Forgiveness is overrated

By skepticlawyer

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!”

Quite, Joe.

UPDATE II: Now crossposted at Online Opinion.


  1. Posted January 25, 2010 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    A friend of mine commented that Tony A needs to repeat to himself every night “I must not be a Papal love slave”. Quite.

    Catholic rules on sex are bizarre. They basically involve rationing orgasms. No one is entitled to a deliberately induced orgasm except from unobstructed penile-vaginal sex by married people. So, if a husband gives his wife an orgasm by oral sex, they are committing the same sin as two men or two women having sex: it is all sodomy–sex not according to the form of procreation. (So it is worse if he gives her multiple orgasms that way: just as two men or women being in a committed relationship is worse than promiscuous sex, because a committed relationship is a commitment to future acts of “sodomy”.)

    Unobstructed penile-vaginal sex between persons not married is a different sin–fornication. (It may, of course, also be adultery.)

    The rules are a thorough attack on human agency. The sort of rules a bunch of celibate males might come up with.

    Indeed, they involve holding the same-sex attracted to be metaphysically deformed:
    due to having:

    … a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder

    Thus the same-sex attracted are not a proper form of the human.

    So, Tony A is asking us to keep to a set of rules that he failed to do himself–as people regularly fail to do–and yet this serial failure is not taken as any sort of indication that there might be something wrong with the rules. So it is a very particular moral failure. Not a failure to keep to rules that should be kept, but a failure to reflect on the implications for whether the rules are sensible in the first place.

    Which is the other reason I suggest it will play badly. Not merely the hypocrisy, but the unreflective support of rules people do not actually agree with. If we all agreed that those were the rules, that was the standard that should be kept to, he would have at least that to appeal to. But if the rules themselves are contentious (as they are, for good reason) then that makes his preaching for rules he failed to follow worse.

  2. Posted January 26, 2010 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    Not merely the hypocrisy, but the unreflective support of rules people do not actually agree with. If we all agreed that those were the rules, that was the standard that should be kept to, he would have at least that to appeal to. But if the rules themselves are contentious (as they are, for good reason) then that makes his preaching for rules he failed to follow worse.

    Quite, Lorenzo. If I didn’t make it clear in the post, let me reiterate that I think the shaming should not be on the basis that these rules constitute some sort of objective standard of goodness or right, but on the basis that the individual advocating them should at least be able to follow the rules himself.

  3. Posted January 26, 2010 at 3:45 am | Permalink

    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.

    This is a very interesting point of view, and one which I tend to think is flawed.

    On the face of things, it seems sensible to say “you have failed, you lose the right to give advice” – it seems logical, and tickles a sense of justice and “common sense”. On further examination, though, I don’t think it’s a reliable rule.

    Particularly in a case like that at hand — namely, a person who has failed at a task advising about avoiding similar failure — someone who has both failed, and who openly admits he has failed can be entirely acceptable as an expert. In some ways, perhaps even preferable. And I don’t think that really has to do with forgiveness, per se.

    Consider the following. Two parents are attempting to advise their daughter on the risks associated with the use of an illegal drug (let’s say marijuana). The mother has never used it, but the father has.

    The mother can present compelling evidence about risks associated with marijuana use — the consequences to getting caught, the problem with using a substance that makes it OK to be bored, etc. — and it should motivate her daughter not to smoke.

    However, the daughter is likely to find it more compelling that the father can say “look, I did that when I was a kid; I regret it, and here’s why”. Even if his reasons are the same, having the experience and related regret are much more compelling to the daughter because there is a sense of pathos.

    Applied, here, the person in question openly admits he is a poor role model, that he made errors that he’d like to see others avoid. While I disagree with his position, the pathos of the “please don’t make the mistakes I’ve made” argument makes him a very effective spokesperson.

    And, ultimately, it does not make one a hypocrite to say “don’t make the same mistakes I did”, nor to say “even though I have a hard time living up to a standard, it’s a good standard.” Such behavior is only truly hypocrisy if the message is “it doesn’t matter that I can’t live up to it, you’re a bad person for not doing so”.

