Per-Erik Milam: Forgiveness and its Reasons

This month Legal-phi is interviewing Per-Erik Milam. Per-Erik received his PhD in Philosophy from the University of California in 2014 and was until recently an Assistant Professor of Ethics and Political Philosophy at the University of Twente.

Per-Erik Milam (resized)

Welcome to Legal-phi, Per-Erik. Why did you become a philosopher?

Per-Erik: Thanks for the opportunity.

This is a hard question, so maybe I’ll give a few answers. On the one hand, there’s a sense in which I haven’t yet become a philosopher because I don’t have a permanent position and I can’t say with confidence what I’ll be doing even in the near future. Of course, one doesn’t need a permanent job to be a professional philosopher. One doesn’t need an academic job at all to think about philosophical questions, though I think it helps. My point is just that the kind of deep uncertainty that many grad students and junior faculty experience can make it hard to identify fully as a philosopher. I think I do identify as a philosopher, but the main reason is because it’s what I trained for and I haven’t done anything else for a long time. Anyway, that’s one answer to your question, but probably not what you meant to get at, so let me give another.

I became a philosopher because I like the kinds of questions that philosophy asks and because I thought I could help to answer them in a way that others might find valuable. I think of philosophy as asking questions about the presuppositions we often make in other areas of inquiry. For example, a legal theorist might ask whether the law should recognise an excuse like “rotten social background,” but we also want to know whether a person can ever be responsible in the way that’s assumed by practices like reward and punishment, praise and blame. Likewise, a political candidate might advocate for a more egalitarian political system, but we also want to know what it means to treat one another as equals. Or, if we think it’s wrong to do and allow harm, we also need to ask whether we can justify the countless ways we do and allow harm to others just by living a “normal” life—e.g. by what we eat, what we buy, how we travel, and (for people like me, at least) how we live with our various privileges?

Finally, I became a philosopher because a series of people have let me be one. I’ve always liked philosophy and I’ve been lucky enough to keep getting opportunities that let me think about philosophical questions for a living. I first encountered philosophy in high school through a program called Academic Decathlon. We read about the theories of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Freud. I was interested enough that I took two courses my first semester of university. From then on it was momentum and luck. I took as many philosophy courses as I could during undergrad. And I had a series of professors, supervisors, fellow students, and now colleagues who have taught me how to do philosophy better, encouraged me, introduced me to new ideas, questions, and presuppositions I hadn’t recognised, and challenged me to refine my initial take on whatever question I was asking. Because of their help, I’ve managed to keep getting these opportunities.

Oh…I have to admit that the academic schedule is also a big reason why I love being a philosopher. I come from the US and not many jobs there allow their employees to take a full month of vacation off each year.

Most of your work is on Ethics and Philosophy of Action. How and when did you become interested in these fields?

Per-Erik: The very first philosophy course I took, with Baron Reed at Pomona College, was on free will and responsibility. And free will was probably the most common philosophy topic that I discussed with friends. But it was really a grad course on situationism and responsibility, with Dana Nelkin at UCSD, that got me hooked on philosophy of action. The challenge posed by situationism—that many of our actions are explained by factors that we don’t reflect on during deliberation and that we would reject as reasons for acting—showed me that there were more threats to free and responsible action than I had recognised back in my first philosophy course. And it struck me how much of what we believe and value and do is a result of unrecognised influences and simple luck. It seemed to explain a lot about the world and to match very well with my own (previously unexamined) experience of choosing and acting in the world.

