The Anthropology of Forgiveness

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also." Matthew 5:38

In my last post, we looked at the concepts of justice and mercy from an anthropological perspective using a highly simplified example featuring a fictional group call the Diz - hunters and gatherers on the savannah - sometime in pre-history.

Today, we will look at a more personal reason for mercy, which on an individual level can be called “forgiveness.”  Why do people forgive other people?  And why don’t others do so?

One reason (and I say one, because there is almost never just one reason that human beings do anything) is reciprocity.  Reciprocity is an anthropological concept that applies many human interactions: Christmas gifts, dinner parties, violence, and, yes, forgiveness.

Last time we looked at the reasons for mercy towards an individual by two groups with different interests.  This time, let’s look at the personal reasons for forgiveness.  (Again: Highly simplified examples, yes there are loopholes and other factors.  Don’t look too close.)

The Diz-zy elders are meeting to discuss the fate of Uh-Oh, who has taken more than his fair share of water.  Shall he be exiled from the band?  One of the elders is thinking to himself “My son once took extra water. I’m pretty sure that Uh-Oh saw him, but didn’t say anything.  This could easily have been my son we’re talking about .”  Another one speaks up and says “When my daughter’s children were hungry, Uh-Oh gave them an extra share of the game he had killed. He is basically a good person, he just made a mistake.”  

The elders are looking at past generosity and forgiveness, and also extrapolating possibilities into the future.  The closer you are to a person, the more likely you are to be generous or forgiving.  The members of our other, more distant band of Diz, the Diz-zed, are unlikely to benefit from Uh-Oh’s acts of generosity or forgiveness, and are thus less likely to be forgiving themselves.


Forgiveness is proportional.  I might forgive you for taking the last cookie, since I ate the last of the ice cream.  But I won’t forgive you for eating the entire box of Thin Mints yourself. 

Forgiveness is also based on intent.  I might forgive you for accidentally backing into my car, but not if you did it on purpose.  

But both of these examples are ultimately based in reciprocity.  Someday I may eat the entire box of Thin Mints (uh-oh).  Someday I might accidentally back into someone.  

Forgiveness is also one of our most complex interactions.  If it weren’t, there would be no need for marriage counselors.  It is likely that we have evolved to have forgiveness as part of our DNA, but not so much that it doesn’t have to be reinforced both by parents and religion:

“Share your toys.”  
“Say you’re sorry.”
“As you forgive, so shall you be forgiven.” 

As we become more physically disconnected from each other, we more closely resemble the Diz-zed than the Diz-zy.  When this happens, the cultural norms that we are used to break down.  It is yet to be seen what the ultimate result will be.

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