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BLAME, REMORSE, MERCY, FORGIVENESS

BLAME, REMORSE, MERCY, FORGIVENESS

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CHRISTOPHER BENNETT



catch his eye, hold it. You say, “That was my flat, you know.” Why do you say

that? Perhaps because you want an explanation, you can’t understand why this

should have happened to you. Before he can help himself he says, “Look – I’m

sorry. It wasn’t anything to do with you. I needed the money.” We can see that

if that was all that he thought was necessary then it would be an inadequate

response. But it is at least an acknowledgment and might be the start of something more significant.

With the coincidence of your meeting the wrongdoer (and having the courage

to address him), my tale may be taking on a slightly artificial shape. But the significance of your coming face-to-face with the wrongdoer is that it throws you

into some sort of relationship with him. You have to decide on which terms that

relationship is able to proceed (cf. Wiesenthal 1998). And thinking about how

we might make this decision is a good way to address some of the fundamental

questions about how wrongdoing affects the way we think we ought to treat

wrongdoers and what we should expect of them. For instance, are you a better

person if you are able to be forgiving rather than vengeful – or is it sometimes

necessary to take a stand against wrongdoing? How ought offenders to react to

what they have done? Do offenders have duties to their victims or to others

because of their wrongs? What attitude should third parties adopt towards the

offender? Even if you have no knowledge of anyone involved, would it be adequate to be entirely unaffected by the news of the incident? Related to the question of how unconnected bystanders ought to react is the question of how the

state should react to such wrongdoing. One influential recent tradition in theory

of punishment has taken it that an important role of punishment is the state’s

expression of condemnation of the offense (Feinberg 1974; von Hirsch 1993;

Duff 2001; Bennett 2008).



Moral philosophy and the emotions

In this chapter I will look at the way in which philosophers have tried to address

these questions by looking at the emotions that are characteristically engaged by

situations of wrongdoing: fear, anger, outrage, etc. Contrary to the role they

sometimes play in the popular imagination, emotions are not mere psychic disturbances that drive us to act in mysterious and irrational ways. Unlike itches,

pains, pangs and so on – but like beliefs – we have emotions in a directed way

about things. In other words, there is usually something in a situation that brings

the emotion about and to which we can recognize it as an intelligent response

(I am afraid of … , angry about … , aggrieved that … ). For instance, fear is

appropriate in our scenario because there is the risk of danger. Anger is appropriate because one’s property has been intruded upon without one’s say-so. It

makes sense to have these emotions only because one understands one’s situation in such a way.



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Recently Martha Nussbaum has contrasted what she calls an evaluative conception of the emotions – according to which emotions are ways in which we evaluate

situations – with a mechanical conception according to which emotions are brute

psychic forces (see e.g. Nussbaum and Kahan 1996). She regards the latter as

inadequate to our experience of emotions. Emotions, on the evaluative conception,

are partly cognitive states (that is, they involve beliefs about what matters). They involve

judgements of value: evaluations of our situation as good or bad in certain

respects. So rather than being just brute forces that sweep over us, emotions on the

evaluative conception embody certain claims about what is important. If we accept

this model it means that we can ask whether the judgements that seem to be

embodied in our emotions really are justified. It is important to make this point,

because the issue of responding to wrongdoing is a personal one, involving us in the

vagaries of all sorts of awkward emotions. The evaluative conception of the emotions

explains why we should still expect to be able to say something philosophically

interesting about it. These general claims about assessing the emotions will be

more comprehensible once we have looked at some emotions as examples.



The problem of forgiveness

First of all, let’s return to our question: How should one respond to wrongdoing? Would one be a better person if one was forgiving rather than holding a

grudge against the offender? Forgiveness tends to be regarded in our culture as a

virtue, and those who are able to forgive after suffering grave wrongs admired.

