Over the years, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time discussing anger, apologies, and forgiveness with therapists and survivors of child abuse and other traumas. Survivors and therapists alike are often passionate in the their belief that forgiveness is the only way to move forward from traumatic abuse. Without forgiveness, they feel, healing is impossible.
Having a typically transactional view of forgiveness, I always held that it makes no sense to forgive when there is no acknowledgment of wrongdoing on the part of the abuser. Asking a survivor to forgive unilaterally and unconditionally is bereft of meaning at best and morally repugnant at worst. Only if the abuser were to apologize and make some effort at amends, at least, could I see then extending forgiveness to the abuser, and I would consider this a charitable act on the part of the survivor.
Others have hastened to tell me that such an exchange is not necessary. They insist that unconditional forgiveness, freely given, is more meaningful and more liberating to survivors than the transactional form of forgiveness. Besides, they say, forgiveness is cleansing and is, indeed, the only way for survivors to rid themselves of the burden of intense and destructive anger.
I have always countered that it is possible to put anger aside without offering forgiveness to someone undeserving and unrepentant. Choosing a somewhat less emotional and inflammatory example, I can point out that I once had a moderately expensive lawnmower stolen from me. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it certainly made me angry. The thief was not caught and, I assume, never suffered any pangs of guilt for the crime. Over time, I was able to get on with my life, though I still remember it 30 years later. I decided to stop dwelling on it and get over it, so I tried to stop thinking about it and focus on things that could improve my life.
My interlocutors quickly countered that losing a lawnmower is nothing like the pain of having your innocence robbed (some described it as theft of a child’s “soul”). I am quick to agree, but I see it as a difference in degree, not kind, and I still cannot see how offering forgiveness to a remorseless abuser can aid healing.
My view was bolstered by the work and words of Alice Miller, the famed psychoanalyst and child advocate who died in 2010. In her 1991 book, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, Miller writes, “Forgiving has negative consequences, not only for the individual, but for society at large, because it means disguising destructive opinions and attitudes, and involves drawing a curtain across reality so that we cannot see what is taking place behind it.” Instead, she tells us, “Survivors of mistreatment need to discover their own truth if they are to free themselves of its consequences. The effort spent on the work of forgiveness leads them away from this truth.”
third way of viewing anger and forgiveness. Nussbaum agrees that therapists should not force forgiveness, but she offers a more nuanced and philosophically grounded way of viewing the work of anger and the way forward from even extreme wrongs and injustices.
While many philosophers have ignored or dismissed the moral relevance of the emotions, others such as Aristotle have noted the importance of anger to a good life. While anger is a negative emotion, it has benefits for people seeking to flourish in life. Namely, anger is said to enable us to recognize injustice when it occurs and then motivate us to action to correct the wrongs inflicted on innocent parties. For Aristotle, anger occurs when someone’s status is lowered without good cause. Indeed, an attack on one’s character or social rank is likely to provoke anger and, in many cases, a wish for revenge. Nussbaum notes that revenge has few or no practical or moral benefits. Other than a temporary sense of satisfaction, payback accomplishes nothing of importance for us.
But if payback isn’t a useful result of anger, then perhaps contrition, apology, and forgiveness are necessary components of a moral and flourishing life. Most of us have grown up in a culture that stresses the importance of apologies and forgiveness for wrongs. Nussbaum traces ancient Jewish and Christian (primarily) texts dealing with the role of forgiveness. The most familiar form is transactional—if someone reduces the status of someone else, the perpetrator shows remorse and asks forgiveness. When the wronged party bestows forgiveness, the proper ranking of the parties is restored, and justice, it seems, is served.
Of course, contrition and apologies are not always forthcoming. Sometimes the perpetrator is simply stubborn and sometimes the perpetrator is no longer alive. This is often the case for survivors of child abuse. In the absence of an apology many therapists, as noted above, advise survivors to offer unconditional forgiveness. This kind of forgiveness is said to release the victim from the shackles of anger and enable a flourishing life to happen. Of course, contrarians such as Alice Miller claim this type of forgiveness traps survivors in a life-long lie that destroys them emotionally.