    Admitting fault and admonishing others to learn from your faults is not a double standard, and so is not hypocritical.

    The key response to this pro-abstinence stance is the one that this person’s opponents have taken, as far as I can tell: that his experience doesn’t make his position correct, no matter how compelling the pathos.

  4. Posted January 26, 2010 at 3:56 am | Permalink

    That’s the argument from experience, Darren, which I’ve attempted to acknowledge, but maybe not enough (it may be valid, based on Korb/Kopp/Brumley, only 30% of the time). I’m being cheeky but the point, I think, is a fair one. However, it’s long been observed (and this goes back to investment advice provided by the likes of Napoleon Hill) that experience ‘wastes her lessons on dead men’, or can be unhelpful.

    Also, too, it involves an unacceptable weakening of the definition of expert. I think there is something in the old Stoic argument that, in order to give advice, you need to be able to do the thing on which you advise. Forgiving Tony is, in this sense, counterproductive. On the other hand, listening to Cardinal Pell (even if we disagree with him) may be productive. It is deeply ingrained from Christianity to take a wallowing set of ‘confessions’ seriously, without working out that the real reason we find them interesting is because they are titillating, not because they have anything useful to teach. Because my default position is ‘do not forgive, it only encourages mooching’, I think Tony is a hypocrite. Sincerity and public abasement does not remove the stain of hypocrisy. In this situation, only silence does.

    I’m also waiting for DEM to turn up with her big study (I assume she still has it) showing that diet and weight loss advice is much more successful over the long term when it comes from people who have always been trim, not from people who have been fat and then lost weight. Empirical proof for the ‘gym’ model over the ‘weightwatchers’ model, basically, or that experience is overrated.

  5. Patrick
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    In response to your being cheeky, skepticlawyer, your cheekiness raises exactly my point. I broadly agree with both that study and Darren, and I don’t see any contradiction.

    I can’t say I care about DEM’s study either. I don’t think it is to the point at all.

    The study you cite, like most such studies, highlights a fundamental truth: their must be some cost of guilt, or else there is no social order. But the experience argument is an equally valid social truth, and, with respect, has nothing to do with any coherent idea of ‘expertise’.

    Consider munchkin solicitor, munchkin Partner and munchkin senior associate.

    Munchkin Partner and munchkin solicitor are having a ‘coaching’ discussion, and munchkin Partner tells munchkin solicitor that although he understands the temptation to just hammer out the work himself, because he did exactly the same thing at the same point in his career, he strongly encourages munchkin solicitor to force himself to delegate work even when it takes longer, because he munchkin Partner realized that he had made a mistake.

    Munchkin Partner then suggests the munchkin solicitor could talk to munchkin senior associate about this because munchkin senior associate has taken a real interest in work-flow management and practice and is a real expert on it.

    Finally, munchkin Partner reassures munchkin solicitor that no-one cares about the advice he got wrong last month, it happens to everyone, just don’t do it too many times and don’t get the same thing wrong again.

    The key problem, and I feel stupid typing this, is that life is far too complex to be captured by IPD or TFT and we have to extrapolate rather more carefully than you seem inclined to here. I feel stupid typing that because I know that you know that already!

  6. John H.
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Perhaps Tony Abbott should feel more guilty?

  7. Posted January 26, 2010 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    I wonder if any journos have grabbed a phrase that was much bandied about when companies were bailed out for their financial-crisis sins with no punishment, and come up with the following:
    “God creates moral hazard”

    Oh, and for a skit on the idea that sins are forgiven providing you properly tug the forelock:
    Mr Deity and the Skeptic

  8. John H.
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    “God creates moral hazard”

    Or should that be:

    God IS a moral hazard.

