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Forgiveness is overrated

By Helen Dale - posted Friday, 29 January 2010

One of the advantages of being a sceptic is that you don’t have to reject positions articulated by religious figures just because you think they believe in fairies at the bottom of the garden, but also because you think that core chunks of their doctrine - including bits often regarded as wholly good and reasonable - are badly mistaken. Today I’m taking aim at forgiveness. Recent games theory research indicates that too much forgiveness leads to an exploding population of nasty crooks. More on that later.

My point of departure is this post over at Larvatus Prodeo, where Tony Abbott once again opens his mouth and inserts his foot for our collective amusement. This time, he’s trying to argue the following:

The new Liberal leader is understood to have suggested men and women should try and adhere to “the rules” when it comes to sex before marriage and when they can’t he has conceded they should use contraception.

But the former Catholic seminarian, who famously struggled with the issue of sex before marriage as a young man, reveals he is ambivalent towards contraception.

He says it has been at least as liberating for men as for women, suggesting some women are being taken advantage of as a result.

Mr Abbott is also asked about whether he expects his own daughters to remain virgins until they are married and says all women should regard their virginity as “a gift” that should not be given lightly.

For 25 years, the Sydney MP secretly believed he fathered a son with his university girlfriend and has previously conceded he is a “pretty lousy role model” when it comes to avoiding pre-marital sex.

His “son” Daniel was later revealed to be child of another man. And his university girlfriend Kathy Donnelly revealed in the pair’s struggle not to be “sexual” they were not using contraception when they had sex.

“Tony and I because we were trying not to be sexual - that was the year Tony was thinking about entering the priesthood - we were playing Vatican roulette,” Ms Donnelly said.


Various people have made all the obvious arguments: that people like sex, that contraception is autonomy-enhancing, that liberals are supposed to respect autonomy, that Tony is squicky (discussing his daughters’ sex lives in public) etc. All those points are fine and good, and they’re all nicely summarised here.

Very few people, however, are suggesting that Abbott should shut his hypocritical mouth on account of his failure to live up to his own standards. The bare facts of that failure are outlined above; at no point, however, is it suggested that he is a signal example of hypocrisy.

There is a reason for a lack of shaming fingers and shouting voices yelling “hypocrite” at Tony Abbott. It’s because Abbott no doubt believes he’s forgiven for his past behaviour, as do many of his interlocutors, including those who disagree with him. In other words, he is a living exemplar of a bumper-sticker I used to see a fair bit as a kid: Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.

Thing is, I don’t think forgiving people their failures and then listening to them opine about the field in which they failed is a very smart idea. It suggests that because Tony Abbott feels guilty about something he did, he can have a private conversation with his god (or his conscience) and then emerge, clean of his transgressions. His private guilt thus deprives the rest of us of the capacity to shame him, to say: we are not going to listen to you on this topic, Tony, because you have shamed yourself.

There has been quite a bit of commentary around the traps in recent years about how, as a society, we have lost the ability to use shame as an effective restraint on bad behaviour. We have - according to quite a few people, including this academic at ADFA - become shameless (via Jason Soon). Michael Evans (the ADFA academic) traces the shamelessness to our loss of a sense of personal responsibility, and he’s at least partly right. But only partly right.

Much of the problem, I submit, stems from our willingness to forgive, of which a signal example is listening to people hold forth on things where they have failed to maintain their own standards (I’m not suggesting for a moment that these standards are or should be universal), and then taking them seriously. This especially applies to purported moral guidance: at least a businessman or stockbroker who writes a self-help book on how to make money can point to his failures and say, don’t do that, look what happened to me. He can then point to his current successes and his book (and our reason for buying it) is then about contrasting that success and failure.


Morality - particularly sexual morality - provides no such out. There’s no money in it, for starters.

Where does this leave forgiveness? In a recent paper, three computer scientists decided to put forgiveness to the test, to try to work out if there is such an animal as “optimum” levels of forgiveness, and if forgiveness as a concept is overrated in contexts where human beings have to compete with each other. Their working title is Using Misperception to Counteract Noise in the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. All three (Kevin Korb, Carlo Kopp and Lachlan Brumley) are based at Monash, here in Australia, so their work couldn’t be more relevant to the issue. Their abstract:

The Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma is a game-theoretical model which can be identified in many repeated real-world interactions between competing entities. The Tit for Tat strategy has been identified as a successful strategy which reinforces mutual cooperation, however, it is sensitive to environmental noise which disrupts continued cooperation between players to their detriment. This paper explores whether a population of Tit for Tat players may evolve specialised individual-based noise to counteract environmental noise. We have found that when the individual-based noise acts similarly to forgiveness it can counteract the environmental noise, although excessive forgiveness invites the evolution of exploitative individual-based noise, which is highly detrimental to the population when widespread.

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First published in the author’s blog, Skeptic Lawyer, on January 25, 2010.

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About the Author

Helen Dale completed the BCL at Brasenose College, Oxford last year and is now reading for her MPhil in law at the same college. In days gone by she was a writer and hack, but lawyering now takes up most of her time. She blogs at Skepticlawyer.

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