But is the disposition to forgive always a virtue? Or is it a virtue in some situations but not in others? Forgiving someone for something seems to involve in

some way coming to terms with what she has done: “letting the wrong go,”

stopping it dominating one’s life or one’s relation with the wrongdoer. The

problem of forgiveness is that sometimes this “letting go” might be a refusal to

take the wrong fully seriously, a denial of its reality or significance. Forgiveness

would represent a refusal to deal with the wrong rather than an admirable state

of wider moral understanding.

What is forgiveness? Philosophers have pointed to a number of features that

are involved in forgiveness. First of all, forgiving someone seems different from

merely saying that you forgive. You can say that you forgive but not really forgive. So what goes on in real forgiveness? Fundamentally, it seems to involve a

change of heart towards the wrongdoer (Calhoun 1992). Jeffrie Murphy (Murphy

and Hampton 1988: 14–34), following Bishop Butler (Butler 1967: 120–48),

understands forgiveness as “overcoming resentment.” Forgiveness involves

expunging negative emotions that one might have towards the wrongdoer as a

result of the wrong. However, these emotions can be expunged in various ways

that wouldn’t involve forgiving. One might just forget about the offense (e.g.

through suffering amnesia). Or one might realize that the action was not really a



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wrong (that the agent had some justification) or that in some way it was not really

the agent’s fault (that the agent had a good excuse) and hence that she was not

really deserving of resentment in the first place. But in this case you don’t need

to forgive her. When you forgive, it might be said, you stop feeling resentment

towards the wrongdoer and yet you continue to regard her as fully responsible

for the wrong action. Furthermore – though it might be more debatable whether

this is genuine forgiveness or not – many writers take it that you have not really

forgiven if the reason you bring your negative emotions to an end is therapeutic

(that is, for your own good) rather than as a result of something about the

wrongdoer. Forgiveness seems to involve some manner of reconciliation with the

wrongdoer despite the full recognition that what they did was wrong.

In the light of this we can see “the problem of forgiveness.” The problem is

that (1) forgiveness involves overcoming emotions of condemnation towards the

wrongdoer; (2) these emotions might themselves have some value as responses to

wrongdoing; therefore (3) we should bring these emotions to an end – and hence

forgive – only when it is no longer appropriate to condemn. This conclusion is

significant because it would mean that if the emotions of condemnation are

themselves valuable (and of course that might be disputed) then forgiveness

would be only conditionally valuable (though for an opposing view see Garrard

and MacNaughton 2002). In short, it would be wrong to forgive when one ought

to condemn. And we would need to investigate the emotions of condemnation

in order to understand when it is good to bring these emotions to an end, that is,

when it is good and right to forgive (though for the view that this would make

forgiveness redundant, see Kolnai 1973–4).

Let me put the problem another way. In an attempt to explain what is going

on in forgiveness, writers often quote St Augustine: “hate the sin; love the

sinner.” In forgiveness we seem to separate the agent from her wrongful action,

holding that we can end our negative emotions towards the agent even while

keeping it in view that the act was wrong. The problem with this is that it is hard

to see how one can do this if the agent was responsible for the action. In general

an agent is responsible for an act only if she expresses or reveals herself in that

act: the act sheds some light on her character, attitudes, motivations, etc. But if

this is the case then it can be no simple matter to separate the agent from her

responsible acts. If we ought to condemn responsible wrongdoing then forgiveness will look morally suspect until the agent responds in such a way as to make

the condemnation no longer appropriate.