  9. Posted January 26, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Patrick: complexity, we has it. You are dead right and I know EXACTLY what you mean. Which is why we can’t take Abbott seriously. John: but you knew that anyway…

  10. conrad
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    It’s good to see Kevin Korb still kicking along (I’ll thank him for his efforts to promote cognitive science and these sorts of problems in the early 90s).
    More to the point, there’s now actually a pretty decent literature on cheating and its evolution, and it would be interesting to know how forgiveness fits into this. This is relevant, because almost identical arguments are applied to cheating and its detection (basically, you need some balance, because if everyone cheats, you don’t have a social group, but if everyone either fails to detect the cheater or, presumably, forgives them, then the cheater wins). So I wonder how independent forgiveness and cheating are, or at least what their relationship is.

  11. Posted January 26, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Of course, the real hypocrisy from the Mad Monk is his support of aspirational acquisitive capitalism: “easier for a camel…”, “blessed are the poor…”, “give away all your possessions….”

    (I’m wondering why he isn’t proposing a state-financed emergency deathbed-conversion program, a la Constantine, and avoid the need for all the costs of a justice system with deterrents)

    It’s worth highlighting a recent piece in The Economist (The psychology of power,
    Power corrupts, but it corrupts only those who think they deserve it
    – go quick – paywall comes on articles after a little while), which talks of philandering politicians who promote “family values”.

    A study “primed” people for low or high status, and then tested honesty by getting them to report the results of throwing dice.

    In the case of the travel expenses—when the question hung on the behaviour of others—participants in the high-power group reckoned, on average, that over-reporting rated as a 5.8 on the nine-point scale. Low-power participants rated it 7.2. The powerful, in other words, claimed to favour the moral course. In the dice game, however, high-power participants reported, on average, that they had rolled 70 while low-power individuals reported an average 59. Though the low-power people were probably cheating a bit (the expected average score would be 50), the high-power volunteers were undoubtedly cheating—perhaps taking the term “high roller” rather too literally.

    These results, then, suggest that the powerful do indeed behave hypocritically, condemning the transgressions of others more than they condemn their own. Which comes as no great surprise, although it is always nice to have everyday observation confirmed by systematic analysis. But another everyday observation is that powerful people who have been caught out often show little sign of contrition. It is not just that they abuse the system; they also seem to feel entitled to abuse it. To investigate this point, Dr Lammers and Dr Galinsky devised a third set of experiments. These were designed to disentangle the concept of power from that of entitlement.

    Perhaps it’s one of those irregular verbs beloved of Bernard in “Yes, Minister”
    “I make a mistake, you screw up, he/she commits a mortal sin”

  12. Posted January 26, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Meant to include the final bit of that Economist article:

    Perhaps the lesson, then, is that corruption and hypocrisy are the price that societies pay for being led by alpha males (and, in some cases, alpha females). The alternative, though cleaner, is leadership by wimps.

    The mad monk has never been accused of being a wimp.

    Gotta dig up the bit from More’s Utopia where those who campaign for a position of leadership in a community are permanently banned.

  13. Posted January 26, 2010 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    While reading about Abott’s speech over at An Onymous Lefty, which concenrated on virginity as a gift, I couldn’t help but make a comment which I thought might amuse some readers here:

    Well, if it’s such an important “gift”, perhaps Tony would contemplate government-assisted means of helping women keep it by decreasing the incentive for women to lose it… maybe including in the secondary school curriculum techniques for “self-amusement”… maybe government subsidies for things that go hum in the night?

  14. Nick Ferrett
    Posted January 27, 2010 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    SL, your post proceeds upon the premise that the point of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness is to achieve some sort of coherence in society (at least that’s what I infer from your references to the results of game-theory experiments).

    I’m neither a theologist, nor even a committed Christian, so I’m not the best person to ask about the Bible’s teachings, but I’ve always understood the point of Christ’s teaching forgiveness to be about one’s relationship with God rather than some part of a code for civil society. Jesus’ teachings, if lived, invite exploitation in a number of respects: turn the other cheek, give up all your wealth to follow him, deliver unto Caesar etc.

    My point is: I don’t think it’s fair to train your guns on the doctrine for its failure to produce a happy societal outcome when that was never its point.

