Moral Intuition #2: Everyone is morally fallible

One of the things that I like most about Christianity is that it is forgiveness-centered rather than justice-centered. Even if you aren’t a Christian, though, I think a forgiveness-centered ethical framework makes sense. However, I’m not completely sure what a forgiveness-centered ethical view should look like.

Some ethical systems are justice-centered. They focus on the idea that for every action there is a fit consequence. If right is rewarded and wrong is punished, that is a good thing in itself. Promises should be kept, even if it is inconvenient to do so, because commitments in the past change responsibilities in the present. If I can do something for someone that will make their life better, but they don’t deserve it, then I don’t necessarily have to do it.

Other ethical systems are benevolence-centered. Utilitarianism, for example, assumes that the important thing is whether our actions makes people happier. Even if you deserve punishment, it would be wrong for me to give it unless I can show how it will make you or someone else happier in the long run. If promise-keeping is important, then it’s because of what it means going forward. If you freely break promises today, then no one will ever be able to trust what you say again, which will make you and others unhappier. Promise-keeping has value because it is pragmatically more likely to make people happier than to live in a world where people don’t keep promises. If I can do something for someone that they don’t deserve, but that will make their life better, then I have an obligation to do it.

A forgiveness-centered view would share the idea of just desserts with the justice-centered perspectives. It doesn’t make sense to talk of forgiving someone if they don’t deserve punishment in some sense. At the same time, forgiveness shares with the benevolence-centered views the idea that it is a morally good thing to let someone off the hook for their past mistakes.

One of the big problems with a forgiveness ethic is that it is hard to figure out whether forgiveness is a moral duty or not. It seems somehow like forgiveness is in its very essence something that is undeserved. Otherwise it wouldn’t be forgiveness. On the other hand, it seems wrong to say that we aren’t obligated to forgive. I wonder if I can say that you have an obligation to God to forgive me, but you have no obligation to me to forgive me. Will that work? I’m not sure.

An important concept in ethical philosophy is that of supererogation, which refers to things that are morally good to do, but not absolutely obligatory. We admire Mother Teresa for what she did, but don’t condemn other people for not doing the same things. I am certain that any ethical system needs to leave room for supererogation, but I’m not sure how that can be done with most systems. Is forgiveness supererogatory? I’m not sure. Does forgiveness of others’ moral failures somehow make room for supererogation? Again, I’m not sure.

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