An Ethics of Atonement


A few years ago I presented a paper entitled “An Ethics of Revenge” (perhaps I’ll publish parts of it on the blog someday soon). In this paper I looked closely at Simone de Beauvoir’s essay “An Eye for an Eye,” published shortly after the Second World War. Beauvoir observed that victims of WWII atrocities felt little satisfaction from the judicial process of convicting war criminals. The punishment was so far removed from the crime, and at such a distance from those directly affected, that Beauvoir sought to develop an ethics that would fully do justice to/for the victims. Such a theoretical system would involve a more direct involvement on the part of the harmed, if not directly participating in, the sentencing and punishment.

At its limits this is an anarchic system whereby individuals are responsible for their own retribution. No fool however, Beauvoir leads us to aporia, stating that this would likely result in an indefinite cycle of violence. Yet, this violence would be the risk of persons involved, and most do not have the courage or fortitude to enact or endure harms anyway, says Beauvoir. I contend that if the parties involved mutually recognize the crimes and pains, and grant the victim his or her own means of punishment, the cycle would close itself after the first crime is reconciled. For the rape victim who punishes her rapist, the possibility of revenge from friends or family seems to close itself due to the historically, physically, and mentally harmful act of rape. In other words, would we really want to take our revenge on a victim who took her revenge on her rapist? While more pacifist or judicially-minded individuals would like to continue the cycle of violence, punishing the rape victim for her own crime without taking into account what brought it about, I am inclined to see the dormant possibilities in retributive violence (a controversial statement to be sure, a statement which needs further development and clarification).

Beauvoir’s point: this firsthand distribution of justice would satisfy one’s thirst for vengeance, although, she notes, no punishment will resurrect the dead, and so full satisfaction seems impossible. With this ethics of revenge nevertheless, the victim at least feels they have done everything in their power to make right, on their own terms, and in their own way.

One of the many difficulties inherent in an ethics of revenge would be the timeframe in which a vengeful act would be allowed or prohibited. Many films play with this idea of time and history, as the most interesting in the revenge genre depict characters who were harmed years or decades prior, and then develop a complicated plan to take their vengeance. These extreme cases aside, prior to an ethics of revenge, given the time between crime and its punishment – in judicial or personal forms – an ethics of atonement warrants some consideration. A chance for atonement precedes vengeance.

From the Middle English at-onen, to become reconciled (“at one” with someone), atonement is a bringing into accord or harmony relations between individuals. Harmony can be restored in two ways. The first is via what I have called revenge. A victim asks, or forces, their victimizer to make amends. But in this version of atonement we see a definite lack of authenticity that would perhaps grant the victim their satisfaction. The victimizer maintains his sovereignty because his hand was forced, so to speak, to make right. This individual did not see the harms caused, did not recognize the person(s) as harmed, and did not use his own will power to atone.

The second, and perhaps more personally satisfying for the victim, is an atonement that appears spontaneously, from the mind and will and body of the victimizer. In this fashion the victimizer destroys part of his sovereignty, sacrificing himself for the crimes committed (and we should see the Biblical Atonement here). The victimizer need not unwillingly put himself into the hands of his victim but does so for their satisfaction in order to become reconciled.

I would suggest that the first is the more often employed – as Georges Bataille has shown us with countless examples, to lose a part of our ego, even for a moment, leads to great anguish. It is frequently the case, and the easier one to be sure, to simply and unwillingly do lip service to our victim, thereby retaining our personally justified harmful actions.

The authentic sense of atonement, on the other hand, dispenses with our own sense of whether we were justified in harming another. In this account the harms done are on the side of the victim, regardless of victimizer’s intention or victim’s possible misreading of an intention. A spontaneous atonement (hopefully) reconciles. But the bigger question might be how to interpret whether a harm has been done. I believe the “I didn’t know” excuse to be conniving rather than genuine however. The emotional affect on the victim’s face, in gestures, in postures, in language, can be pre-cognitively interpreted many have argued (“Just as we may extend the circle of touched and touching hands (in shaking or holding hands with another), so our body can ‘annex’ or ‘incorporate’ the emotional body of another” [Sue Cataldi, Emotion, Depth, and Flesh]) – whether we choose to answer the other’s call is the important issue for an ethics of atonement.

An ethics of revenge is practiced more than an ethics of atonement. The latter is the more difficult, so we resort to the former; or, the former would be unfortunately descriptive while the latter prescriptive. I claimed our sovereignty is at stake in atonement in a way it is not in waiting for revenge to happen to us – this could also be called fear. Sara Ahmed writes, “fear responds to what is approaching rather than already here. It is the futurity of fear which makes it possible that the object of fear, rather than arriving, might pass us by” (The Cultural Politics of Emotion). Thus an act of revenge may happen to/against us in the future, but it also might pass us by. We do not answer to the harms we’ve done immediately because there is no fear in the present; we will not answer the call of our victims, out of our own volition, because it would deny our sovereignty, and because we impatiently await them to confront us about it instead (a further injury certainly). Fear has already prepared us to fight their claims of wrong-doing or to flee the scene before such a confrontation occurs.


2 thoughts on “An Ethics of Atonement

    • I wouldn’t like to include atonement as part of an essence, or something like that. I would suggest that the person must do something, destructive or creative; the former is almost against his/her will, while the latter could be willed into something productive/ethical. Hard work this atonement!

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