  15. Posted January 27, 2010 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    That may have been the original intention, Nick (not that any of us can know one way or the other). If coming up with an originalist interpretation of the US Constitution is difficult (and even Scalia concedes that point), then an originalist interpretation of the New Testament is well nigh impossible. The point is, it operates in society as a sort of civil code (the intentions of the founder notwithstanding), and on that basis is a reasonable subject for criticism, especially when the effect is pernicious, as here.

    I should add (if my conversation with Patrick upthread did not make it clear) that I am not suggesting that we build our entire society around economic or games theoretical models. Economic models are never ‘true’ in the way real life is ‘true’; they leave out complicating details in an attempt to tease out the core issues that remain. What I am suggesting, however, is that where a long-standing feature of civil society is open to economic or games theoretical analysis, then it behooves us to take the findings seriously, even if we do not ultimately change any ‘policy’ as such.

  16. Posted January 27, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Sorry – it’s a magic word.

    Oh I ran over your kids, sorry. I stole your car and went to Florida, sorry. I accidentally blew your house to bits.


    People think that ‘sorry’ begets them an entitlement to forgiveness. We’ve forgotten that you ask for it and it’s entirely up to those you ask whether or not to forgive.

  17. daddy dave
    Posted January 28, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Skepticlawyer, I think you’ve gotten the wrong end of the stick on this; or rather, the wrong end of a couple of interlocking sticks.

    First up, one attitude in this thread seems to be that it is “going against nature,” if you like, to stop people having sex. That’s only partly true. In general is in a father’s interests to prevent his daughters from being promiscuous; this is true from a genetic and evo-psych perpsective as well as a sociological one. Calling it “hypocracy” is simply introducing an alternative morality but morality has nothing to do with it…. it’s explicable entirely as self-interest.

    Second, forgiveness is a necessary social mechanism. We’re all much more imperfect and much harder to get along with than we realise or admit. To see if I’m right, try sharing a house with someone who you’re not related to and not having sex with… most such households are relatively shortlived.

    Third, you all but explicitly say that you’re negatively disposed to the concept of forgiveness because it comes as part of Christian trappings. This is misguided on two fronts. First, Christianity has appropriated a lot of what you might call “natural” ethics, that appears spontaneously and without need of metaphysical beliefs, and second (and conversely), because Christianity, due to its status over millenia as a social institution, has a lot of social conduct wrapped up in it which has nothing to do with the metaphysical stuff.

    So in sum, basically forgiveness is necessary and normal and has nothing really to do with religion; and a desire for your daughters to be chaste is a biological impulse.

  18. Posted January 29, 2010 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    DaddyDave (there are too many Daves on this blog… we used to have a surfeit of Tims, now it’s Daves…).

    I’m not suggesting that we dispense with forgiveness altogether (as Korb et al make clear, they’re not suggesting that either). Also, we’ve get plenty of examples of societies that either don’t have the concept of forgiveness (I’ve mentioned two) or who operate a ‘debit’/’credit’ system (karma works like this) rather than a ‘wipe the slate clean’ approach. There is nothing ‘natural’ about it. Those societies all worked/worked, often for long periods. We may not like how they did or do things, but I think there is something to be said for learning from other people. This idea is present in both Stoicism and Zen: ‘you need to be able to do the thing on which you advise’.

    Darwinian arguments are also fine, but only as far as they go. Human beings have choices. Indeed, the celibacy required of priests and nuns alike in the Catholic tradition represents a deliberate ‘choosing away’ from Darwin, and on a massive scale. Of course everyone points to the failures, and as I said in the post, that is unfair (even Richard Dawkins thinks the obsessive focus on Catholicism’s failures on this point is unfair). Most parish priests and Catholic nuns keep the rule. To my mind, if someone is going to offer advice on rules like that, let it be those who actually can keep St Benedict’s ‘simple little rule.’

    I am also suggesting forgiveness needs to be reigned in because it creates massive moral hazard, and not just of the sort Tony is indulging in (whether it be on Darwinian or Christian grounds, on this point I don’t much care). Think of the entire genre of tedious ‘misery memoirs’, all of which are predicated on the idea that there is something inherently worthwhile in hanging one’s dirty linen out in public, or the never ending confessionals in which celebrities, politicians and other public figures are supposed to engage. ‘Letting it all hang out’ leads to the kind of furphies Adrien describes which, while funny and exaggerated, come dangerously close to the truth. The end point is almost Pythonesque: ‘society did it, arrest society!’

