What Are the Implications for Forgiveness if We Take the Materialist Perspective that Free Will Does Not Exist?

Nine years ago, I was asked this same question. It is starting to arise again as people consider the materialist philosophy that circumstances and issues other than free will choices determine how people behave. I introduce my answer from 2014 here and add to it. The conclusion remains: Free will is necessary if we are to understand right and wrong and even if we are to understand forgiveness.

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We are all connected and so one person’s actions are not necessarily independent from others’ actions. Is this true? Some Eastern philosophies say this. Some Western psychologies say this, too. For example, family systems theory surmises that a misbehaving child likely is being influenced by pressures within the family generated by others’ behavior both inside and outside that family.  Psychodynamic theories in psychology say that an adult’s actions can have causes going back to how this person was treated as a child.

Given all of the interrelated ideas above about our being interrelated in our actions, we can then make at least two moves in explaining people’s behavior: 1) no one can truly help certain actions because of others’ influences over us or 2) we all have free will and choose to act rightly or wrongly even if others’ make it hard to be good.

If we take the first turn on our journey of understanding persons, then we weaken such ideas as “right and wrong,” “justice,” and “forgiveness.” After all, how can we say that one person acted wrongly? if we are all so interconnected, then this person is not acting with any kind of genuine volition. In a certain way, his misbehavior can implicate his father, who can implicate his mother, who can implicate……..On it goes until we all share the blame which weakens the case against the original person and his actions under consideration.

If we take the second turn on our journey of understanding persons, then we strengthen such ideas as  “right and wrong,” “justice,” and “forgiveness.” After all, the person, even though pressed in on all sides by others, has choices. One need not, for example, hit another person because of frustration. One’s mother has not so abused this person that she was left with one and only one option. Yes, the mother’s misbehavior (whatever it was) may make it difficult for the daughter to control her temper, but control it to a degree she can.

Free will. Independent choices. Break the laws of morality (you will not take the life of an innocent person, for example), and you do wrong. If the wrong is done to me, I can forgive. If the other does not have free will, then an apparent wrong is just that—-apparent. Do I then forgive a person for a wrong? The conclusion is no longer clear. We will have to redefine forgiveness in this case to retain the use of the word “forgiveness.” Forgiveness becomes a kind of acceptance of all along with their actions, no matter how wrong they might appear to be. We still retain such words as “compassion” and “understanding,” but the word forgiveness itself begins to fade.

If the world ever loses the word forgiveness and its true meaning, we are in very big trouble. Inner unrest and conflict within families and communities may know no end. To retain this vital concept, we must retain the truth of free will for each person.

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