Emotions of condemnation: resentment, indignation, blame

The previous section raises the question of what value these emotions of condemnation have. We will now have a look at a range of such emotions, beginning with resentment. While some philosophers see victims’ desire to “get even”



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as an understandable but regrettable part of our psychology, some admire and

applaud it. To investigate whether these emotions can be justified we should ask

first of all what it is about wrongdoing that arouses these emotions. Jeffrie

Murphy argues that as well as causing material harm, wrongdoing involves a

“symbolic communication” – like an insult – that the victim is an inferior whom

the wrongdoer can use for his own purposes (Murphy 1988: 25). For Murphy we

can understand resentment (or even vindictiveness: see Murphy 2003) as a reaction that serves to defend our rights to equal treatment against those who would

relegate us to inferiority. As long as one has enough self-respect to think that one

has such rights, one ought to react with resentment whenever one’s rights have

been violated. Murphy’s emphasis on resentment as the paradigm emotion of a

victim’s reaction to wrongdoing echoes P. F. Strawson’s classic paper, “Freedom

and Resentment” (P. Strawson 1982), which itself harked back to eighteenthcentury philosophers such as Butler and Adam Smith (Smith 2002).

Although Murphy’s view has some intuitive plausibility he doesn’t make it

clear why it is good or right to retaliate after wrongdoing (and hence why

resentment is justified). Perhaps the justification on Murphy’s view (as on Butler’s) is that when we react vengefully in defense of our rights then others are less

likely to mess with us in the future. This would be an indirect or instrumental

justification of the emotion rather than one that showed the emotion to be

intrinsically right or fitting. It would show that, if a policy of retaliating would

tend to deter people from wronging us then, out of self-interest, we ought to

adopt this policy. A problem with this type of instrumental justification is that it

seems like changing the subject to ask about the effects of having a certain emotion rather than whether the emotion is justified in its own right. Think of a case

in which you are deliberating about whether to continue to hold a grudge against

your friend for sleeping with your partner behind your back. Murphy tells you

that if you have a general policy of holding grudges and retaliating then this will

make people less likely to cross you. However, you might think that this doesn’t

fully answer your question: you want to know, not whether to have an effective

policy of self-defense but whether, in this particular case, the person deserves

begrudging and retaliation for having abused your friendship. The indirect or

instrumental justification is silent on this point.

The urge to get even has been given a less flattering diagnosis by Jean Hampton

(Murphy and Hampton 1988: 35–87). Hampton makes a distinction between

resentment and indignation. She thinks that it is only the former that prompts us

to “get even” but that it is tied to a dubious view of human value. Hampton

argues that resentment occurs when a victim experiences a wrong as an insult (as

on Murphy’s view, above), but where the “insult” raises some doubt in her own

mind about her true value. In other words, the victim who experiences resentment fears that it may have been permissible to treat her in that way – but

defiantly (as if through an act of will) rejects this possibility. Resentment on

Hampton’s account is therefore a defiant but slightly insecure reaffirmation of



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one’s value in the face of some act that has called one’s value into question, not

just in the mind of the perpetrator, but in one’s own mind. Resentment leads to

retaliation because if the victim believes that she can be diminished by wrongdoing then she probably believes that she can be raised in status by getting even

(where she herself defeats the wrongdoer). However, for Hampton, resentment

and these retaliatory strategies are always unjustified. This is because they are

based on the belief that human value can vary and is the outcome of competitive

struggle. If one is a Kantian as one ought to be, she thinks, and regards human

value as egalitarian and intrinsic, one will not think that one’s value can be put

into question in the way the resentful person fears.

Hampton offers a fascinating and unsettling diagnosis of our urge to get even.

She thinks that when we want to get even we are really motivated by a false view

of human value, a groundless fear that we may really be the wrongdoer’s inferior.

However, she does not think that we should do nothing in the face of wrongdoing. As I said above, she contrasts resentment with indignation. Indignation is

in her eyes a more justifiable emotion: it is a protest against the action whose

function is to prevent further abuses in the future. The crucial difference

between resentment and indignation, for Hampton, is that the latter is compatible with full confidence in one’s value, whereas resentment betrays an insecure

uncertainty about whether one really ought to be treated as an equal. Indignation

prompts us to defend our values, but not to get even for the sake of it (for discussion see Walker 2006; Hieronymi 2001).

Whether or not resentment and its retaliatory strategies are justified, they

cannot be the only emotions of condemnation, or even perhaps the central ones.

