We Thirst for Justice, but Beware the Unforgiven

What is unforgiveable? Are there some acts that cross the moral line in the sand dividing the venal from the inescapably evil? Are there some things, and some people, we cannot forgive?

As an ethicist, I am asked this question more than any other. Perhaps because the thirst for justice-and vengeance-comes easily to human beings, but can be seen to conflict with the Christian imperative to forgive.

I have sympathy for those who claim some actions, and the people who perpetrate them, are beyond the pale. My personal candidate for Ms Unforgiveability is American woman Debra Milke, who conspired with two psychopathic drug-addled “friends” to lure her four year old son into the desert on the pretence of meeting Santa Claus and catching snakes so they colud t execute him, and collect the insurance money. Tussling for the crown, of course, are Australians John Bunting and Robert Wagner whose hatred of paedophiles and homosexuals saw them torture and dismember their innocent victims by crushing toes with pliers and applying electric shocks.

As it happens, the creatures involved in these crimes were either sentenced to die, or to spend the rest of their lives in jail. A good thing in my view, because while unforgiveability may be a helpful moral concept, its practical use may be seriously questioned.

The process of setting moral standards is a collective one. When a member of our community becomes a victim of a moral crime, it is our reaction to the event-the words of our leaders, talk-back radio calls, chat around the water-cooler-that either affirms or modifies the existing consensus on what Is acceptable behaviour. Whether it’s a child raped by the trusted parish Priest, a wife betrayed by a sexual liaison between her husband and best friend, or the frail old codger defrauded by the down-and-out youth he sought to assist, condemning such acts as unforgivable contributes to the collective process of defining who we are by what we believe is right and wrong. It is from such definitions, and the process we undertake to arrive at them, that our children learn our moral code.

But while unforgiveability may be a useful tool for preventing heinous moral transgressions in the first place, once citizens have done the unspeakable, its practical use-if the unforgiven are destined to one day return to society-can be questioned.

Human beings live up, or down, to the expectations others have of them. Treat Eliza Doolittle like a crass bit of street scum, and that’s how she’ll behave. But my dear Henry Higgins, behold the transformation when you treat her like a lady! Our sense of self is formed, and to a large degree maintained, through our interactions with others. If our friends and neighbours dismiss us as beyond redemption, then we are likely we will see ourselves this way, and to behave accordingly. Why try to change, to put in the hard yards to unpick patterns of thought and behaviour that led one to sin so grievously in the past, when everyone you know and live among has written you off? When no matter what you do, there is no chance of being forgiven?

So are some acts, and some folk, unforgivable? The answer has to be “yes,” though it comes with a warning: the unforgiven are dangerous characters to have roaming the streets. So if we can’t find it in our hearts to forgive, we would be wise to throw away the key.

Publication history

We Thirst for Justice, but Beware the Unforgiven  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)