Promising, Forgiveness, and Redemption

I am going to assume that all of us here have made and received promises. We may have even had promises made to us broken, and we may have have even broken some ourselves! We probably have forgiven some of these transgressions against us, and may have had our own forgiven. Promising and forgiveness are universal to all people, all cultures, and all times. Indeed, there is perhaps no other moral principle or ethical understanding so widely shared than the recognition promises ought to be kept. Exploring why promises have such a special position in social relations is something that we all feel very deeply, but it is curiously not something that is often explored. Thus, for a good third of this address, an attempt is made to describe some of the key features that make promises special. Following this, and with equivalent attention, an exploration of the notion of forgiveness. Finally, there is a exploration of the conception of redemption, which whilst having well-known theological overtones, incorporates the idea of "redeeming" or a returning to a prior state. In presenting this discussion there is an emphasis on interpersonal relations, that is, actions between natural persons. However, there are also interesting parallels in the activities with the contractual obligations between organisations as legal persons.

The pragmatics of language allow words to be descriptive for matters of fact, expressive for matters of feeling, or normative for matters of rightness. It is from the latter that intimate and lasting social relationships between authentic people are established and grounded, which includes such actions as promises. When people make a promise, we assume that they're going to keep it, at least to the extent that is possible. A promise provides both parties sense of stability in the future tense and encourages actions, particularly by the recipient of the promise, that assume that it will remain in place: Promettre c'est donner, espérer c'est jouir, ("To promise is to give, to hope is to enjoy") wrote the poet Jacques Delille. We understand this as a moral principle, whether it comes from a desire for reciprocal relationship with others ("I do not want others to lie to me") or, at a even higher level, from an internal principle, "to lie is wrong even if others lie to me". Those who break their promises cause disruption to a relationship, not just in the direct effects of the breach, but especially the psychic harm. The greater the importance and depth of the promise, the greater the harm caused and therefore the deliberate, wilful, and consistent breaking of promises is a type of pathological behaviour.

There are some features of promises that make them different to other moral obligations. Firstly, they are a special obligation between the maker of a promise and the recipient. Secondly, they are voluntary. Promises made under coercion and duress automatically void, but otherwise they create an external obligation to the recipient of the promise and an internal obligation to keep it. This is another angle of difference, between promises made to others and promises made to one's self. In most cases, the onus of a promise made to others has grater moral weight than one made to one's self, for the latter are more malleable to individual and temporary feelings. Promises made to others carry the additional weight of both the moral sentiments of the person making the promise and the recipient. Expressed through words, a commitment to deeds, a promise traditionally gained weight in its seriousness through incantations of solemnity; we would swear, on a Bible in a court of law to tell the truth and the promise became between the speaker, the recipient, and a divine power. In secular commercial law, promises are transformed into contracts where the actors pursue their own self-interest and agree to rules of participation from which co-ordinated activity may occur. We know all too well however, how parties to a contract may attempt to wiggle their way around clauses, ambiguities, and what is unwritten.

Yet we also know that not all promises can be kept. External circumstances may make it difficult and perhaps sometimes even impossible for the delivery of a commitment, or perhaps the promise has to be delayed; the contemporary global pandemic has presented all sorts of difficulties for example. As difficult as it may be, a moral onus exists on the promiser to inform the promisee of their inability to deliver, and the longer that they are not informed the greater the harm caused. Tragically, this explains why the the people who are most prone to trust are therefore also most prone to harm. Another example of circumstances where promises cannot be kept, or when lying is justified, is when there is a reasonable expectation that by keeping a promise, or by not lying, a greater moral crime will be committed. There is, for example, the famous example of applying a Kantian categorical imperative to the inquiring murderer. Another example is the welfare worker who breaks their professional code of conduct to ensure the provision of food-stamps to needy recipients. It is in these muddy waters that the difficult paths of moral principles (what is the right thing to do) and situational ethics (how we justify what we do) begin to part, of which the variety of individual case circumstances cannot permit a fuller elaboration. In brief however; yes, it is morally wrong to lie or break a promise, and yet sometimes it can be ethically justified, by the consequences, to do so. But perhaps the most common reason, for the failure for a promise to be fulfilled, is a simple human failing. "Nous promettons selon nos espérances, et nous tenons selon nos craintes" ("We promise according to our hopes, and perform according to our fears"), as author François de La Rochefoucauld offered as a maxim.

Which brings us to the matter of forgiveness. A popular meme that makes the rounds states: "Sometimes the first step to forgiveness is understanding that the other person is a complete idiot". Typically, this generates some amusement but the humour detracts from two very important messages that can also be interpreted from the remark which are worth exploring. Firstly, the emphasis is on forgiveness, and that it is the wronged party that can initiate forgiveness. When one is slighted, their are numerous responses that could be carried out, which have their equivalent correlations from interpersonal relations to social law (e.g., retribution, restoration, etc). But the wronged party also have the opportunity for forgiveness, which also allows for a transformation of the relationship. Secondly, the recognition of the alter as an "idiot". The use of the term used in 20th century intelligence testing, and subsequently as a pejorative for low level of cognitive skills overlooks the Hellenic origins of the term, "idios" and "otes", a private person who does not engage in social considerations. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, describing someone as an "idiot" really brings to recognition that they have been acting for themselves, and their own benefit, without sufficient consideration of the other party. In this sense, "forgiveness" invites one to consider their own fallibilities, and the times that they have behaved "like an idiot".