To see this, try to feel resentment towards oneself. Turning resentment on oneself does not seem altogether intelligible. However, when one has oneself done

wrong one does turn some form of condemnation on oneself: one accepts

the condemnation that might be made of you by others. It seems plausible that

there should be an emotion that wrongdoers and others share when assessing the

significance of what has been done.

In the search for such an emotion we can look at what has been written about

blame (Skorupski 1999). Sometimes blaming is thought of as an action (Smart

1961); at other times an evaluation, as when we judge someone to be blameworthy (for something). However, to blame is to condemn, and to condemn is to

feel a certain way about something, or at least to regard such feelings as appropriate. So what is blame? We might start with the idea that blaming involves a

withdrawal of goodwill (P. Strawson 1982; Skorupski 1999). Why do we feel that

such withdrawal is apt when someone has committed a wrong? Sometimes it is

said that such withdrawal is a recognition that the wrongdoing has damaged the

relationship (Duff 2001). But what does this mean? One answer might be that the

damage to the relationship makes it prudent to terminate or modify it, since

such relationships ought to be based on mutual care and respect (Scanlon 2008:

Ch. 4). But while this would explain why we have some reason to engage in



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blaming, it would not explain what can be wrong with failing to blame. A more

retributivist account would insist that essential to blame is the recognition that

one cannot properly treat the wrongdoer as if nothing has happened – that if one

did one would be ignoring, condoning, perhaps even acquiescing in the offense.

One cannot properly proceed as if you are “on good terms” with the wrongdoer,

so blaming expresses some recognition that what the wrongdoer has done changes the terms of your relationship with her (or if you had no relationship with

her previously – as in our example with the thief above – then the relationship

you begin is one that is conditioned by the wrong, it is a relationship with a

wrongdoer, and this has to be different from the relationship that you can have

with anyone else). Blaming is sometimes thought of as in some way a punitive

emotion. Perhaps the right way to understand this thought is that blaming

involves, not just a negative evaluation of a person, but the thought that one has

to impose a certain kind of (normally negative) treatment on that person in order

to mark her out as a wrongdoer. Blame involves, not just judging a person, but

holding her accountable (cf. Watson 1996).



Regret, shame and guilt

Blame could be a candidate for the emotion of condemnation that is shared by

condemnors and condemned. So what is self-blame? Self-blame belongs to the

same family of emotions as regret. But one can regret all sorts of unfortunate

events that have no particular connection with oneself, and are certainly not

cause for blame. Bernard Williams has argued that as well as this general regret

we have in our range of emotions a particular form of regret that he terms agentregret (Williams 1981). Agent-regret is something we can feel when we have some

special connection with an unfortunate event in virtue of its having come about

through our agency. However, Williams stresses that we can appropriately feel

agent-regret about an event we have caused quite innocently (say, by accident,

unknowingly, with good justification, etc.). Thus a lorry driver who was driving

carefully in a safe and well-maintained vehicle may unavoidably knock over a

child who runs out in front of him. Williams’s point is that, while the lorry

driver can rightly console himself with the thought that it was not his fault, he

still should be particularly pained by the fact that it was his action that caused

it – and he should acknowledge a special responsibility to say sorry and make

some amends that a mere spectator to the event would not have.

Williams discusses agent-regret in the course of addressing a wider concern

that, if we assume that we are morally responsible only for what is under our

control, moral judgement might be swallowed up by luck – for (as Williams

believes) very little if anything about us is ultimately under our control (cf. Nagel

1979; G. Strawson 1994). Williams argues that at least some of our moral

judgements are still in order, since many of our moral emotions about agents



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(and the judgements they embody) do not assume such control. Developing this

argument, Williams has recommended expunging the Kantian elements of our

conception of morality and moral assessment and returning to those moral ideas

that we share with the ancient Greeks (Williams 1993; cf. Anscombe 1958).

