Creeds of Forgiveness

Imagine two families living side by side, the Abbotts and the Barneys. Mister Abbott is a successful engineer, and rich, while Mr. Barney tried a number of longshots in his youth which didn’t pan out and now works as a Lyft Driver. When Barney’s son wants to go to school, Abbott gives Barney a twenty year loan. Time passes and Barney’s son invests his time and money in a fish restaurant which goes bust.

It seems obvious that the Barney family will be attracted to a creed, such as Christianity, that emphasizes forgiveness. Both in the general — the Barney family should not be judged harshly for their failed ventures — and specifically — their loan should be forgiven. And I am attracted to this creed too. Why should the Barney children suffer under the weight of a promise their father made?

Suppose Abbott forgives their loan, and metaphysically, doesn’t judge them. In a few years the young Barney — Barney Jr. — asks for a loan from the young Abbott — Abbott Jr. He gets it. But history repeats. Barney Jr. can’t pay back the loan. Instead he has a dream that the gods, or god, don’t expect people to pay back loans. Or he decides that engineering is wicked, and the fruit of a wicked tree is poisonous, and he need not pay back the loan. Or he decides that the Abbotts in particular are jerks, did it on purpose to humiliate them, and needn’t be paid back. Or he decides that words mean different things in different contexts — when he said “I will pay you back in ten years” — “I” and “pay” and “years” — all meant different things or nothing — but what they actually meant, if they meant anything, which maybe they didn’t, means he does not have to pay back the loan.

If Barney III asks for a loan from Abbott III will Abbott III make it? He would be a fool to. And the consequences of this small scenario over the society as a whole will be about what you would expect.

Over time in a society where most — or I should say “enough” — people are like the Barneys, nobody will make loans. Because they will expect that because of the value loan-recipients place on forgiveness, they will come up for some justification for not paying them back. It could be a justification that is high flown and philosophical, or beautiful and poetic, or down and dirty. But they are incentivized to do so, so they will.

Maybe that’s okay. Because a world where people are crushing their future because of promises they made in the past is sub-optimal. But a world where people will never trust promises, because they know the promisers (and everybody else) believes the promises will never be honored, is no great shakes either.

Is there an ideal mix in a society of the creed of forgiveness and the creed of doing what you said you would do?


2 thoughts on “Creeds of Forgiveness

  1. Ideally, society would operate under laws that could be used to enforce promises satisfying specific criteria. Creditors would have the option of forgiving debts, but could require debt repayment if they chose to do so. Unless the circumstances are very unusual, the choice should be left to the creditor. American law does allow certain exceptions.

    Those kinds of dilemmas are why I never lend money. If a friend needs money and I want to help, I tell him that the money is a gift, that I do not expect repayment, and that I will never think about it again. It has never failed to happen that the friend decides in the future to present me with the same amount of money, as a gift.

  2. As someone who has been on the receiving end of a lot of generosity throughout life, I think it may indeed become a habit to simply receive without great consideration about giving back. If am on the giving side, I’m unlikely to expect receiving anything back either. So one way or another the behavior is lived and reeinforced. The closer the person involved, the more difficult to draw a line. The clearer the understanding that a repayment is expected, the easier to make sure it happens. Or so it seems to me.

    Thank you for sharing your insight — appreciated as ever.

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