Nussbaum recognizes these challenges and takes a different approach. She offers several examples of people who move forward without offering forgiveness but in a more positive way than Alice Miller would likely think possible. In the example of the Prodigal Son, the son returns to his father to be greeted with open arms. Although the son has behaved quite badly, his father thinks only of the future with his son and not the past (his other son is not quite so ready to embrace his wayward brother). It is the focus on the future that makes all the difference for Nussbaum.
In an even more painful and poignant example, she describes a father from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, whose daughter becomes an addict and kills several people. The father finds his daughter and realizes he is helpless to change what she has done or her future prospects. He does all that he can do. He loves her and stays with her. Nussbaum says, “There is no apology, and there’s really no question of forgiveness on the agenda, whether conditional or unconditional. There’s just painful unconditional love.”
When anger is useful, Nussbaum says it is useful as a transition from a wrong to a focus on a better future. In the transition, someone would say in anger, “That’s outrageous! Something must be done to prevent this in the future!” Nussbaum applies this model in three realms: the intimate, the middle (public), and the political (social) realm. Simply because of my interest and background, I found her discussion of the intimate realm the most interesting and compelling.
In the middle, or public, realm, I think most of us realize our anger at strangers is rarely helpful. Minor wrongs (e.g., someone cutting in line at the grocery store) are best forgotten as quickly as possible. More serious wrongs are a matter for law enforcement and the court system. Being consumed with anger is only a form of self-torture.
In the political realm, though, anger is said to be a great motivator toward justice, and surely anger has propelled many social movements to success. Again, though, Nussbaum warns that it is easy to get caught up in concern for revenge or payback rather than creating a better world. After great harms, we need to focus on truth and reconciliation, not punishment. Indeed, the most successful social movements have focused on the future and not redressing wrongs.
Nussbaum sees Nelson Mandela as an exemplary role model for looking to the future rather than the past in response to injustice. She says, “Mandela frames the entire question in forward-looking pragmatic terms, as a question of getting the other party to do what you want. He then shows that this task is much more feasible if you can get the other party to work with you rather than against you. Progress is impeded by the other party’s defensiveness and self-protection.”
For years, I have had difficulty clearly delineating exactly what I found problematic with our accepted model of anger and forgiveness. Nussbaum has provided a welcome bit of clarity for a universal yet surprisingly complex human problem. Realistically, we will not be able to let go of useless anger and focus only on transitional anger, but at least we have a better target. When we do succeed it will be because we rely on another human emotion—love.
In the second GOP debate, candidates were asked an inconsequential question about what woman they would want to see on the $10 bill. Three mentioned family members who were caregivers and one mentioned Mother Theresa. Other candidates did mention women who were political leaders, but it is worth noting how difficult it is for some to imagine, even now, a great woman who is not caring for others. Rather, it is still hard for too many people to imagine that leading and fighting for justice and rights is a form of caring for women that is worthy of admiration.
The idea that women should be good, as women, but not in the same way that men might be good, is about as old as civilization. Men have placed women in an impossible bind forever. For striving to be the best person possible, they are often denounced, attacked, or even murdered for stepping above their station. In the seventh century BCE, Chinese poet and princess, Xu Mu found herself in a position where she felt she must defend her kingdom (Wei) against the Di people (see Barbara Bennett Peterson’s essay about dutiful daughters of ancient China here). She successfully rallied her brothers and friends from neighboring kingdoms to preserve their home.
A man in her position would simply luxuriate in the waves of honor and gratitude flowing over him, but Xu’s position was more complicated. She is remembered for her accomplishments, but she also faced the wrath of the men in her community. She recorded her mixed experiences and feeling in a poem, “Speeding Away”:
Harshly though you may judge me,
From my course I will not veer.
Compared to your limited vision,
Do I not see far and clear?
Harshly though you may judge me,
My steps you never can stay.
