Is the capacity for forgiveness intrinsic to human nature?
The Big Questions (Templeton)
The capacity for forgiveness as such is not an intrinsic part of human nature. We know that all sophisticated life (and this applies to primates as well as to humans) have conflict resolution techniques. You can call this appeasement. The Greeks, the ancient Greeks had this concept of appeasement. “I didn’t do it, or if I did it wasn’t that important, or if it was that important, I feel bad about it.” And you go through a gesture of submission and self-abasement, and you hope that somebody will forget the offence against them. Forgiveness as such, only enters the world when we move from what is called a ‘shame ethic’ to a ‘guilt ethic’.
A guilt ethic separates between the act and the person; the act was bad but the person remains deep-down untarnished. And therefore that sense of when I repent and make restitution, and so on, I am capable not of just making you forget the whole thing or ignore it, but actually doing this extraordinary act called forgiving.
This appears really in human history with the story of Joseph and his brothers at the very end of Genesis. His brothers have wanted to kill him, they sold him as a slave. And eventually he reconciles with them and forgives them. Fascinatingly it’s only after that, that God forgives. He forgives the Israelites for the sin of the Golden Calf, after the pleadings of Moses.
So forgiveness has to do with a specific culture. It is one of the great contributions of the Judeo-Christian heritage to humankind.
It was Hannah Arendt who pointed out how very, very important forgiveness is, because it is one of the very few things that breaks the hold of the past. It liberates us from this eternal consequence, and the eternal echo, of the bad things we’ve done in the past. It allows us to create a new world going forward.
So I think some form of conflict resolution is universal, but this very specific form of forgiveness is one of the great gifts of the Judeo-Christian heritage to humankind.