. In order to participate in some practices, one's action must be done for the right reasons and secure uptake. This raises a further, political question: Does everyone have equal (or adequate) access to the various ceasing-to-blame practices? We will argue that they do not. In particular:

Claim 3: The circumstances of oppression can systematically undermine one's ability to successfully perform some ceasing-to-blame practices.

Our argument proceeds as follows. In section 1, we present a taxonomy of different ceasing-to-blame practices and describe their distinctive roles in our moral lives (Claim 1). We also explain the value of overcoming blame and, thereby, the harm of not being able to do so. Our subsequent discussion focuses on forgiveness, though our arguments also apply to other ways of ceasing to blame. We focus on forgiveness because it is a complex practice about which much has been written and because many regard forgiving as a matter of personal fiat, a way of ceasing to blame that is elective, unconditional, or otherwise independent of social circumstances. As such, our argument faces the strongest opposition and is most interesting in the case of forgiveness. In sections 2 and 3, we argue that circumstances can conspire to compromise an individual's ability or opportunity to forgive. We argue that forgiveness is reason guided and that lacking good reasons or the right kind of reason can undermine one's ability to forgive (Claim 2). In addition, circumstances can be such that victims' attempts to forgive are not recognized. We make the case that recognition--or "uptake"--is necessary for forgiveness. We note, however, that even if forgiving does not require uptake, communicating forgiveness does, and communicating forgiveness is itself an important social practice. In section 4, we argue that the circumstances of oppression systematically compromise the ability of oppressed people to forgive and that this deprivation constitutes a significant but neglected harm (Claim 3). In section 5, we address two particularly forceful objections to our view: that forgiveness is always open to the victim and that we overlook the ability of the oppressed to shape their own practices. Finally, in section 6, we explore an important implication of our account of ceasing to blame as a socially scaffolded set of moral practices.

  1. BLAMING AND CEASING TO BLAME

    1.1. Blame

    How we understand ceasing to blame depends, of course, on what it means to blame. While everyone acknowledges and tries to capture a broad set of paradigmatic cases, there is significant disagreement about the nature of blame--i.e., the attitudes and activities involved in blaming. (1) On "cognitive" accounts blame consists in evaluations or judgments of the offender. (2) On "conative" accounts blaming requires a judgment, but also a change either in how one is disposed to feel and act toward an offender or how one perceives one's relationship with him. (3) Finally, on "affective" accounts blame requires, or is constituted by, a negative emotion or hard feeling. (4)

    Whatever its nature, though, most accounts agree that the purpose of blame is, roughly, to communicate a response to mistreatment. How and what exactly blame communicates is disputed, but there appears to be broad agreement about the communicative view. (5) Ceasing to blame is an essential part of this communicative enterprise because it signals that blame's demand, whatever it was, has been met--or, in some cases, is no longer being pursued. Given the general agreement on the point and purpose of blame, the arguments of this paper do not depend on which particular account of blame is correct. They remain plausible on any account that captures the paradigmatic cases of blame.

    1.2. Ceasing to Blame

    People cease to blame in four main ways: by excusing, justifying, forgiving, and letting go. (6) They can be distinguished by the kinds of reasons they require. To track these differences, consider the following case. While at a party Anna tells Boris a joke about recent migrants to their country. The joke seems crude and offensive, and Boris reasonably blames Anna for her remarks. Consider the different ways that Boris might cease to blame Anna.

    Boris may excuse Anna. Although the joke is clearly offensive, Boris can excuse Anna if he judges that she is not fully responsible for what she said. For instance, he might realize that Anna lacked the background knowledge to see how her joke could be offensive, and that her ignorance was reasonable--perhaps she was unaware that the joke was a modern riff on one historically made at the expense of another despised group.

    Boris may justify Anna's remarks. He might realize that Anna was using the structure of the joke to ridicule people who fear migrants unreasonably. He realizes, that is, that Anna was not doing wrong by making the joke.

    Boris may forgive Anna. He might believe both that Anna reasonably could have known that it was offensive and that it was not justified. However, if Anna realizes how hurtful her comment was, expresses remorse, and resolves to refrain from such "humor" in the future, then Boris might decide that she lacks any deep ill will and forgive her, thereby relinquishing blame.

    Finally, Boris can let go of his blame. For example, he may distract himself in the company of other friends. Alternatively, as a migrant himself, Boris may have been so browbeaten by such "jokes" in the past that it is no longer worth it to him to continue blaming, perhaps because blame is too emotionally fatiguing. (7)

    Since this paper will focus primarily on forgiveness, let us clarify how we understand that concept. Our aim is not to argue for or challenge any particular account of the nature of forgiveness, at least not directly, but rather to identify and explain obstacles to forgiveness and other ceasing-to-blame practices that can arise in circumstances of oppression.

    The arguments we develop below are compatible with many of the leading accounts of forgiveness. (8) Most accounts accept some version of the following conditions. In order to forgive one must: i) overcome one's negative attitude toward an offender, ii) about their offense, iii) for the right reasons. For example, Zora ceases to blame Toni for her betrayal because Toni apologizes. (9) We will argue that oppression can undermine one's ability to meet even these minimal conditions. Of course, our account is not compatible with every conception of forgiveness and some could argue that it is not forgiveness but something else that is compromised in the scenarios we describe. (10) However, the vulnerabilities we identify are not idiosyncratic features of our conception, but stem from widely held commitments about how forgiveness typically works.

    The different ceasing-to-blame practices are similar but distinct. Justification requires that one cease to view the purported offense as wrong. Excuse requires that one cease to view the offense as one for which the offender is responsible. Forgiveness requires that one continue to view an offender as a culpable wrongdoer and is therefore incompatible with justification and excuse. Letting go is also a response to culpable wrongdoing, but in doing so one ceases to blame for different reasons. (11) These distinctions are used in ordinary discourse in roughly the way we have outlined and people seem to police their appropriate use. For example, people are wary of premature forgiveness and of those who appear to lack self-respect. (12) They are also wary of people who are reluctant to forgive under seemingly ideal conditions (e.g., when someone has shown much remorse and made amends). This wariness suggests that forgiveness is not a...

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