Compared to your limited vision,
Am I not wise in my way?
I’ve climbed the heights of A Qiu,
Gathered herbs on the slope alone.
All women are prone to sorrow,
Each follows a path of her own.
The people of Xu still blame me,
Such ignorance has never been known.
Out of necessity, she stepped out of the role of good wife, daughter, and mother to save her homeland only to be criticized, but she didn’t accept the criticism. She said, “O listen, ye lords and nobles, Blame not my stubbornness so,” but she was denied the opportunity to emerge as an unvarnished hero. If she had been a man, she would have been good, but she could not be considered a good woman without qualifications. Her society had two concepts of virtue: one for men, and one for women.
A couple of centuries later, Plato advocated for a single measure of virtue and goodness. He felt that the ideal form of the good was universal, so it wouldn’t make sense for some people to aim at one ideal and others at another ideal, as there can only be one ideal. Consequently, women and men should aim at the same ideal, and men, just by chance, seem to have an easier time getting close to it. In Plato’s Republic, women would be trained and educated in the manner of men in hopes of achieving their highest possibilities of human perfection. Women who succeeded in being the most like the best men would be the best women. Men who resembled women, on the other hand, were the worst of men. In Plato’s world, then, Xu Mu might be admired for embodying the virtues of men, but she may still be censured for failing in the virtues of womanhood.
Plato’s unusual conception of a single standard for virtue for men and women didn’t last long. His student, Aristotle, found insistence on a single standard for goodness unnatural and unfair. Men and women, being different, should strive for different ideals. A woman should be a good woman and a man should be a good man. To judge a woman on her ability to be like a “good man” would be as absurd as judging a musician on his ability to make good shoes. Women should do what is right and natural for them, he believed. Under Aristotle’s guidance, Xu Mu would do better to leave saving the kingdom to the men, who would be more rational and better prepared for war.
Those who feel women have different strengths than men will insist that they are not misogynistic. No, they love women for the things women do best. These men (and women) say that women have civilized men, make peace in families, and rear children for greatness. They love their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters as they make it possible for men to achieve greatness in war, politics, business, science, and philosophy. For example. Ronald Reagan explained his high regard for women by saying, “If it wasn’t for women, us men would still be walking around in skin suits carrying clubs.” The problem is that the things these men suppose women excel at doing are also denigrated by society precisely because women do them, which means that women are devalued as well. In the third century BCE, another Chinese poet, Fu Xuan, summed up the problem nicely:
How sad it is to be a woman!!
Nothing on earth is held so cheap.
Boys stand leaning at the door
Like Gods fallen out of Heaven.
Their hearts brave the Four Oceans,
The wind and dust of a thousand miles.
No one is glad when a girl is born:
By her the family sets no store.
By this measure, to be the best woman possible is still to be something inferior to even a mediocre man. Women may not attain the highest levels of virtue.
Upon reading the works of many men claiming that women are inferior at birth, Christine Pisan, wrote a rhetorical query to God in 1405 CE:
“Alas, God, why did You not let me be born in the world as a man, so that all my inclinations would be to serve You better, and so that I would not stray in anything and would be as perfect as a man is said to be? But since Your kindness has not been extended to me, then forgive my negligence in Your service, most fair Lord God, and may it not displease You, for the servant who receives fewer gifts from his lord is less obliged in his service.”
Trapped in a paradox, extreme virtue is demanded of women while it is simultaneously denied them. By asking God to resolve the paradox, Pisan brilliantly illustrates that it is men, not God, who created the paradox, for no God would be so irrational. The binary is not only absurd; it is impossible.
In 1694 CE, Mary Astell eschewed literary maneuvers and stated directly that men are to blame for the situation of women. In her Serious Proposal to the Ladies, she remarked, “That therefore Women are unprofitable to most, and a plague and dishonour to some Men is not much to be regretted on account of the Men, because ’tis the product of their own folly, in denying them the benefits of an ingenuous and liberal Education, the most effectual means to direct them into, and to secure their progress in the way of Vertue.” She goes on to say, “For since God has given Women as well as Men intelligent Souls, why should they be forbidden to improve them?” Astell issued a call to arms for women. Many have responded, and continue to respond.