    There is also a reason the Catholic Church has rules about the sanctity of the confessional, and they’re not just predicated on modern legal ideas of privacy and/or confidentiality. It’s also because, ahem, the rest of us really don’t need to know. Some things are meant to be private.

  19. daddy dave
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    there are too many Daves on this blog
    fine… call me “Munroe.”

  20. Munroe
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    On the question of forgiveness, I agree that it sometimes “needs to be reigned in” but to claim that there is “nothing natural about it” is absurd. I’d like to point out that the discussion has hopelessly conflated religious ethical systems, social norms (not the same thing, even in a religious society) and personal interaction.
    Forgiveness, censure, reevaluation, and revenge are all human responses to another’s wrongdoing. They all need to be in the mix. If you get too much forgiveness you end up in a wishy-washy society where anything goes and bad things go unpunished.

    Plus on the specific interview, SL and LE, I think you’re reacting to the whole “women have a right to choose” aspect, while failing to see that Abbott’s attitude is quite normal, whether or not it’s hypocritical.

  21. Posted January 29, 2010 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Ah, but Darren (comment 3), Abbott didn’t say learn from my mistake. He said a woman’s virginity is a gift, which is a very different thing.

    And while I disagree with what Abbott said (and with pretty much everything he says), is it fair to hold something against an adult that they did when young? I’m not defending Abbott. The way he used his “son” for political gain was disgusting, and he’s done the same thing with his daughters. And he violated their trust by discussing their sex lives with a journalist. That is why he doesn’t deserve our forgiveness, and why we shouldn’t listen to him.

  22. Posted January 29, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    Munroe it is, then! I wasn’t having a go at you, btw, but we did have a thread here go badly pear-shaped once when there were several people posting with very similar names, and I (among others) misattributed one person’s remarks to another (similarly named) person. Whoopsie!

    News: As I mentioned in the post, my inclination to hold this against Abbott is applied only when the person who has failed attempts to hector other people on the basis of that failure. I do take Munroe’s point about unforgiving public culture (and its opposite). I’ve spent time in Japan and know a fair bit about pagan Rome. Seeing people commit suicide because they’ve failed their finals or been insufficiently brave is not pretty, and I am not for a moment suggesting that we should adopt their values.

    That said, the material honesty produced among Japanese because their culture is so unforgiving (karma is ‘debit/credit’; Shinto is an honour system) is remarkable, and worth emulating in some ways.

    [Also, I think we’ve been linked to by some news site or information aggregator, because a lot of new people we don’t know are turning up. Please bear with us].

  23. Posted January 29, 2010 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] on “Too many Daves”.
    I wonder if male readership is edging up to vintage 1959/1960? 4 or 5 Daves in every class (Baird, Barnes, Bath, Hooker, Moore, Nelson, Stowe in one, so even “David B” was useless!) So… “Bathy” was the usual label. Feel free to use it. (My 1987 Kate had the same problem)

    [email protected] on “They all need to be in the mix. If you get too much forgiveness…”
    That’s the beauty of game theory and sims…like the ones SL detailed… you get a bit of a feel for the practical thresholds

    There are of course, larger experiments… pick a large area (say a continent) with a predominant belief (say monotheism or atheism) observe 500 years or so… look at the body count… but the Mad Monk won’t want that!

    But on the Mad Monk’s words, “gift” really annoys me… who gave/gives it, who to? So many overtones and subtexts possible that it’s hard to figure out which part is dogwhistle and which part designed to survive analysis.

  24. Posted January 30, 2010 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    What creeped me out was the bit where he said girls should “follow the RULES”.

    He probably believes that is because following those “rules” (which he assumes to be shared community values but which in fact haven’t been agreed since the 60s/70s) is the right thing to do according to his religion. However as a father, he’ll also want to protect them from the consequences of breaking those “rules” which is the withdrawal of social protection.

