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ISSUE 117 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/10/2003

Forgiving, forgetting: Walker argues for ‘moral repair’

By Carolyn Brostrom
Staff Writer

Friday, October 10, 2003

Margaret Urban Walker dissected questions of forgiveness and moral repair at St. Olaf’s 25th annual Eunice Belgum Memorial Lectures Series. Each year, St. Olaf brings in a philosopher to speak in the series commemorating the life of Eunice Belgum ‘67, a St. Olaf alum and philosopher who died tragically in 1977 at the age of 31.

Walker presented two separate lectures Oct. 6 and 7, entitled "Making Amends: Simple Practices and Hard Cases" and "Forgiving as Moral Repair," respectively. Moral repair, a central idea to the lectures, is defined by Walker as "the whole collection of responses [some mutually exclusive, others capable of combination] that work to restore trust and hope in a shared sense of value and responsibility."

The first lecture focused on six factors of moral repair, as well as the process of making amends and all that it entails. As "intentionally reparative actions," amends redress wrongdoing. Walker provided insight into the process of amend making, noting an inverse relationship between the scale of wrongdoing and the desire of the wrongdoer to make amends. Walker cited political cases of extreme wrongdoing, and noted that many leaders of acts such as genocide not only make no attempt to make amends, but outright deny the wrong that was done.

Walker went on to analyze studies of denial in situations of wrongdoing, concluding that three general tendencies are in action in human relations: denial of horrific wrongs, an offer of apology for slight wrongs, and variation in serious intra-personal relations. Finally, Walker theorized that amends are favored when they are likely to be accepted. Extreme cases of wrongdoing most certainly require moral repair, but so do ordinary, everyday cases, she said. Moral repair is often needed among friends, lovers, and acquaintances.

Walker’s lectures explained difficult questions that arise when considering the process of making amends. For example, what do contemporary societies owe to victims of prior wrongdoing, perhaps many generations ago? What if restorative efforts lead to additional pain and outrage from the victims? Walker argued that in such cases moral repair is still absolutely necessary and must be fulfilled carefully with tact and timing. Making amends will not always be quick and painless, but this is "not an argument that it is not needed." Walker says that even in tough or long past cases, "if there are obligations of moral repair, to give up is not only not to do something, but is a second wrong."

Once amends are made, forgiveness is possible. In Walker’s second lecture, she outlined the conditions to which we strive to return in the process of forgiving, or "moral reconstruction." There are three common and crucial steps to the process, but not all are necessary in every case of forgiveness, Walker argued. One step is to acknowledge the wrong done in the past and fix it, thereby freeing the future. Another step is the release of resentment, and yet another is the restoration of relations.

Concluding that no exclusive process exists for forgiveness, Walker said, "There are a variety of ways those injured and those who have wronged them can put wrong in the past in a morally reparative way." The ideal goals of confidence, hope, and trust may not be fully restored in each case, but Walker’s hope is that the process of forgiveness leads to a "sequel that nonetheless restores something right if not for us, then between us."

Prior to her current position as Lincoln Professor of Ethics, Justice, and the Public Sphere at Arizona State University, Walker taught at Fordham University. She is also currently a Lawrence S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values.

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