In the late 19th century, Mary Wollstonecraft repeated the call: “To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character: or, to speak explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue.” Wollstonecraft argued that two standards of virtue only serve to cement the power of men over women. A single standard will liberate both.
Simply choosing between a singular or dual ethics does not resolve the problem of misogyny, masculine power, or the systematic devaluing of anything “feminine.” If we choose to embrace a single ethics, the default position is to embrace the ethics previously associated with “masculine” virtue. To do so, women must themselves then disparage “feminine” virtues, which will mean debasing the activities traditionally associated with women. Thus, both women and men engaged in such pursuits are permanent held in reduced stature.
On the other hand, to embrace a dual system of ethics is to preserve the status quo. The male system of ethics continues to be the good and noble ethics while the female ethics is valued only for its contributions to maintaining the power and worth of male activities.
A single ethics that values all virtues and activities that are, in fact, valuable demands a complete deconstruction of gender and power so that it can be replaced with a non-binary system that embraces and venerates all activities that aid human flourishing. If nurturing children is a good, then it is good for both men and women. Such a system can have no concept of “women’s work” or “men’s work.” The idea that activities or dispositions (caring, assertive, protective, sensitive) are “masculine” or “feminine” must become a foreign idea. This will require radical resistance. Xu Mu and others like her began this battle nearly 3,000 years ago. After watching the second GOP debate, I believe it may take another 3,000 years to finish the war.
Ethical theories can be divided in a number of ways, but one easy way is to separate the rule-based theories from theories that are not rule based. If you happen to be writing a code of ethics for your organization, you are going to drift toward rule-based theories because, in fact, you are writing a set of rules. These rules are important to ensure and protect the professionalism of your organization or profession. Ethical codes, made up of rules, establish a system of accountability for your members. Ethical codes are useful and often essential for professional organizations and vocational fields.
The rules in professional codes tend, whether stated or not, to focus on autonomy as defined by Immanuel Kant. His advice is generally interpreted somewhat loosely to say that we should only do to others what they have chosen to have done to them and use them only in ways that help them achieve their own ends. We should not use others only as a way to achieve our personal goals.
Based on this thinking, we would only provide people with treatment after receiving their fully informed consent, we would use people in our research only if they wanted to participate, and we would always be honest with clients and work in their best interest. Some would be a little shocked by the full implications of Kant’s views. For example, to have sex without the intent to procreate is to use both yourself and your partner as a mere means to pleasure. Lying to a murderer in order to save a child’s life would lead to you being charged with a crime in the event of the child’s death.
When it comes to integrating ethics into your professional practice, however, you may find rule-based systems too limiting and seek a theory that feels more inclusive of your entire professional life. It may help to look at two other groups of ethical theories: 1. Theories that focus on what kind of person to be. 2. Theories that focus on how to relate to others. This isn’t a neat division as these two types of theories overlap in significant ways, but it can be a useful starting point.
Friedrich Nietzsche rejected rule-based systems of morality, which he referred to as forms of “slave-morality,” for morality aimed at character, which he called “master-morality.” He said, “It is obvious that moral value distinctions everywhere are first attributed to people and only later to actions.” For Nietzsche, it is the powerful who will see moral behavior as a by-product of being a great person while the weak will seek moral rules to protect their interests from others. Nietzsche suggests we should all strive to become great people rather than subjecting ourselves to the rules and will of others.
In a similar vein, Aristotle saw morality as a process of becoming a good person rather than following a set of rules, though he did say that things like theft, adultery and murder are always wrong, allowing for the existence of some moral rules. In general, though, a person becomes good, not by following rules, but by developing a virtuous disposition. This approach does emphasize activities, as it is through our actions that we develop our character. By choosing the actions a good person would choose, we become a good person, and by being a good person we tend to choose actions that are also good.