However, agent-regret cannot be the whole story about what we feel when we

blame ourselves. Even if Williams is correct that modern moral philosophy (and

modern moral thinking in general) has a tendency to overplay the importance of

fault in our moral judgements, we should not overlook the important difference

between agent-regret and emotions of self-condemnation (Baron 1988). The thing

about the case of the innocent lorry driver is that he ultimately has nothing to

reproach himself for. However, there is a range of emotions of self-reproach that

we take to be fitting in cases in which our actions do show some moral failing.

The central case of such an emotion is perhaps shame. Shame is an emotion one

experiences when one has failed to live up to some standard one has set for

oneself, or an aspiration one has (Taylor 1985). One has failed to be as good (at

something) as one wishes one could be (or thinks it important that one should

be). One can feel shame about many things that have nothing to do with morality: for instance, I can feel shame that I wasn’t a good enough singer to make it

into the choir. But there is such a thing as moral shame, where one has come to

see the importance of the things one harmed or violated, and one’s act as wrong.

Such awareness is painful because it is an awareness of the distance between

where one is and where one would have oneself be.

One can feel shame about failings that one cannot change. In these cases shame

disposes us to conceal the fault – or to hide ourselves away when the fault can no

longer be hidden (Williams 1993). However, shame can have a more constructive role

when the failing is something that is amenable to change. In these cases shame

can motivate us to reform and self-improvement (Kekes 1988). Many cases of moral

shame might be like this, where the failing is some kind of insensitivity, and

where one could learn (e.g. to take people’s feelings into better account, etc.).

With this typography of regret and shame we can now say something about

what self-blame might be. Self-blame seems to be a type of moral shame, in that

it involves accepting the blame that says one has revealed some moral failing in

one’s action. However, if blame involves some withdrawal of goodwill, or at any

rate some determination to treat the person as a wrongdoer, then self-blame will

also involve imposing such punitive treatment on oneself. We can call this

emotion of self-blame guilt. (There are competing ways of distinguishing shame

and guilt. For instance, it is sometimes said that shame involves the way one is

perceived by others while guilt has to do with how one evaluates oneself – e.g. in

one’s conscience. The problem with this is that one can clearly feel shame when

one is making one’s own judgement of one’s failings. Alternatively, it is sometimes said that shame is about who one is while guilt is about what one has done.

The problem with this interpretation is that when one is responsible for an

action it can be hard to separate who one is and what one has done: one reveals



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who one is in what one does.) If one withdraws goodwill from oneself when one is

feeling guilty then it might also explain why guilt disposes us to atonement or

penance. If you feel bad about yourself then the way in which it might make

sense to express this is through undertaking some action that you would normally regard as “beneath” you, or as too onerous to be reasonably undertaken.



Reparation

Feeling guilty in this way is an unpleasant, if sometimes necessary, place to be.

But there is a way out (one that doesn’t involve simply denying or ignoring what

one has done). Philosophers (and sociologist and psychologists) have increasingly

been paying attention to what goes on in apologizing. Apology, it has been

claimed, has an almost magical quality about it (Tavuchis 1991). The passing of a

few words can rebuild relationships and allow people to go on together after

wrongdoing. Without some such social mechanism for bringing about reconciliation it is perhaps hard to imagine how social life would be possible.

Some writers take apologies to have an instrumental significance: they are ways

in which we announce to others that we are ready to cooperate again, or that we

can be trusted again. The thought is that we demonstrate our commitment to

cooperation by showing that we are prepared to go through something difficult

(like loss of face in apologizing) in order to get the chance to rejoin the cooperative activity. The problem with such instrumental interpretations is that they

do not connect (or connect only contingently) with our reasons for feeling bad

when we do wrong. For instance, when I give a sincere apology it seems to be an

expression of my self-reproach. However, on the instrumental interpretation my

reason for thinking that I should make amends is a desire to regain trust and

cooperation that I could have without in any way feeling guilty.

