Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits.
by Jeffrie G. Murphy.
Oxford University Press. 152 pp. $21.

In 1995, at ceremonies marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the liberation of Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel made the following prayer: “God of forgiveness, do not forgive those who created this place. God of mercy, have no mercy on those who killed here Jewish children.” Such a prayer makes many people uncomfortable and provokes some thorny theoretical and practical questions: Are there any unforgivable acts? Isn’t there some point after which Germany and the German people can be forgiven? Is hate ever a virtue?

The tensions between justice and compassion, forgiveness and order provide deep conceptual puzzles of the sort that analytic philosophers usually like to tackle, though surprisingly few do so in any depth. Fortunately, among those few is Jeffrie G. Murphy, Regents Professor of Law and Philosophy at Arizona State University, whose Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits is a well-written and accessible yet deeply serious examination of the costs of forgiveness and the dangers of cheap grace.

Murphy began his career in philosophy of law as a leading defender of retribution as the primary justification for criminal punishment, and he still retains a tough-minded appreciation for the retributive idea and its supporting emotions of anger, vindictiveness, and resentment. But in 1988, Murphy coauthored a book with Jean Hampton, Forgiveness and Mercy, and it seems to have marked a turning point in his thinking and career. Hampton, who died in 1996, was at the time a young political philosopher at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers. As a Christian, Hampton had always assumed that forgiveness was a duty and thus an unqualified good, but Murphy’s writing provoked her to defend these assumptions. They turned their exchanges into a stimulating collaboration, bringing a variety of literary and religious insights to bear on this complicated philosophical question. Hampton’s arguments forced Murphy to rethink his position significantly from the beginning to the end of the book, and apparently to rethink even more. In Getting Even, the sequel to Forgiveness and Mercy, Murphy announces that he has left behind his “militantly secular worldview” and has become a practicing Anglican.

As the subtitle of the new book suggests, Murphy still thinks there ought to be limits to forgiveness, even for Christians. His main argument relies on the idea that too-hasty forgiveness can show a lack of respect for oneself, as in the S. J. Perelman quip, “To err is human; to forgive, supine.” When we are the victims of evil, it is natural and even likely that we will resent, be angry with, and even hate the person or persons responsible. Murphy calls these “the vindictive passions,” and in the first part of the book, he argues that they play a morally valuable role in our laws, our personal relations, and our psyches.

We are usually vindictive when someone fails to grant us the respect or regard that we are due. We are angry at the injustice that their actions represent, and so our vindictiveness reflects an appropriate sense of justice. Aristotle made a similar point in the Nicomachean Ethics : there is a certain sort of anger that, if our passions and desires are correctly ordered, we ought to have towards violations of the good. When someone unjustly attacks our person or our society, we ought not to like it; indeed, not to have these emotions shows an inadequate love of the good.

The vindictive passions go further, though, by demanding vengeance, the infliction of suffering on the offender. A vindictive person is not satisfied until he knows that the person who wronged him has suffered appropriately. Punishment, on this view, is not about deterrence or the chance to rehabilitate the person punished. It’s about making that guy suffer for what he did to me and mine, as in Wiesel’s prayer for divine vengeance.

If we forgive too easily or grow too lenient in our criminal justice system, we may ignore the genuine harm done. Psychotherapists frequently encourage victims of abuse to forgive their abusers rather than hate them, believing that hatred will only eat away at their fragile psyches. Murphy warns that this advice can be dangerous if it encourages such people to lower their guards and allow themselves to be victimized again. Hate and anger can also get out of hand, of course, but they can strengthen us and help us muster the emotional energy to resist evil, thereby recovering our sense of dignity when we are humiliated or treated without respect. And if the vindictive emotions help us to hold on to our innate dignity, then it makes a certain sense to think that the vengeful behavior following on those emotions would also be in the service of justice and human dignity.

Murphy suggests that this account of vengeance explains the otherwise puzzling fact that it seems just for us to punish murder more severely than we punish attempted murder. If our goal in punishing were simply to deter future crimes, it would seem that we should discourage people from attempting crimes, and not just from accomplishing crimes. So it ought to be irrelevant to the sentence that, say, the bullet accidentally missed its target. That we do regard it as relevant suggests that behind our laws there is a spirit of vindictiveness, a desire to pay back the criminal for the damage he actually causes. It is easier to forgive someone if there is no serious harm done.

The second part of the book is an examination of forgiveness in light of Murphy’s defense of hate. Murphy defines forgiveness as forgoing vengeance and overcoming the vindictive passions. If he’s right that these acts are good, Murphy thinks, it explains why true forgiveness is so hard. It’s not the difficulty of controlling a strong passion like a bad temper; it’s the difficulty involved in making a complex moral judgment, the difficulty of “knowing how far one can go in the direction of forgiveness without compromising values of genuine importance.” If the vindictive passions can be “instruments of our self-defense, our self-respect, and our respect for the demands of morality,” then in forgiving we make ourselves vulnerable and we risk losing our respect for ourselves and for the common good. We also risk the sin of scandal, suggests Murphy, because “failing to resent (or hastily forgiving) the wrongdoer runs the risk that I am endorsing that very immoral message for which the wrongdoer stands.”

These objections disappear, though, if we demand that the wrongdoer repent before he is granted forgiveness. By repenting, he comes to share the appropriate vindictive attitudes towards his own wrongdoing. If he is truly remorseful he will inflict more suffering on himself due to his guilty conscience than could be exacted from him were he defiantly unrepentant––and all of this happens without the difficult and costly work of punishing him. We can forgive him because he can’t forgive himself.

