One of the advantages of being a skeptic 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:
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 summarized 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 identied 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.
In sum, a certain amount of forgiveness is a good thing: societies that are wholly ‘shame’ based (Japan, pagan Rome) have high suicide rates when contrasted with societies that are wholly ‘guilt’ based, for example, as people kill themselves when they fail to live up to their own standards. How much forgiveness is a good thing, then, if we wish to bisect the scylla of seppuku and the charybdis of Tony Abbott and Bill Clinton being reduced to soap opera before our very eyes? Korb et al again:
This work does demonstrate that misperception can help TFT players maintain mutual cooperation in an evolutionary IPD game. However, this requires that misperception mimics forgiveness and that any misperception causing unwarranted defections is limited. Forgiveness can counteract the effects of random noise; however, excessive forgiveness leaves the population of TFT players vulnerable to exploitation, in this case by selfish Punishing Misperception. Forgiving Misperception is not an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy, as Punishing Misperception will invade the population to exploit the forgiving players.
High Punishing Misperception probabilities are an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy, albeit a highly detrimental one since such widespread behaviour produces worse payoffs than a population only affected by noise.
The optimal upper bound for Forgiving Misperception is approximately 30% for the TFT players. At this point mutual cooperation can be maintained, while Punishing Misperception does not evolve to invade the population. The Forgiving and Punishing Misperception probabilities which evolve in the player population interact in a manner similar to a predator-prey relationship. When the population’s Forgiving Misperception probability is restricted, misperception will provide an evolutionary benefit when it induces behaviour analogous to forgiveness. However, this benefit requires an asymmetric model of misperception in which the evolution of Forgiving Misperception is restricted.
About 30%, friends and neighbours. None of this 70×7 malarky: all that happens then is that you get taken to the cleaners. And exploitative individual-based noise as a result of excessive forgiveness? That’s Tony Abbott sounding off about his failures and expecting to be taken seriously.
May I suggest, then, a modest reframing of public debate every time Tony Abbot (or a similar moral failure by his own standards) sounds off on this sort of thing? We should shame him for his hypocrisy. Instead of listening to the dishonest banker caught with his fingers in the till who begs our forgiveness, we should listen to the honest banker who makes the shareholders money without cheating his customers or pissing all over market rules. Instead of listening to the Catholic who played Vatican Roulette with his girlfriend, we should listen to the parish priest who lived up to his vows (and believe me, there are plenty of them; the media are very good at highlighting only the failures). Instead of listening to a given celebrity tell of their travails with drugs, we should listen to another celebrity who has managed to avoid drugs altogether. We may actually learn something, even if we ultimately disagree with their policy proposals and submissions to public debate. I will probably disagree with everything the parish priest says about virginity before marriage, because I think it’s a double standard directed primarily (and negatively) at women. At least, however, I can take him seriously. He has lived his ideals. I can’t take Tony Abbott seriously. The distinction may be a fine one, but it is important to bear it in mind.
Let me also stress that this is not a counsel of perfection, but a recognition that it isn’t actually that difficult to be a decent person. By taking craptacular failures so seriously, we risk making decency and goodness (however defined; my particular interest is financial probity) seem impossible across the wider society. Similarly, I’m not suggesting we bring out the ‘shame tool’ whenever someone has lived a less than blameless life (that really would be heading down the seppuku route). Rather, I’m suggesting that shaming is the appropriate response to public figures who get off on wallowing in their sin in public, and who then purport to advise the rest of us on the basis of that wallowing. Talking the talk requires walking the walk, in other words.
You’re not perfect, Tony Abbott, but you’re also not forgiven. Now get down to the bar and grab yourself a nice steaming hot cup of shut the fuck up.
NB: For those who want a copy of the Monash paper, you’ll have to leave a request in the comments so I can send it to you privately, as it’s still forthcoming.
UPDATE: Deborah at LP has done a links round-up here, which I recommend, as she’s parsed the Women’s Weekly article very carefully — even going out and buying the bloody thing! Apparently the recipes are good. Also, there’s this piece where George Brandis (who should know better) tries rather ham-fistedly to support his leader. The best response? From ‘Joe’ in the comments:
“Fantastic, the economy is going down the drain, and they are talking about the virginity of their children, something they can never hope to influence anyway!”
UPDATE II: Now crossposted at Online Opinion.