My interest in ethics developed in a similar way. I had always been interested in ethical questions, but when I was 21 my friend Liz recommended that I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and doing that really forced me to think carefully about ethical issues. I had taken some ethics and political philosophy courses, and I cared about social justice, but reading that book was the first time I felt the challenge these problems posed to the decisions I made every day. And I guess it was the first time I realised that the moral beliefs and commitments that guided my everyday behaviour could be completely wrong. Now, when I teach ethics, I tell my students that our goal is not just to explain why the moral beliefs we already have are correct. Our goal is to learn whether and how we can justify the moral beliefs we have and to develop the tools and habits of analysis necessary recognise when they’re not justified. I think my encounter with Singer’s book was the first time I had worked through an ethical problem and come to the conclusion that, hey, I was wrong about that in a way that requires massive change. My continued interest in ethics has been driven by a series of similar experiences thinking about poverty, privilege, gender, and a bunch of other things where it turned out my unreflective view needed to be revised.

You have written extensively on forgiveness. What is forgiveness?

Per-Erik: To forgive is to overcome one’s blame toward a person for a past offence and to do so for a particular kind of reason. So you might forgive a co-worker for mistreating you, or a friend for ignoring you, or a partner for not supporting you during a difficult time. And what you’re doing there is ceasing to blame them.

In Reasons to Forgive you argue that we forgive for reasons but that not all reasons that favour forgiveness are reasons to forgive. Why is that?

Per-Erik: The idea is that not all reasons to overcome blame are reasons to forgive. Sometimes we excuse another’s misconduct—we realise that their offence wasn’t their fault. Sometimes we justify their misconduct—we come to think that it was okay to do what they did. And sometimes we just let go of blame—we don’t forgive them, but we stop blaming, perhaps because we think it isn’t worth it. These are all good reasons not to blame, but none of these practices seems like forgiveness. If your partner asked you to forgive them, but the only reason they gave for doing so was that blame is bad for your heart and you have high blood pressure already, you might try to overcome your blame, but you wouldn’t think you now have reason to forgive them. Forgiveness seems like a response to a particular kind of reason to stop blaming, the kind of reason the offender can give you by acting in a particular way.

What then are the right kind of reasons to forgive? And what are the payoffs of your account?

Per-Erik: The right kind of reason to forgive is an apparent change of heart on the part of the offender. You have a reason to forgive when you see some indication that the attitude behind their bad behaviour has changed. The most common indications are when the person apologises, makes amends, repents, or somehow demonstrates remorse. There are lots of ways to do this and different offences might need stronger demonstrations, but these kinds of things are what we respond to when we forgive.

I think the payoff of an account like this is that it helps us distinguish two things that might often be called forgiveness, but which differ in important ways in our experience. Ceasing to blame an unrepentant violent offender because you refuse to hate even a person who has hurt you and hates you or because continuing to blame is a psychological burden that one cannot or will not bear is very different from ceasing to blame a remorseful and apologetic offender who helps you carry the burden of blame and makes the difficult task of forgiving easier. I think understanding forgiveness in terms of the reasons one has to cease blaming helps to make this difference and its significance clear. I think my view helps to make sense of the many everyday forms of therapeutic anger management that are not forgiveness.

If, as you claim, forgiveness is reason-based, then it seems that those who lack the right kind of reasons to forgive will not be able to forgive. In your forthcoming Oppression, Forgiveness and Ceasing to Blame you discuss a few factors that undermine one’s ability to forgive and include oppression among them. Why does oppression undermine one’s ability to forgive?

Per-Erik: This is a paper I wrote with Luke Brunning. Our starting point was the apparent tension between the common view that forgiveness is a powerful act for those who suffer mistreatment and the fact that oppression often undermines the very tools by which members of oppressed groups seek to empower themselves. Our idea is that oppression can undermine the ability to forgive in the same way it can undermine other ways of defending or empowering oneself as a member of an oppressed group. It can undermine the ability to forgive simply by making it more difficult. For example, forgiving an insult may require more effort if it requires that the person insulted also explain the racist presuppositions that make it especially insulting. Or forgiveness may require greater sacrifice on the part of the forgiver if they must balance forgiving with the continued self-respect. Oppression can also undermine the ability to forgive by making it more likely that an offender will refuse to give you a reason to forgive. For example, if a person refuses or fails to recognise that what they’ve done is wrong, they deprive you a reason to forgive. And this is more likely to happen if there is a variety of mistreatment that is not recognised as wrongful because it is a normal part of life, part of the background of an oppressive society. Telling racist or sexist jokes is an example of this, but so is the unwillingness of people in privileged circumstances to admit that their unintentional prejudiced behaviours are wrong or appropriate targets of blame.

