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Justin Capes (Flagler College), "On Penance"
Forthcoming, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research
The idea of doing penance may conjure up unpleasant religious images of confession and self-flagellation. But there is a non-religious (or not essentially religious) version of penance that arguably has an important role to play when it comes to making amends for wrongdoing.
Most of us would agree that when we wrong other people, which even the most virtuous among us do from time to time, we should try our best to make amends. But how exactly are we to go about doing so? Apologizing is often a good start, and in cases of minor transgressions, especially those committed against people nearest and dearest to us, a sincere, well-executed apology will be enough. In other cases, though, especially when our wrongdoing is more serious, simply saying we’re sorry, even if we do it with the utmost sincerity, just isn’t going to cut it.
Here's where penance comes into play. Penance, as I understand it, is a sacrificial act undertaken by wrongdoers as a demonstration of their contrition. Thus conceived, penance is closely related to apology, but it does at least two things that an apology on its own sometimes can’t do.
The first is that it provides evidence to others that our apology is sincere. It’s easy—often too easy—for some people to say they’re sorry. So, how can those we’ve wronged, especially if they don’t know us well, be confident that our apology is sincere? An act of penance on our part can provide them with some much-needed evidence, as it demonstrates, in a way that words alone often can’t do, that we are sorry for what we did and are committed to mending our ways.
The second thing penance does is to help nullify the offensive or threatening message of wrongdoing. When we wrong others, we not only harm them materially, physically, or emotionally, we also communicate something. We communicate that they aren’t important to us, that we don’t value them, that they don’t matter, that they aren’t worth taking into consideration. And this offensive and threatening message must be dealt with; it must be nullified.
Both (sincere) apologies and penance address the message of wrongdoing. Both communicate remorse for our wrongful behavior and our intention to do better in the future, and, in doing so, both seek to cancel the offensive or threatening message communicated by our wrongful behavior by conveying that we (now) reject that message. Sometimes, though, apology alone isn’t enough to achieve this aim. Doing penance can help, for while both apology and penance communicate contrition, penance puts our contrition into action. By performing a sacrificial act to demonstrate how sorry we are for what we did or failed to do, we not only provide compelling evidence that our apology was sincere and that we don’t endorse the false message communicated by our wrongful behavior, we also send a countermessage. We say that the victim of our wrongful behavior does matter and that they therefore should be taken into consideration.
If the goal of doing penance is to provide compelling evidence of our contrition and to nullify the offensive message we have communicated by our wrongful behavior, how can we best achieve these aims? A traditional answer says that we should either engage in self-punishment or should voluntarily submit to punishment at the hands of others. Indeed, some people even define penance in terms of self (or voluntarily accepted) punishment. The idea is that by punishing ourselves, or by willingly accepting punishment at the hands of others, we are demonstrating how pained we are by our wrongful behavior and how seriously we take what we have done. We also communicate that we empathize with the pain our wrongful behavior has wrought.
Although accepting punishment or imposing it upon ourselves may sometimes be an appropriate act of penance, this isn’t always the case. Punishing ourselves is often too self-focused to convey our concern for those we’ve wronged. A much better way to communicate our concern is to give a gift to, or perform some act of service for, victims of our wrongdoing beyond what’s required to repair the material or physical damage it occasioned. (All the more so if our gift or act of service is somehow related to the wrongful behavior for which we are trying to atone.) In doing so, we needn’t punish ourselves, but we are conveying the message that we are sorry for what we did and that we care about those we have wronged and how our bad behavior has negatively affected them. Gifts or acts of service thus more effectively achieve the reparative aims of penance than does self-punishment. So, if we want to effectively communicate our contrition and nullify the offensive message we communicated through our wrongful behavior, we’re probably better off staying away from hairshirts or their modern equivalent and focusing instead on the people we have wronged and how we can (re)affirm, to them and to others, their moral worth.
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