Friday, February 20, 2009

Understanding and forgiveness

I was thinking today about Tolstoy's dictum: Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner -- to understand all is to forgive all. He repeated it often, and appears to have believed it utterly. I find that I must disagree.

Understanding is not the same thing as forgiving; understanding the motivations for bad behavior does not necessarily imply forgiving it. Understanding is an intellectual gesture; forgiveness is a moral one. The importance of understanding the cause of bad behavior is not the enabling of forgiveness, but the enabling of change. Understanding bad behavior places the onus of reform on the perpetrator; it does not necessarily place an obligation of forgiveness on anyone else, least of all, the victim. But in any case, there comes a time when an individual must reform his bad behavior, whether or not he understands its motivation, simply because he can see the effect.

If, in the light of an understanding of the causes of bad behavior, others choose to forgive it, that is their prerogative. Certainly, it is the prerogative of the victim of such behavior. But the ultimate moral responsibility lies with the perpetrator, to change his behavior. He also bears the intellectual responsibility of attempting to understand his motivations, so that he may reform his behavior permanently. Having done so, he must then ask for forgiveness, which (if done in a spirit of remorse and reform) is not normally withheld.

However, there are behaviors so heinous that, even though their causes be clearly understood, they cannot invoke forgiveness. I am thinking in particular of the case of the child molester who knows he is sick, knows he cannot control himself, and yet puts himself in the company of children. We saw such a case recently, when a convicted child molester warned the authorities that, if they released him, he would offend again. Nonetheless, they released him, and, in fact, he did so. Leaving aside the intense institutional stupidity involved in the mandatory release of such a person, there is no obligation on the part of society, and especially not on the part of the victim and the victim’s family, to forgive this man, despite the fact that the cause of his behavior is clearly understood. Indeed, I would expect that neither the victim nor the family would ever forgive such a monster, nor should they do so. He bears the blame, and it is shared by the system which failed to prevent his actions, despite his explicit warnings.

Understanding and forgiveness, then, are related but distinct human responses to bad behavior, but they do not stand in a cause-and-effect relationship. Each is a matter of choice: understanding may be incumbent upon society, but forgiveness is entirely voluntary on the part of individuals.

Tout comprendre n'est pas forcement tout pardonner -- to understand all is not necessarily to forgive all.