The Science of Forgiveness

A picture of the arrest of Maximilien Robespierre, a man who definitely believed he was the apotheosis of moral progress but discovered he was merely an intermediary level.

Why is it so difficult for people to forgive or makeup with others over fairly asinine and petty causes? One of the major reasons, it seems, is a cognitive bias known as the “End of History” bias which has that people, mostly, see their current selves as the epitome of their lives and that their changing and progress has plateaued. While people do change in terms of taste and belief, quite inevitably, their belief that this doesn’t happen can have great effects on how they see the world and that in terms of moral judgment. That is that they don’t see the phenomena of the world as transient, always intermediate, and fleeting which almost every phenomenon actually is. The person who they believe offended them or transgressed them in some way also has not changed in their minds and neither have the circumstances of the world between them. 

Furthermore, the “end of history” bias entails a self-righteous belief that one is morally correct at all times. There is no or very little doubt that one may be wrong at any particular instant. Making up with someone or forgiving them, especially for minor issues, usually implies the pettiness and veniality of the grudge-holder and in relinquishing their rancor they tacitly admit their moral inadequacy. While for some, time may erode grudges, for most forgoing a grudge must be a conscious choice and one they cannot make if making it will betray to themselves they that their immediately former position was morally incorrect. If one is at the apotheosis of their moral evolution then one cannot be wrong.

Moral agnosticism may seem to be a morally weaker position than moral certainty yet a degree of it, the degree to which we acknowledge the limits of our own wisdom, is preferable. One of the great debates in philosophy is whether morals are invented or discovered and I believe they are discovered because otherwise morals are subjective and culturally contingent and that would justify any culture’s oppressions and atrocities. If morals are then discovered and the science of ethics is to discover what moral truth is then we must accept the humility that we don’t know what the epitome of morality is and also that we have not reached it. If, psychologically, we engrain that into ourselves then it becomes much easier to make moral progress because it is much easier to do so when it can happen artificially rather than organically and that can only happen if we readily can accept our own cognitive limitations with regard to our morality. 

We must do the difficult chore of accepting that the world will change, that we will change, and that they have changed without knowing what all the changes will be, are, or have been. When people feel transgressed against, if they said to themselves that they aren’t ready to makeup yet but that they will be later then they more likely will be later. If, however, they rationalize that their grudge is justified morally then they will always hold the grudge lest they admit that they were actually wrong and that either the grudge was unjustified or was an overreaction. That so long as people believe they are at the end of their own moral progress then they are too perfect to err and any conscious counter to that by acknowledging a past folly like a grudge would be an admission of fallibility. People will often admit to “flaws” but, mostly, these are flaws they aren’t ashamed of so that doesn’t count. For example, someone who is nominally religious may admit to having lots of unmarried sex so they’ll jocularly laugh about being a sinner but on a visceral level they don’t see their actions as bad. On everything they do actually consider unethical, they will never admit to wrongdoing and will rationalize their innocence in almost every circumstance.  

One of the chief issues with acknowledging our fallibility is that since no one around usually does in the same setting, the brave person who does ends up being the posterchild for the crime shamed by hypocrites. Hypocrites who only are semi-aware of their own hypocrisy owing to very strong cognitive biases working as a propaganda censor in their own brains whitewashing every one of their own life stories to make them into a sympathetic character and a character who needs no maturation or evolution. This itself is one of the self-sealing attributes of social mores that no one can be first and if no one is first in acknowledging their own fallibility then there is little hope that people will be able to consciously change and anything that would suggest they had been overreacting or unethical will likely go untouched.

In the end, as every generation scoffs at their forebearers and will be scoffed at by posterity everyone must have faith in the movement of a world which like the movement of the Earth is imperceptible yet fast and immense. Faith in the transience and fleetingness of the world’s phenomena and allowing the vestigial organs that we preserve to maintain the lie of our moral justification, especially the hatreds and grudges, to be surrendered to time like most of the other traits we forget about which do that naturally. Of all cognitive biases, the end of history bias is among the worst because while it imparts a fase perception it does create, to a degree, a self-fulfilling prophecy by making us content with ourselves and thus preventing us from seeking higher and more noble states of being.

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