Jan 30, 2014

Thoughts on Forgiveness in Law and Institutions

Some time ago on my personal blog I posted my thoughts about the place of forgiveness in the modern legal economy. In particular, I was keen to show that the promise-keeping was not the only virtue that should animate our legal rules and institutions. Thus, here, here and here I posted under the rubric of "Justice, Forgiveness, and the Bankruptcy Discharge." Evidence that I was not the only one thinking about the place of forgiveness in the law can be found in another of my posts here.

Reading on this bright and sunny "snow day" in Tidewater, Virginia I came across the following by Hannah Arendt in "The Human Condition" (although taken out of her order, I think her meaning is made more clear). On the one hand she writes, "the remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty of make and keep promises." Yet on the other hand she observes that, "The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility--of being able to undo what one has done ... is the faculty of forgiving."

Why are both faculties equally important?
The two faculties belong together in so far as one of them, forgiving, serves to undo the deeds of the past ... and the other, binding oneself through promises, serves to set up in the ocean of uncertainty, which is the future by definition, islands of security without which not even continuity, let alone durability, would be possible in the relationships between men.
Arendt goes on to challenge what I (not she) would call a naked natural rights understanding of human society, one which in its modern formulations sees society as an individual writ large. In its place, I take as significant Arendt's observation that a "moral code inferred from the faculties of forgiving and of making promises, rests on experiences which nobody could ever have with himself." Society is more than the individual although neither is it  less.

In other words, can we ask ourselves, which is more fundamental, the individual or the individual in society? Or, if I may be more provocative, from whom should our institutions draw inspiration, Prometheus or Jesus? Secular individualism is mighty tempting, especially when the only alternative seems to be secular statism. Neither, however, gives due credit to human nature as it is or, indeed, as it was created to be.


  1. Excellent post. You might have equally picked Arendt's first subject Augustine, who had this to say "in this life [our righteousness] consists more in the forgiveness of sins than in the perfecting of virtues." Civ.Dei 19.27 Unlike Arendt, he obviously does not see the faculties of forgiveness and virtues like promise-making/keeping as equal in the age. One predominates over the other in terms of our capacities.

    I wonder whether she is right in her move from promising and forgiving to society. Persons speak of promising themselves and forgiving themselves.It is obviously a special case, since it may involve the persons of the Trinity, but God seems to have made promises before creation -- Titus 1:1-3. Likewise, God takes vows of Himself. But God may be the divine exception that proves the human rule. The resolution lies in the ground of the obligation of promise, whether it arises from the nature of the individual's act, i.e. he is bound because of his own resolve so to be bound, or from some communal nature of the act, i.e. he is bound because of his own resolve plus the reliance of the other receiving the promise. If wills have to meet, the promise implies society, if not, then not.

    I suspect we can really promise and forgive ourselves for the same reasons that we can really love and hate ourselves. We may rightly use different words to indicate the inward nature of the promise, e.g., to resolve to do, but the nature of the ethical obligation may be the same even if the consequences of a violation are different.

  2. Just catching up to speed on this blog--and enjoying it immensely. Note that there is a very strong connection between Arendt and Augustine--she wrote her dissertation on him (published under the title "Love and Saint Aiugustine" by pulling together three pre-publication drafts). But also note that Arendt appropriates Augustine into her decidedly non-Augustinian project.

    Perhaps the best way to get at this is to note that Arendt does indeed reject modern (Liberal) individualism. She deplores the modern obsession with the self because it sacrifices communal aspects of being human--such as politics. (She rejects impressionism and expressionism because such “art” an invasion of the private into the public—an invasion that corrupts public life itself). She finds the idea that one can be fully human by one's self as satisfying as thinking by one's self. Nobody does it. Only solipsists entertain the mad fantasy that they are the only ones who exist. In order to be truly and fully human one must move beyond the self.

    But then this conviction leads Arendt to argue that the world of human action (as she defines this concept in The Human Condition) must be cared for. If we take this amor mundi as central to her grounding of being truly and fully human (and I do), then the capacities of promising and forgiving emerge as centrally important for sustaining the public world constituted by actions (again, I'm working within her own understanding of "action" as political actions, as distinct from "laboring" and "working"). Because actions become prohibitively hazardous when an actor can neither be forgiven for mistakes nor ensure collaboration through promises, the capacities of forgiveness and promising become centrally important. But note: these acts of forgiveness become important not for individuals (who may or may not be able to forgive themselves), but rather for those individuals drawn together into public action because they love the world and recognize that their interactions allow them to be fully human.

    As I noted at the onset, this is not an Augustinian project. However, it seems to me that Arendt does recognize the importance of forgiving and promising for public life. Sadly, she could not find a stronger love on which to base public life.