By Dr. Joseph Chuman
Trying to be ethical is not risk-free. It comes with perils. Among the pitfalls is the appearance of being sanctimonious. Exhibit high ethical standards and others may accuse you of striving to be “holier than thou.” And there is always the risk of ethical failure, which, given the imperfections of the human condition, is woefully common. We set the bar high for ourselves and then fall short in our own eyes, and maybe in those of others.
I have always believed that we should be modest and restrained in our proclamation of ethical achievement or judgment. As Lao Tse, the Taoist sage, observed, “Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.” Especially when it comes to assessing the behavior of others, I have long believed that we shouldn’t be too glib; we should not take the “E-word” in vain.
Here’s my reasoning. Beyond the risks mentioned above, there is always the danger of being judgmental. Ethics, it should be said, necessarily entails making judgments—this is good, that is bad; this beneficial, that harmful, etc. That said, it is only one small step between rendering moral judgments and committing the offense of judgmentalism.
Bigger risk for Ethical Culturists
We in Ethical Culture perhaps run this risk more readily than others and often without knowing it. This is because ethics is of central importance to Ethical Culture. Commitment to it should be the governing and guiding principle of our lives, or so believed our founder, Felix Adler. If we are loyal to our Ethical Culture, we spend more time consciously trolling though the territory of ethical judgment than perhaps many others do. Hence there is the greater danger of veering into the unattractive position of being judgmental.
But where ethical judgment looms large, I argue there is also the need for forgiveness. Ethical judgment is harsh and forgiveness is needed as a balm to soften its austerity or else resentment, anger and tension among people grow, and not infrequently to unbearable levels.
Ethics requires forgiveness and that forgiveness cuts two ways. To stand in judgment of others can readily give offense (and who, under even the best of circumstances, likes to be judged?). When it becomes excessive, which is what judgmentalism entails, it is unwarranted. And when we have so wronged or slighted another person, especially inadvertently, who does not want to feel that they can be forgiven for their transgressions? But if we are to assess the behavior of others as unethical, and assuming we are correct in that assessment, the door is opened to being able to forgive the one who has done wrong, if certain conditions pertain.
A deep need of the soul
The need to forgive and to be forgiven, I contend, is a deep need of the soul. It is also, as implied, a necessary and intrinsic aspect of the human condition, given that we all bring hurt to others in large and small ways for which we feel sorry, if not guilty. That guilt seeks resolution, which in most cases only forgiveness from the injured party can bring.
Yet there seems to be little discussion of forgiveness in modern society, including in our own Ethical Culture communities. Perhaps this is because forgiveness is a value most often associated with the more traditional religions. Judaism and Christianity have much to say about it. And as such, the secular world shies away from such religiously inflected discussion. Moreover, the seeking of forgiveness and its rendering bring people together face-to-face in relations that require great openness and honesty. This is often very uncomfortable. For many, it is a situation most readily avoided. Because of the need for direct engagement by all the parties, the act of forgiving is very much a moral one. It cannot be granted from afar.
Having said that, forgiveness in human affairs is a complex thing and raises many questions. Among some that come to mind are:
What is forgiveness?
Does the granting of forgiveness require a statement of apology or contrition by the offender who seeks forgiveness?
Does forgiveness require some act of repentance or restitution undertaken by the offender?
Is it appropriate to forgive the person who refuses to apologize or acknowledge his or her wrongdoing? In other words, can the granting of forgiveness be unilateral?
Are we obligated to forgive the other person when the offender has taken the necessary steps, or is forgiveness in some sense a “gift”?
How does forgiveness relate to mercy or compassion?
What is the role of forgiveness in healing societies that have suffered mass atrocities?
Are there some actions or persons who simply cannot be forgiven?
These are all important questions and are stepping stones toward creating a culture in which forgiveness is more readily sought and acknowledged. I intend to explore these questions in my address of March 4, entitled “The Need for Forgiveness.” I hope you can join me then.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.