    Women who keep the rules receive the benefit of the doubt and the protection of men. Women who don’t are slut-shamed and when vulnerable to assault then find it hard to obtain the legal protections of police and court to which they should be entitled.

    It’s people (both men AND women) who believe in a monolithic set of “rules” who then go on to punish the women who break them. This fallacy is the primary support of rape culture. Its most rigorous expression is found in the concept of honour killings.

    And yes I have been hanging out on the Hoydens.

  25. Posted January 30, 2010 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    Dave B, you get first dibs on Dave… as you were the first Dave on the blog, as with TimT during the great Tim mixup 😉

  26. Posted January 31, 2010 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    What creeped me out was the bit where he said girls should “follow the RULES”.
    There are no rules. They wanna reimpose the old rules because everything’s so much better that way.

  27. Nick Ferrett
    Posted January 31, 2010 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    [email protected], I don’t think what I was saying required some sort of originalist process of construction, just an understanding of what the ordinary language of the gospels (as they are rendered today) means. Applying originalism to the New Testament is of course made more difficult by the fact that we don’t have the original words.

    All I was trying to say was that Christ’s teachings as rendered in the modern versions of the gospels is about teaching a way of life rather than a way of governing. I concede that often people attempt to impose their understanding of the Bible on others, but that is not a basis for condemning the lessons in the Bible.

    The history of people imposing their version of Christianity on those around them is hardly one of forgiveness and excusing mistakes. I think there are probably other reasons behind any increase in shamelesness

  28. Posted January 31, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] said “Certainly I was headed straight down to hell on account of not being Christian.”

    As are all the people I’d want to talk to. (Actually, Purgatory, until it was abolished. Joining in a conversation with Cicero, Confucious, etc would be fantastic)

    Cannot resist a joke: Someone (doesn’t matter who) goes up to heaven, and is getting shown around by St Peter, admiring all the Elysian fields, and comes across an area enclosed by incredibly tall stone walls. “What’s that?”. “Oh that’s where we keep the Catholics” says St P. “Oh, is that some kind of heavenly prison?” “No, it’s to keep them happy. They like to think they are the only ones up here”

  29. Nick Ferrett
    Posted January 31, 2010 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    LE, for some reason I found it really difficult to respond to the point you make. I don’t know exactly what it is about fundamentalists that annoys the hell out of me, but I think in the end it is their tendency to corrupt what is basically a pretty commendable set of rules by ignoring the ones they don’t like.

    In particular, they consistently forget to “judge not”. They also seem to ignore what I think is a central tenet of Christianity: free will. Sin, penitence, redemption and so on are meaningless if people aren’t free.

  30. Andrew Parle
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink


    You really don’t like Tony Abbott, do you?

    Fair enough, but I think you have the wrong end of the stick with regards to both hypocrisy and forgiveness.

    Tony Abbott is not a hypocrite just because he gives out sex advice that he himself didn’t follow back when he was young. That’s not what the word means. As a lawyer, and a bit of a wordsmith, you should know that… or at least care that you get it right.

    Hypocrisy is pretending to possess a virtue that one does not have. Since Tony is not pretending to be a paragon of moral virtue in this regard – he explicitly says that he, personally, is not someone to be emulated – the fact that he isn’t is not hypocrisy.

    As for forgiveness, that doesn’t seem to apply here. I think forgiveness is only meaningful when it is freely given by the person who has been wronged. He hasn’t hurt me (or you, as far as I am aware), so he doesn’t require my forgiveness.

    It is up to me how I regard his indiscretions of thirty years ago, and how it affects my attitude to him today. At that length of time, for what is a very human failing (and one I could well see myself doing something similarly foolish at that point in my life) I don’t put a great weight on it, thinking that what he has done recently is far more important.

    On the matter of his current remarks about sex, I don’t see why you are so heated. He’s asked for his opinion, he gives it. He isn’t an authority (except for his children until they are old enough to think for themselves) so to me it makes more sense just to consider his remarks as if they came from a neutral speaker. Do they make sense? What would the world be like if they were followed? Do they conflict with my own beliefs and values?