By contrast an expressive or intrinsic interpretation of the value of apology might

start with the idea of atonement. Richard Swinburne has claimed that atonement

has four elements: repentance, apology, restitution and penance (Swinburne 1985).

If we look at the criteria by which we judge an apology to be sincere, we see the same

criteria emerging, and our understanding of blame and guilt can shed light on

why these various elements should form a unified response to wrongdoing. Thus

we might say that an apology works to restore relations damaged by wrongdoing

if it expresses shame, that is a remorseful acknowledgment of the wrongness of

what one has done, one’s own responsibility for it, and a determination to

reform so that one does not do it again. If one is remorseful about what one has

damaged then one will be motivated to repair it: this is the element of restitution. However, a successful apology also has to show proper recognition of the

gravity of what was done. One will withdraw goodwill from oneself to a greater

extent the more one regards oneself as having done something serious. Therefore

if blaming oneself motivates one to penance then the penance will be greater the



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more serious the wrong. If penance was not an element of apology then we

would have no way of expressing in action our awareness of the gravity of what

we did. Overall the story of this paragraph suggests that there might be a noninstrumental way of explaining the significance of reparation.



Conclusion

In this chapter I have given a brief survey of moral philosophical writing on the

issue of responses to wrongdoing. One of the fundamental lines of division on this

topic is between instrumental and expressive approaches. The instrumental approaches attempt to show how the behavior and attitudes involved in forgiving,

resenting, feeling guilty and making reparation can be justified in terms of their

good results. The expressive approaches attempt to show how these attitudes and

behavior are in some way intrinsically fitting to certain situations. One reason for

opting for the instrumental approach is if one has the following sort of story in the

back of one’s mind. Many of our moral emotions are the product of a theological

cultural heritage that cannot be reconciled with a secular or naturalistic point of

view, since they involve essential reference to e.g. the state of one’s soul, or one’s

relationship to God, etc. However, even if such emotions cannot be justified

intrinsically or in their own terms they may still have an important social value –

particularly when a susceptibility to such emotions is widely shared. The problem

with the instrumental approach, however, is that it seems to involve changing the

subject: it does not bear out our sense that these attitudes and behavior are fitting

to or “called for” by the situation. The ideal justification of our moral emotions

would therefore perhaps be one that does justify our sense of “fittingness.” But a

challenge for such an expressive account would lie in making sense of the intrinsic

value of forgiveness, blame, atonement, etc., in terms that are compatible with

naturalism (or that do not rely on supernaturalism). I hope in this chapter to

have provided some glimpses of how such an approach might proceed.

See also Ethics and sentiment (Chapter 10); Freedom and responsibility

(Chapter 23); Conscience (Chapter 46); Evil (Chapter 49); Responsibility: Intention and consequence (Chapter 50); Justice and punishment (Chapter 57).



References

Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958) “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy 33: 1–19.

Baron, M. (1988) “Remorse and Agent-Regret,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13: 259–81.

Bennett, C. (2008) The Apology Ritual: A Philosophical Theory of Punishment, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.

Butler, J. (1967) Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, ed. W. R. Matthews, London: Bell.



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Calhoun C. (1992) “Changing One’s Heart,” Ethics 103: 76–96.

Duff, R. A. (2001) Punishment, Communication and Community, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Feinberg, J. (1974) “The Expressive Function of Punishment,” in Doing and Deserving, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Garrard, E. and MacNaughton, D. (2002) “In Defence of Unconditional Forgiveness,”

Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 103: 39–60.

Hieronymi, P. (2001) “Articulating an Uncompromising Forgiveness,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 62: 529–56.

Kekes, J. (1988) “Shame and Moral Progress,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13: 282–96.

Kolnai, A. (1973–4) “Forgiveness,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 74: 91–106.

Murphy J. G. (2003) Getting Even: Forgiveness and its Limits, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Murphy, J. G. and Hampton, J. (1988) Forgiveness and Mercy, Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press.

