Forgiveness or Justice?

By Robert Bernstein   |   December 28, 2021

Christianity is all about forgiveness and I am writing this during the Christmas season. Could a society function with nothing but forgiveness as an ethical code? Astronomer and 1981 Humanist of the Year Carl Sagan wrote a brilliant essay about this for Parade Magazine in 1993. Here is a link to a copy:

It is so perfectly written I can only recommend that everyone read it as written. But I want to make his point that every society must live on a spectrum between forgiveness and justice. And that neither extreme is sustainable.

When I took Swing Dance classes from Jonathan and Sylvia, before they taught the first move, they told us: If you collide with another dancer, just say “Sorry!” and move apart. It does not matter who was at fault. There may be harm; I once lost a toenail to a misplaced woman’s high heel. But life must go on and “justice” makes no sense.

But in the real world, there are bad people who would take advantage of total forgiveness. Years ago, I was lending money to a friend for his informative publication. After a while it seemed, I was not getting paid in a timely manner. A Christian friend told me to let it go and not lend money to anyone anymore.

A Jewish friend told me that would reward bad behavior and would also punish honest people who would be denied future loans. I went with her advice and pursued legal action to get my money back. Interestingly, I went on to lend her money for her business with a written contract that included interest. We are still friends.

Black entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. converted to Judaism after the horrific accident that cost him one eye. He explained why in his memoir Yes I Can. “I picked up ‘A History of the Jews’ and opened it in the middle. The first word I saw was ‘Justice.’ … More than ever I saw the affinity between the Jew and the Negro.” Slave owners indoctrinated slaves with Christian forgiveness. But he saw the value of “Justice” as a higher good.

Carl Sagan takes a scientific approach to forgiveness versus justice. Humans make mistakes even when they are trying to do their best. If every transgression is responded to with iron-fisted justice, then reprisals never end. He notes, “We’re concerned not only with doing right, but with what works.”

The proper science is game theory. Many games are “zero sum” games with a winner and a loser. There is no way for players in Monopoly or opposing football teams to cooperate for mutual benefit. Only one side wins. Other games like nuclear war are pure lose-lose. But many situations can be win-win and these are often overlooked.

He gives an example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma: You and a friend are arrested for a serious crime. If you and the friend both deny the crime, you both go free. If you confess and your friend denies, you get a light sentence; your friend loses big. Likewise, if you deny it and your friend confesses, you lose big. If you only “play” once, you both should confess. But if you get multiple rounds with feedback, you can change strategy.

From this, Sagan explained the ideal Rule to Live By: “Tit for Tat.” You start out cooperating. In each subsequent round, just do what your opponent did last time. Over time each side realizes the benefit of cooperation. The rule does even better if you forgive your opponent 10% of the time if there was a chance of misunderstanding.

This is explained in The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod. The real-life lesson: Be friendly at first. Forgive if the other person forgives you. Don’t be a tyrant or a push-over. Retaliate proportionately to intentional harm. Be reasonably consistent, but occasionally forgive even when you are wronged.

Some people think they are being “realistic” by following what Sagan calls the Iron Rule: “Do unto others before they do it unto you.” This is ultimately lose-lose for society.

I will add that the Golden Rule is often misunderstood as “An eye for an eye.” A rabbi once explained this was meant as the worst retaliation that is justified. We can always do better.

Solving international problems like nuclear proliferation or the climate crisis requires the perfect balance of forgiveness and justice on a grand scale. Our future depends on it.


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