The Forgotten Virtue of Forgiveness in the Public Domain

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According to Hannah Arendt, the ability to forgive plays an essential role in public life, because participants do not have to feel discouraged about introducing something new ­– a decision, a position or an innovation. If things go wrong, they can be forgiven. However, there seems to be little left of the capacity for forgiveness, mainly because it seems to be poorly understood what public life entails. Politicians like to shift their responsibility, if something goes wrong they appeal to their good intentions, participants in the public debate do not realize that a public position is something different than a personal opinion and innovation is seen as a purely private activity to start with. I will argue here that all these activities belong in the public domain and that actors can only feel responsible for their actions within this domain if there is the possibility of forgiveness.

In politics, decisions are made that concern us all – this is what makes political decisions public. We must ensure that the officials who make or implement these decisions do not do things that we do not want. The democratic system is therefore designed as a punishment system: if an authority does something wrong, it can be penalized. A politician can be voted out and a minister can be dismissed.

In this way we ensure that there is equality and freedom. Those individuals who have the ability to tell others what to do are effectively disciplined.

The presence of this punishment system does not just cause drivers to do what they are instructed to do. But it’s not a punishment for the sake of punishment. The point is that such a punishment keeps the authorities sharp and contributes to the formation of their moral intuitions, they must be able to learn what behavior is considered valid – something I will return to later.

Attentive and virtuous drivers, that sounds great, but does it also work? Is it not the case that politicians do everything they can to avoid punishment and shift their responsibility? When something goes wrong, few members of the government step down; rather they apologize for their mistake. You could say that there is a sorry culture in which politicians shrug off their own responsibility in a virtuosic manner. A defendant minister does not account for the collective, but publicly wonders whether it is fair to speak to her about what a pastor has done, to blame her for not knowing in advance what the future would bring or having knowledge of the actions of all those thousands of officials in her ministry? She couldn’t help it. How can you be punished for your good intentions?

Something seems to be wrong here. The institutions that must ensure that officials are held accountable function so well, that nobody wants to feel responsible anymore. What is the relationship between punishment and responsibility if nobody knows what can happen?

To shed light on this issue we can, as so often, take inspiration from Hannah Arendt’s book The Human Condition. A book of which the main themes are widely known, but which also contains crucial observations and analyzes that are commonly overlooked.

One of those analyzes is about the relationship between human capacities to make promises and to grant forgiveness. As we all know, a promise made is a debt unpaid: we are committed to a future and we are judged if that future turns out differently.

It is important that we can be reprimanded, because otherwise the promise would be an empty shell. But the moment you make a promise, you know that there may be circumstances that cause you to break that promise. Where do you stand as a debtor? According to Arendt, it is the essence that the debt made with a promise can be forgiven. In such a case the debtor is no longer, or to a lesser extent, held responsible for breaking his promise; because there was force majeure, inability, new insights, or simply because we all make mistakes sometimes.

It is the capacity for forgiveness that gives the promise its power. Without this ability it would be too demanding to make a promise: you would commit yourself to a future that you could never have complete control over.

What The Human Condition is best known for is the description of the public sphere, in which the community deliberates about what is good for that community. The deliberative process is the way in which a community can express itself as a collective, also when it comes to the question whether a broken promise is blameworthy or can be forgiven. In other words, in the political domain you do not give forgiveness as an individual to another individual. No, you grant it as a community.

In addition, you can indeed see the decisions of authorities as a kind of promise. A commitment to the public which they serve. A politician is therefore not judged by the lack of control over the future, but by the way in which his commitment is materialized. The politician has the responsibility to deliver on his promise, where the possibility of punishment is not so much a one-off sanction, but where the sequence of punishments forms an instruction of what the community values ​​as virtuous action. It is the ultimate check on the activities of a public official.

The gratuitous way in which politicians say ‘sorry’ described above seems to be a symptom of the absence of an actual public debate. Administrators do not see their sorry as the expression of their commitment to the community, but it is based on the absence of a personal commitment.

This is the world on its head. Of course things go wrong sometimes and of course that was never the intention of a decision, almost nobody deliberately pursues the wrong outcomes – that would be an absurd assumption. The point is that if something goes wrong, the responsible person can be called to account. Only after that an excuse be granted.

You can also see the sorry culture as a reaction to the enthusiasm with which the public charges politicians. Politicians are booed, feeds on Twitter and Facebook demand the scalpel of politicians, no matter whether they are left, right or in the middle. This culture of reproach may even be a stronger symptom of the absence of a proper public debate. People no longer recognize themselves as citizens who can participate in a joint debate. Instead, only formal legal and administrative arrangements seem to exist from which people derive rights, especially as individuals. What remains is a punitive system that only punishes, but does not train politicians in virtuous behavior.

Not only politicians receive critique. No, anyone who publicly expresses an opinion runs the risk of raising the scorn of the collective. And with the speed and reach of social media, this risk is big. A faux pas or Twitter can open a cesspool of contempt and hatred.

This is in fact a dynamic similar to the case of bashing politicians: errors in public life are not tolerated in advance. The difference is that there is no institutionalized system of punishment, what remains is a witch hunt.

The apologies of politicians amount to shifting away from their responsibility for the failure of a government service or policy. There are few excuses in the public debate, since there is no opportunity to shift the blame. Instead, if someone receives criticism, people invoke the sanctity of the freedom of expression or exclaim that there should be no brain police.