Nagel, T. (1979) “Moral Luck,” in Mortal Questions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, M. and Kahan, D. (1996) “Two Conceptions of the Emotions in Criminal Law,”

Columbia Law Review 96: 269–374.

Scanlon, T. M. (2008) Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame, Cambridge, MA:

Harvard University Press.

Skorupski, J. (1999) “The Definition of Morality,” in Ethical Explorations, Oxford: Oxford

University Press.

Smart, J. J. C. (1961) “Freewill, Praise and Blame,” Mind 70: 291–306.

Smith, A. (2002) The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Knud Haakonsen, Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press.

Strawson, G. (1994) “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility,” Philosophical Studies 75: 5–24.

Strawson, P. F. (1982) “Freedom and Resentment,” in G. Watson (ed.) Free Will, Oxford:

Oxford University Press.

Swinburne, R. (1985) Responsibility and Atonement, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tavuchis, N. (1991) Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, Palo Alto, CA:

Stanford University Press.

Taylor, G. (1985) Pride, Shame and Guilt, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

von Hirsch, A. (1993) Censure and Sanctions, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walker, M. U. (2006) Moral Repair, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Watson, G. (1996) “Two Faces of Responsibility,” Philosophical Topics 24: 227–48.

Wiesenthal, S. (1998) The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. New York:

Schocken Books.

Williams, B. (1981) “Moral Luck,” in Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

——(1993) Shame and Necessity, Berkeley: University of California Press.



Further reading

Moore, M. (1987) “The Moral Worth of Retribution,” in F. Schoeman (ed.) Responsibility,

Character and the Emotions: New Essays in Moral Psychology, Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press.

Murphy, J. G. and Hampton, J. (1988) Forgiveness and Mercy, Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press.

Taylor, G. (1985) Pride, Shame and Guilt: Emotions of Self-Assessment, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Oldenquist, A. (1988) “An Explanation of Retribution,” Journal of Philosophy 85, no. 9: 464–78.

Walker, M. U. (2006) Moral Repair: Reconstructing Moral Relations after Wrongdoing,

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



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49



EVIL

Geoffrey Scarre

Evil and moral evil

In its widest sense, evil is the antithesis of good: according to the Shorter Oxford

English Dictionary, “whatever is censurable, mischievous or undesirable.” On this

broad understanding of the concept, any and all of “life’s ‘minuses’” (Adams and

Adams 1990: 1) count as evils, including even such trivial events as my painfully

stubbing my toe on a kerbstone. According to St Thomas Aquinas, because

“good properly speaking is something inasmuch as it is desirable,” evil, as the

opposite of good, “must be that which is opposed to the desirable as such”

(Aquinas 1995: 5). The equation of evil with the undesirable is echoed in many

later writers, including Hobbes and Sidgwick, and it receives eloquent expression

from Josiah Royce:

By evil in general as it is in our experience we mean whatever we find in

any sense repugnant and intolerable. … We mean [by evil] precisely

whatever we regard as something to be gotten rid of, shrunken from, put

out of sight, of hearing, or memory, eschewed, expelled, resisted,

assailed, or otherwise directly or indirectly resisted.

(Royce 1915: 18)

Amongst “life’s minuses” it is traditional to distinguish between moral and

natural evils. By the former is meant the intentional harm or wrong done by

moral agents – “sin, wickedness” is the dictionary’s gloss – whereas the latter

includes such harmful natural contingencies as diseases, famines, earthquakes

and floods. (However, since human beings are themselves a part of nature, any

intentional harm they cause might itself be classed as a species of natural evil.)

“Natural” and “moral” evils typically evoke different cognitive and emotional

responses in the victims, only the latter being liable to generate anger or resentment. They also call for different kinds of explanation, since only moral evil

raises the question (which has puzzled philosophers from Socrates to the present

day) of why any rational being should ever deliberately choose evil in preference

to good.



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