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To blame or to forgive?

What do you do when faced with wrongdoing – do you blame or do you forgive? Especially when confronted with offences that lie on the more severe end of the spectrum and cause terrible psychological or physical trauma or death, nothing can feel more natural than to blame. Indeed, in the UK and the US, increasingly vehement and righteous public expressions of blame and calls for vengeance are commonplace; correspondingly, contemporary penal philosophy has witnessed a resurgence of the retributive tradition, in the modern form usually known as the ‘just deserts’ model.

But if we stop to think about it, this criminal justice practice stands in contrast to significant features of our everyday moral practices. People can and routinely do forgive others, even in cases of severe crime. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that both vengeance and forgiveness are universal human adaptations that have evolved as alternative responses to exploitation, and, crucially, strategies for reducing risk of re-offending. We are naturally endowed with both capacities: to blame and retaliate, or to forgive and seek to repair relations. We have a choice. Which should we choose?

In our view, criminal justice scholars and practitioners have been too ready to choose policies which – often unwittingly – invite emotive, affective blame into the criminal process. Criminal liability, we think, should be based on a detached judgment of blameworthiness; but the conviction, sentencing and penal processes should be carefully crafted so as to avoid an escalation of hostile, punitive attitudes. For these attitudes are likely to have adverse effects not only on the fairness and moderation of the criminal process but also on the hope of rehabilitative and reparative outcomes – as well as holding out a false promise to victims, whom research shows are unlikely to feel satisfied by penal measure alone.

Indeed we believe that the criminal justice system should seek to go one step further, so as not only to punish without blame, but in addition, to punish with forgiveness. The choice to blame, and not to forgive, is not only potentially instrumentally counter-productive to reducing the risk of future re-offending and fostering rehabilitation and reparation, but, in addition, inconsistent with the inclusive political and ethical values of a broadly liberal society. There are therefore both instrumental and political/ethical grounds for reconceiving punishment as incorporating forgiveness.

What would the shape of penal philosophy and criminal justice practice be like with forgiveness in place as a guiding ideal? We think that it is possible to draw on evolutionary psychology to offer an account of forgiveness and also to show how it can be institutionalised. Interpersonal reparative behaviours can be adapted to criminal justice institutions, suggesting a host of practical reforms at the trial, sentencing and penal stages. Additionally, it is likely that broader social and institutional conditions may make it easier for societies to punish with forgiveness as opposed to blame – such as political systems which foster a long term policy horizon and a consensus orientation in political debate, high levels of trust in social and political institutions, and high levels of social equality and inclusion. In our view, there is ample reason to believe not only that punishment ought to be reconceived as incorporating forgiveness but that, under certain conditions, to a significant extent in practice it can be.

Designing a criminal justice system to take advantage of our evolutionarily endowed capacity to forgive and seek to repair relations must, inevitably, be a collaborative process between all of us. For only then will it be successful in reducing risk of re-offending and repairing relations. For this reason, alongside a call for wider social and institutional change, perhaps the most radical practical reform we believe there is reason to consider is to invite the offender not only to acknowledge their wrongdoing at trial, but to have, consistent with sentencing guidelines, a genuine voice in the sentencing process. Rather than the sentence being a punishment delivered from above, this would give the offender a more active role in fashioning a punishment that recognises their wrongdoing but also enables them as an individual to make good and move forward in their life. Here, the aspiration would be to build the opportunity for rehabilitation and reparation into the nature of the punishment itself and thereby demonstrate to the offender that they will be forgiven if they will do their part in making a better future for themselves and for others. In other words, reparative and rehabilitative strategies can be offered by the criminal justice system and society, without requiring offenders first to earn them. Rather, we can ourselves take the initial step – looking forwards rather than backwards, and choosing to punish not with vengeance and affective blame, but with forgiveness.

Featured image credit: ‘Prison’, by Erika Wittlieb. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Bill Skaggs

    In my view the most important function of the criminal justice system is to motivate people not to commit crimes in the first place. What happens after a person enters the justice system is important, but nevertheless secondary: what is most important is the effect of a change in policy on the likelihood of crimes being committed by people who have not yet entered the system. It may well be that forgiveness works better for rehabilitation than punishment does — but if people who are thinking about committing a crime know that they will be forgiven, how will it affect their behavior?

    In any case, thanks for the interesting post.

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