If you work with people on a regular basis, you may find a theory based on relationships conducive to moving beyond rule-based systems and ethical codes.
In the past, I didn’t really think of existentialism as a good foundation for a relational ethics as many existentialists focus on subjective experience, but Simone de Beauvoir’s “Ethics of Ambiguity” changed my mind. Beauvoir specifically tackles the problem of making ethical choices in an ambiguous world. Contrary to Immanuel Kant, she says it is not possible to arrive at certain rules to guide our behavior, but this does not mean we can shirk our obligation to act with concern for others.
Beauvoir says we experience life through our own experience by exercising our own freedom, but we do not experience it in isolation. If we do experience it in isolation, she says, “The saving of time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved by the laugh of a child at play. If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.” Our authentic self is expressed through free acts, but “[The individual] exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him.” Though our actions can’t be pinned down by a set of rules, we find meaning in life by seeking, willing, and nurturing the freedom of others in the world. In a sense, our affirmation of freedom is an exclamation of love.
Love may not seem an appropriate emotion to mention in a discussion of ethical relations with clients, but we don’t have to think of it in romantic or sexual terms. Love may be a matter of valuing others. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that love is an essential feature of a liberal democracy. Some might quibble over how she defines love, but certainly it is a concern for others that drives both the ethics and political struggles of some of us. For example, she notes that we all live in a state of dependency at one time or another (childhood, old age if we are lucky to live long enough, and periods of impairment). Some of us live in states of dependency for our entire lives. Protecting the dignity of all requires us to recognize the value in others, and love for others is sufficient motivation to remove the shame and stigma of dependency. Our concern for others motivates our most basic moral impulses.
In this sense, both Beauvoir’s and Nussbaum’s views can be seen as forms of an ethics of care. If you are familiar with care ethics, though, you probably heard of it through the work of feminists such as Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings. Care ethics was introduced as an alternative to theories seen to value men’s experiences over women’s. Feminists pointed out that women’s experiences have largely centered on care. Some will say caring is natural to women and others will say women have been forced into caring roles.
Over time, care ethics has become somewhat less gendered, meaning both men and women may recognize the value of care in their ethical lives. Noddings says our moral obligations arise between the “one-caring” and the “cared-for.” The response of the “cared-for” drive our actions. The most debilitating kind of existence, she says, is to care for someone who is unable or unwilling to respond to care. Controversially, she says, “We are not obliged to act as one-caring if there is no possibility of completion in the other.” This means are have no obligations to “the needy in the far regions of the earth.” Philosopher James Rachels objects, saying, “A more sensible approach might be to say that the ethical life includes both caring personal relationships and a benevolent concern for people generally.”
Some philosophers see narrative ethics as a logical extension of an ethics of care. Narrative ethics emphasizes the role of stories in our moral lives. Most of us grew up hearing “didactic stories” about foxes and wolves and so forth that left us to learn “the moral of the story.” This is an important feature of narrative ethics but stories need not be didactic to aid our moral reasoning or impulses. We may also learn from both fiction and true personal narratives.
Fiction can help us broaden our imagination of what life is like for others. It helps us to understand feelings and motivations outside our own experience. It gives us a way of testing different points of view and outlooks. Similarly, listening to or reading the accounts people give of their own lives gives us greater insight into their emotional lives and helps us to develop an empathetic response. Our moral obligations and intuitions look quite different when we are better able to “read” the minds and motivations of others. Those who work intimately with clients on a regular basis are immersed in their stories. In this sense, ethics is integral to the practice. I personally think it is helpful to think of ethics as being embedded in our work rather than a separate function that requires attention outside of our “real job.”
Again, autonomy plays an essential role in developing ethical codes of behavior. If we fail to respect the autonomy of others, we violate them in ways that are always wrong and often illegal. Still, other ethical approaches can expand the role of ethics in our practice and help us pursue ethics that really is beyond mere compliance.