Understating the Problem: The Reductionist Approach

Some common answers that come readily to mind turn out to be evasions. Especially when in the grip of instrumental rationality, an interest in the present and the future will seem prudent and sound, whereas dwelling in the past, idle and irrational. So the temptation is to convert our past- oriented concerns into present- or future-oriented ones. But by failing to accommodate our ubiquitous interest in the past qua past, such reductionist accounts do not so much explain reactive attitudes as attempt to explain them away. Three putative reasons for our past-oriented attitudes will illustrate the point. The first, and easiest to discard, concerns the enduring results of the assault, such as a broken bone or persisting pain. These results are doubtlessly important, but not quite to the point. Reactive attitudes do not depend on persisting harm and would remain appropriate even in its absence. Moreover, insofar as remedial action plays a role in mollifying resentment, we insist that the action be taken by the offender, not by just anyone. Yet a concern to bring the victim’s suffering or loss to an end ought to be indifferent to the source of amelioration.

A second reductionist suggestion highlights the evidence the assault supposedly provides of the wrongdoer’s violent character and her disposition toward aggression. Here the past event is taken to signal a defect in the wrongdoer, spelling future trouble.5 Correspondingly, repentance is said to terminate reactive attitudes in one of two ways, evidentiary or substantive. On the evidentiary side, repentance serves to negate the inference about the offender’s character that would be otherwise drawn from the wrongful act. For example, the remorse displayed by the offender subsequent to the wrongdoing alters the significance of the wrongful act in the overall assessment of the offender: she may turn out not to be quite so bad as we would have otherwise thought. Forgiveness and pardon express this reassessment.6 Alternatively, repentance is said to play a more substantive role in fixing the dangerous defect revealed by the wrongful act, “like repairing that part of a house which contributed to an accident.” The path to forgiveness is open because “there has been a replacement of (part of) what was responsible for the suffering with something which promises to be harmless.”7 But neither version is satisfactory. The emotional response that an appeal to a future threat addresses is not resentment but fear—the same reaction that would be invited by an approaching lion or a flood. Reactions to wrongdoing differ markedly from reactions to danger; the present account effaces this difference. Nor are the resulting accounts of what terminates the reactive attitudes convincing. The evidentiary view insists that we assess the offender within a broader timeframe, which includes the subsequent repentance or remorse as bearing on the overall assessment of her moral character. However, such a broader timeframe, a backward-looking one, is already available when the wrongful act is committed: the act can be assessed against the background of the offender’s record up to that point. And yet we commonly resent a wrong done by an otherwise good person, just as that person may experience guilt and remorse for a single moral failure despite an otherwise flawless record. The substantive conception of repentance, as repairing the character flaw and so eliminating the danger this flaw poses, fares no better. Reassurance against future danger does not by itself bring the reactive attitudes to an end. For example, the victim may permissibly nurse her grievance even after the aggressive neighbor moves to a distant location and thus no longer poses a threat.

A third account of how reactive attitudes to wrongdoing are terminated characterizes violence, along Kantian lines, as an expression of disrespect. On this view, the victim’s resentment is a protest against ongoing disrespect by the wrongdoer. Correspondingly, repentance is said to negate the inference from the past wrongdoing that the wrongdoer still disparages the victim. Since the repentant wrongdoer is not “now conveying the message that he holds me in contempt,” “I forgive him for what he now is.”8 But this misrepresents the connection between the victim’s resentment and the aggressor’s remorse. The attitudes of the wrongdoer and the victim are, of course, related: remorse often paves the road to forgiveness and so to a termination of negative attitudes. Still, it is up to the victim whether to traverse this road and grant forgiveness. This account eliminates this choice by making forgiveness automatic or otiose. If the victim’s resentment is sustained only by the wrongdoer’s ongoing disparagement, then, once this disparagement abates, resentment is deprived of an object; there is nothing left to forgive.9

This is not to deny, of course, that past wrongs often have further present and future ramifications that fan the flame of animosity. Arresting or rectifying such enduring consequences of the wrongful act is obviously of great importance and a necessary step toward the restoration of goodwill. Even so, by ignoring the pervasive interest in the wrongful act as such, reductionist accounts induce the illusion that these remedial steps are sufficient, and that reassurance that a past wrong no longer persists and will not recur should all by itself allay bad feelings and terminate acrimony.

The reductionist misdiagnosis of the problem is bound up with a corresponding misunderstanding of the appropriate cure. As I’ve already mentioned, many of our responses to wrongdoing, such as sanction and reparation, do have a prospective aspect, in that they address in various ways the present and future ramifications of the wrongful act. But by focusing exclusively on this prospective aspect, the reductionist tendency would leave these practices utterly ineffectual in dealing with the distinctly past-oriented dimension of reactive attitudes. This omission is particularly glaring in regard to the predominantly past-oriented revisionary practices, such as repentance, forgiveness, and pardon, that are my central concern.

It is possible, of course, to insist on the reductionist approach to past- oriented grievances and to deny the need for an alternative account by simply dismissing people’s reactions to the past as unfounded and silly. The bit of human reality at stake here, however, is too pervasive to be easily dismissed. Perhaps even more significantly, we must recognize a vague and inchoate yet deeply felt yearning that defines our pretheoretical attitudes in this area. The past sometimes weighs heavily on us, and we desire to shake free of it; we wish for a new start. Revisionary practices appear from this point of view as answering to this yearning.10 Here pardon provides the most compelling metaphor, that of erasing a nasty event from one’s record. But when the record consists in the actual sequence of life’s events, in our histories and biographies, how can it be amended? How can we pluck an event out of the past and expunge it? And if we cannot, are we to conclude that the aspirations underlying revisionary practices are incoherent, and occasional glimpses of success, a mirage?

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