Of course, repentance has to be sincere for this process to work, and here we come up against the riskiness of forgiving––the chance that we’ll be taken for suckers. When we forgive, we release ourselves from our righteous anger and restore our relationship with the wrongdoer, but we take a chance that this relationship will be abused again. While Murphy is among the few philosophers examining this problem on the level of the individual person, there is a fair amount of philosophical literature on the analogous question of whether the state can show mercy in criminal punishment. In his subtly argued chapter “Repentence, Punishment, and Mercy,” Murphy takes the reader through the major issues covered in this literature. He addresses many topics––this short chapter alone could take an ethics class several weeks to unpack––but he has good judgment about what are the deeper issues and what can be skipped over.

Murphy is especially interested in exploring what the philosopher Herbert Morris has called “the paternalistic theory of punishment,” which claims there is something intrinsic to punishment that can lead a criminal to genuine repentance and moral reform. Just as punishing a child teaches him that mommy really doesn’t like it when he does that to kitty, so criminal punishment communicates to the criminal that society regards his action as wrong. In other words, it communicates something about the nature of the wrong, and it gives him a chance to consider (and hopefully accept) the content of this communication. If it works, punishment can lead to repentance. This theory is heavily criticized––in some circles, “paternalistic” is synonymous with “oppressive”––but Murphy, for reasons left implicit, finds it fairly attractive. I suspect he finds it attractive because if it works, it allows him more easily to defend punishment to Christians.

found the first seven chapters of the book frustrating, because most of Murphy’s answers were at best provisional. In the last two chapters, however, as he shifts from the explicitly secular framework within which he had been working to an explicitly Christian point of view, the reason for the tentativeness of his conclusions becomes clear: Christianity changes almost all the calculations about forgiveness. It teaches that man is fallen and so is probably more deserving of the harm that comes to him than he is likely to admit. It teaches that even criminals are precious children of God, who (it can be hoped) might undergo a conversion. And it reminds us that the universe is providentially ordered, and that God will bring good out of evil. This last point is most important because so much of the earlier justification of vindictiveness and punishment rests on the assumption that since everything in the struggle against evil depends on us, we cannot let down our guard. Murphy writes, “If I think that I alone can and must make things right, then I risk taking on a kind of self-importance that makes forgiveness of others difficult if not impossible.” Trusting in God’s providence, on the other hand, guards us against overreaching in our sense of responsibility.

At the same time, Christianity can be quite compatible with criminal punishment and even capital punishment, given certain qualifiers. Christians clearly ought to oppose punishments that are motivated by hate or by indifference to human life. “Love does not forbid punishment,” Murphy argues. “What it forbids is punishment out of hatred.” Christians are called to visit prisoners in jail, not to abolish jails––the former acknowledges the humanity of the prisoners while still recognizing that their being in prison helps to control crime, promote the common good, and respect justice.

On Murphy’s view, Christians can best justify punishment that promotes both the common good and the spiritual reformation of the criminal, where the latter seems possible. (Here’s where the paternalistic theory of punishment would seem attractive.) The task of spiritual reformation is dangerous, though, and requires great humility, since only God can know a person’s soul in any depth. Therefore we ought to punish reluctantly, with humility and great caution, aware that zeal for punishment often turns out to be a mask for cruelty and ressentiment. We ought to be especially reluctant about capital punishment; Murphy defends a view (which he attributes to Augustine and the encyclical Evangelium Vitae ) that while the state has a right to execute, it is almost always wrong for the state to exercise that right.

Getting Even is probably the best book to date on the costs and benefits of forgiveness. But its argument is limited by its schizophrenic nature. For over half the book, Murphy lays out arguments based on secular premises that he more or less abandons by the end. And to the degree that he does retain his views about the virtues of vindictiveness, he pulls back from the radical nature of the Christian view. Murphy is certainly right that Christians don’t need to assume naïvely that the enemies they love are not their enemies, and so it is permissible to be prudent and defensive when dealing with them. But he is not persuasive when he claims that Christians ought to treat the vindictiveness that follows upon righteous anger as respectable and even as a virtue. If respect for one’s self is rooted in being a child of God, then even the great humiliations of rape and torture should not cause one to lose that self-respect. If one believes that the people who do such things are created in the image of God, it is clear that they have obscured that image by their sins and ought thus to be pitied rather than hated.

Murphy mentions another purpose of vindictiveness, the affirmation of common moral values, but even this is not available to the Christian. The vindictive reaction to injustice, the desire to right the wrong, is inappropriate, a form of meddling, whenever one doesn’t have responsibility or jurisdiction to take that action. Each person clearly has responsibility for his own behavior, and some very limited responsibility for the behavior of those he can influence, and so he ought to desire to make amends for his own wrongs.

But since Christians hold that no fallen man is able to restore justice to the world generally, no man can think he is burdened with that responsibility. Ought implies can, as the philosophical slogan goes. For someone who believes in a provident God, then, vindictiveness is presumptuous––it presumes that one has the ability and the permission to set the world aright––and presumption is a species of pride. If that’s the case, then vindictiveness is not one value to be weighed against forgiveness in a prudential judgment, but rather a sin that is always wrong for one who trusts in God. There still might be a need for (non-vindictive) punishment, but there does not seem to be a way to place limits on forgiveness without placing limits on love.

So Christians, at least, have to judge Wiesel’s prayer at Auschwitz to be absolutely wrong. The understandable product of a life scarred by great evil, certainly. A forgivable wrong. But wrong nonetheless. And if even that anger and those vindictive passions are unacceptable, then hate and vindictiveness cannot ever be a virtue.

Daniel P. Moloney is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. His article “The Tribunal of Mercy” appeared in the March 2003 issue.