But that is not the point, an opinion is personal, it does not in itself play a role in a public debate, because that deals with a position. Such a position does come from opinion, but it serves the purpose of contributing to discussion about the collective course.

An opinion belongs to an individual, but a position is the way in which that individual relates to the collective. That requires a different disposition and moreover, it implies that there are requirements to contribute to a public debate. There are rules that the participants must adhere to in a debate, whereby these rules are determined by, among other things, specific traditions.

It takes practice to get to know those rules, where one of the most important rules concerns the boundary between public and private because that boundary determines how an opinion relates to a position. Because that boundary is both diffuse and changeable, it requires the necessary practice and cultivation to develop the intuition to know where this boundary is. Without the possibility of making mistakes, one can never learn. The public debate, in which mistakes are never forgiven, which is the debate we have now, is therefore intrinsically unsound.

A crucial point is the unpredictability of an action. While politicians think they can make excuses for not being able to oversee the consequences of their decisions, Arendt argues that it is the very essence of the responsibility attached to a promise that you do not know what the future holds. The same goes for participants in a public debate, they never know in advance what the impact is of their position.

To emphasize this, Arendt introduces the concept of ‘natality’, which refers to the birth of a person. Also in a public debate one may think of a some kind of ‘birth’, because within a public debate you can articulate your individuality by putting forward something new. Something that was not there before is introduced into a community’s discussion of the issues that matter. A decision or a position is ultimately a statement about what is good for the community and about what course that community should take.

The concept of natality emphasizes that you can never know what will happen next, a novelty is by definition unpredictable and therefore uncontrollable. Just as we can never know at the birth of a child what kind of person that child is going to be, because nothing is more novel than a newborn human being – at the same time as a parent you feel fully responsible for that child itself and for quite some time also for the actions of that child, without knowing exactly what the child is doing and how it will develop. It would be strange to shift that responsibility by just saying: ‘sorry, I didn’t know in advance that it would be such a jerk.’

Above I was talking about promises made by politicians. It is not easy to see the deeds done by authorities  as novelties. The birth of a baby is really something else than formulating a policy measure. Of course, these measures weren’t there before, but the drafting of laws is mostly seen as business as usual. Perhaps that is why the forgotten virtue of forgiveness plays such a small role in the public debate.

When we think about novelties we rather think of innovations: technical and organizational inventions that lead to an increased well-being. It is the work of entrepreneurs who try to outsmart their competitors by coming up with better products and services.

These novelties have a huge impact on our daily lives. Check out how the internet, mobile telephony, genetic modification, nanotechnology have changed or might change our lives. However, where we identify public action with governmental authority and in the public debate the confusion over public/private status dominates, we see innovation as a private matter. But it needs to be emphasized that decisions about innovations are in the end little different from public actions: after all, these are decisions that concern us all.

But because the actions of entrepreneurs and inventors are basically regarded as private activities, there is no public debate. Sometimes there may be criticism when it is feared that new developments threaten basic human achievements. Think of social media and privacy, the pharmaceutical industry and the right to affordable care, genetic modification and designer babies, robots and unemployment, and so on.

Technology developers will react to such criticism by claiming that innovation and economic prosperity demand risk taking. The argument they make is that we will stop progress if there is no one who is willing to take those risks. The entrepreneurs present themselves as tragic heroes who do not receive the appreciation they deserve.

Here too one observes apologies that are aimed at avoiding responsibility. If something goes wrong, it is not the fault of the innovators, but of… nobody really.

While it seems so obvious to look at the promises that innovators make. As I said earlier here, the process of innovation revolves around the promises that technology developers make: to get the resources they need to make their ideas come true, they have to make promises. Investors must be convinced that they can earn back their money, politicians must be convinced to change legislation, the public must be convinced of the legitimacy of the new technology. Without these promises there will be no innovations.

It is only logical to ask the innovators to account for their promises if they are broken, in order to find out to what extent they are responsible for the failure of the technology and, if necessary, to forgive them.

Because of course, you cannot hold the Wright brothers responsible for the CO2-emissions of today’s air traffic or Tim Berners-Lee for Cambridge Analytica. But you can examine to what extent Facebook or Twitter are only neutral channels of opinion of its members, whether Crispr Cas-9 allows us to eradicate all kinds of diseases, whether Blockchain makes corruption impossible, or whether automation actually leads to more efficiency.

This has to be discussed. Such a public debate would help innovators to become virtuous, they know they can keep their promises and they also know that they have a fair chance of forgiveness if there are good reasons for this.

We need a public debate that allows actors that act publicly to take responsibility for actions with unknown consequences. It does not really matter whether these actors are politicians, participants in a debate or innovative entrepreneurs. After all, all of these groups make decisions and propositions that have a major impact on the life that we live and it would be good if they performed these actions in the most virtuous way possible. We need to see politicians as individuals who introduce something new, that we start to see innovation more as something political and that as participants we have the awareness that we are taking on a public role. In doing so, we must recognize that these actions and positions can have unknown and uncontrollable consequences and that we are able, through public debate, to forgive – not as a favor, but as a virtue.

Further reading:

Arendt, H. (1958). The human condition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Dewey, J. (1927). The public and its problems. New York.

Pesch, U. (2015). Engineers and Active Responsibility. Science and Engineering Ethics, 21(4), 925-939. doi:10.1007/s11948-014-9571-7


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