    You obviously feel differently. But you don’t explain why.

    Andrew Parle aka RWDB

  31. Posted February 1, 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    How to be a fundamentalist.
    1. read Bible select any small collection of words that can be strecthed to back up your God given right to riches, power and absolute truth
    2. Recruit a herd of very unfortunate, unwashed losers barely literate enough to spell their names and tell them what the Bible says. They won’t check it out for themselves.
    3. Feel free to cast the first stone, after all you are without sin. The Bible says so.
    4. Ensure that your followers join the army in large numbers. It’s not that you want to organize a coup or anything. You love freedom and your country. You love the freedom everyone enjoys to do what you say. The Bible says so.
    5. Have a nice day.

  32. John H.
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    They also seem to ignore what I think is a central tenet of Christianity: free will. Sin, penitence, redemption and so on are meaningless if people aren’t free.

    The central tenet of christianity is love one another. “Free will” is not really an issue in the Bible, except perhaps Romans chs 10,11 and Ephesians chap 1. Free will was a big issue in theology and sadly what was once the great strengths of christianity, doing good in the world, has become supplanted by believing x number of doctrinal affirmations. Thank God for the Salvos, literally!

  33. Patrick
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Lol. I know a lot of Catholics like that, actually. A number of soup kitchens around Melbourne wouldn’t run without them.

  34. Posted February 1, 2010 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    I decided that if she was right, I’d rather be in Hell with Mum and Dad than in Heaven with her, so I may as well reject her teachings, and if she was wrong…well it didn’t matter. It’s that judgmental thing which really annoys me.

    You know, this is really interesting… it’s kind of like a reverse Pascal’s Wager.

    Nick: See, I actually think some of the lessons of the Bible are a bit suspect, even the New Testament, which is supposed to be cute and cuddly. There’s this bloke running around saying ‘I come not to bring peace but a sword’ and telling people that family members need to hate each other over his teachings ‘he who does not hate his father and mother…’ etc. That stuff is just as prominent as the turn the other cheek stuff (which, as Nick pointed out above, is wildly impractical). We have huge issues with modern New Religious Movements that get into breaking up families (Moonies, Scientologists etc), and forget that the Ur-model for New Religious Movements was into exactly the same thing.

  35. Nick Ferrett
    Posted February 1, 2010 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    [email protected], That cracks me up. I got turned off Christianity at age 4 because Mum sent me to my first Sunday School lesson immediately before Easter. The first thing I learnt about was the crucifixion and I came home completely traumatised.

  36. Posted February 1, 2010 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Nick, that is very interesting, because you’re about the twentieth person I’ve met who’s said something similar. When you break it down it’s very awkward to explain, especially to a child.

    And also the Sally Army really does do good in the world, as does the Smith Family, although I’m not sure if the latter is religious. It’s a while since I’ve been in Australia, and they don’t exist in the UK, AFAIK.

  37. Posted February 2, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] talked of “Horrified face (on Leaglet 1) does not disappear. LE gives up…”

    Smart girl. She’ll love Gore Vidal’s “Julian” when she gets older.

    She’d be more horrified walking into a store (in China I think) that was doing their first Easter decorations. Obviously recognizing that the symbols used at Easter by Westerners involved crucifiction and bunny rabbits, they made crosses out of wood they had, got a lot of cute stuffed bunnies, and next morning… yes, bunny rabbits nailed up everywhere.
    (Well, you can’t exactly nail eggs to a wall, can you?)

  38. Posted February 3, 2010 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    I think we both are.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By More stripes « In a strange land on January 26, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    […] Forgiveness is overrated by SkepticLawyer is worth reading. Rather, I’m suggesting that shaming is the appropriate […]

  2. By Other things Tony said « In a strange land on January 27, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    […] sex and so on, discussed at length on Larvatus Prodeo, and here on In a Strange Land, and at SkepticLawyer, and at An Onymous Lefty, and no doubt elsewhere in the blogosphere too (feel free to add links to […]

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