From here arises one of the most remarkable abilities of our species, and that is the capacity for understanding and forgiveness. If we have broken a promise we are able to explain our circumstances and our reasoning and, if they consider our reasons to be understandable or justified they can offer forgiveness. Where the explanation is understandable the wronged party established a sympathetic association with the excuse offered of the other. Forgiveness both acknowledges the past transgression and revisits it. Emmanuel Levinas claims that "forgiveness acts upon the past, somehow repeats the event, purifying it", whereas Hannah Arendt's argued forgiveness alters the ethical significance of a wrongdoer's past by removing the fixed evaluation of their character. Forgiveness is an act that hopefully provides both parties wisdom; "forgive but do not forget" is the popular saying. It is meant to provide the wronged party wisdom of the all-too-human failings of the the recipient of forgiveness. The wrong-doer should also learn a little about themselves in the process and understand how their actions caused hurt, and how they could have done something different. Forgiveness of the breaking of a promise, or other acts, does not mean that a person is no longer considered blameworthy, or is free from the moral responsibility of their action; it does not condone the act, but it changes current and future relations between the parties involved. In commercial and contract law we even see a sense of this where a breach of a contract does not necessarily result in a punitive response. Where all parties in a contract agree that a contract can be changed, it can be changed. This is quite an eye-opener for many doing business in China, for example. A commercial contract isn't seen as being something cast in stone, but rather the beginning of a relationship, a series of continuing negotiations.

Many thinkers associate forgiveness with the positive emotions that the act provides and the potential for reciprocity. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says "Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us". In Marcus Aurelius' Meditations he makes the claim that if you "Reject your sense of injury, and the injury itself disappears", which obviously does not refer to physical injuries. In The Wisdon of Forgiveness, the Dalia Lama notes that "forgiveness means you shouldn't develop feelings of revenge ... forgiveness means you should try not to develop feelings of anger toward your enemy"; it brings peace of mind to the forgiver, rather than holding on to past transgressions or seeking damages. Refuting the desire for punishment introduced the social and legal notion of a pardon, the wilful and deliberate refusal to punish. However, whilst forgiveness is seen as virtue, whether as a duty or a gift, it can be seen as being in conflict with justice. Seneca, for example drew a distinction between "pardon" and "mercy" in this regard, the latter representing a sort of contextual justice rather than a type of forgiveness. However, this should be seen more of a continuum. Because regardless of the emotional gains of the act of forgiveness, in whatever flavour it is provided, it does require that the transgressor acknowledges and takes ownership of the error of their ways. Which brings to light the notion of self-forgiveness, and its ties to redemption.

Redemption, of course, is a word that has strong associations with the Abrahamaic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Christianity it represents a pathway to salvation, through the combination of faith and deeds. As well-expressed in popular culture, it was part of the Second Great Awakening in American Christian history of which Universalism was certainly an extremely important part. The term however was appropriated after the American Civil War as a political coalition led by plantation owners who sought to oust the influence of liberal Republicans from the former Slave states. They included paramilitary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and were the people primarily associated with laws aimed at disenfranchising black voters. Bringing reactionary religious views and a political-economy together of Southern exceptionism, all tied together with the evangelism of "redemption" was certainly quite a brilliant strategy by the racists and former slave owners with repercussions felt in the United States to this very day. Regardless of the attempted appropriation of the term, there is also a more appropriate meaning used in property law, the right of redemption, which has its origins in Jewish commercial law. This allows a debtor, whose property has been foreclosed upon and sold, to reclaim that property if they are able to come up with the money to repay the amount of the debt.

This commercial sense provides an analogous relationship to promising and forgiveness. What is important with redemption is that it does not require the act of forgiveness from the creditor, and that it comes from the debtor's own resources. In other words, redemption is an act of self-forgiveness. It acknowledges the moral or commercial debt owed to others, or even to oneself (e.g., the failure to live up to a promise that one makes to themselves). The purpose, like forgiveness from another, is very similar. It overcomes feelings of self-loathing and related negative emotional attitudes and, as redemption is both from faith in one's self and deeds to rectify the wrong, it restores an individual's sense of intrinsic self-worth, and restores their moral agency, even in the absence of an external actor offering forgiveness. Indeed, redemption is required both in the cases where forgiveness is granted by an external actor and when it is not. Because in all cases the transgressor must realise, through guilt, that they must seek amends. Sometimes even when the external party has offered forgiveness, the hardest person to forgive is one's self; that requires redemption. It becomes a promise to one's self.

Thus, there is a cycle of promising, forgiveness, and redemption. Promises are made to form interpersonal bonds and social relationships where allow for certainty and actions to occur with trust and confidence. Their voluntary and exclusive components provide them additional moral weight to other duties. However, we also recognise that promises cannot always be kept due to circumstances, a caveat which is understandable and acceptable and is easily forgiveable. What is more challenging is when promises are not kept because of self-interest or fears. This requires additional effort to forgive, but forgiveness remains possible when the transgressor recognises the error of their ways, and as a means to restore a relationship (through restorative justice, with reconciliation) by not holding to the past in a fixed manner. Whether or not forgiveness is offered the opportunity exists for the transgressor to seek redemption to themselves and therefore regain their own self-worth and moral agency. These actions can occur among individuals, can be codified into law, and can even be expressed through the collective spirit of a population. Certainly this would a remarkable and wonderful picture of communities where promises are made and kept, and when they are not ownership is taken by those who broke the promises, forgiveness is sought and granted, and the wrong-doer seeks redemption within themselves. Such a society would certainly be one worth living in.

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, August 15, 2021

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