In How is self-forgiveness Possible? you claim that the notion of self-forgiveness poses a challenge to accounts of forgiveness. What is the challenge?

Per-Erik: It’s a challenge to some accounts of forgiveness—not mine though (smiley face). Some accounts claim that only victims can forgive. If this is true, then we can’t forgive ourselves (except for offences against ourselves). But this would be weird. There’s a recognisable and recognised phenomenon that we call self-forgiveness and we seem to engage in this practice and to judge ourselves and others for doing it. Moreover, there’s a very plausible notion of forgiveness that’s consistent with self-forgiveness.

In the same paper you not only defend that self-forgiveness is possible, but also go all the way to provide four necessary and jointly sufficient conditions of one conception of self-forgiveness. Can you tell us a few words about your account of self-forgiveness, its explanatory power, and its intuitive force?

Per-Erik: The basic idea is that in order to forgive oneself one must believe that one has done something wrong and that one was responsible for that offence. In addition, one needs to blame oneself for doing it. For example, you might feel guilty about not supporting a friend in need and about the lack of care that your behaviour demonstrates. Finally, one needs to overcome that blame, at least to an extent, and to do so in response to a perceived change in one’s own attitude. So, if you felt guilty about not caring enough about your friend, you need to perceive—presumably through introspection, but perhaps also by paying attention to how you act—some evidence that you do care after all.

You’ve also co-authored an empirical paper on the cardiovascular benefits of forgiving. As a philosopher, how did you contribute to the study?

Per-Erik: My PhD supervisor, Dana Nelkin, and I were both part of an interdisciplinary research group at UCSD. The group’s aim was to better understand the concept, the psychological mechanisms, and physiological effects of forgiveness. Our contribution was to help our colleagues in psychology develop an account of the nature of forgiveness that was conceptually adequate. In particular, we looked at how forgiveness had been conceptualised and operationalised in previous work and saw that they were inadequate in various ways. Basically, previous accounts conflated distinct concepts and practices, so that previous studies didn’t measure what they thought did. For example, previous studies had suggested that forgiveness has cardiovascular benefits, but they understood forgiveness simply as no longer being angry.  Our study showed that forgiveness has cardiovascular benefits over and above the benefits of simply distracting oneself from one’s anger. Conceptually, forgiving is different from distracting oneself and that difference is reflected in different physiological effects.

What have you been working on lately?

Per-Erik: I’m working on two projects right now that I’m really excited about. Allison Don and I are writing a paper about political apology where we argue that some nations should implement a policy of regular apology. The idea here is that many nations have a lot to apologise for—whether genocide, religious persecution, exploitation and oppression, and unjust war—and that apologising for a different past injustice each year can both help to repair relationships with victimised groups and establish a political norm of acknowledging and taking responsibility for past misconduct. (Here is a link to a recent blog post we wrote for the Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace.)

The other project is about non-moral blame. People blame athletes for poor performance, artists for bad or boring art, scientists for faulty research, and voters for bad reasoning. Ben Matheson and I are questioning this widespread practice and arguing that, upon closer inspection, most (if not all) non-moral blame seems to be unjustified. So, for example, the blame we express toward athletes or coaches and that we see on the front pages of newspapers after spectacular failures is probably unjustified. It’s wrong and we should stop doing it.

Both of these projects are related to my work on blame and forgiveness, but they’re exciting because they also allow me to explore new literatures and familiarize myself with new questions and debates in political philosophy and normative ethics.

How was your PhD in philosophy? Any advice to those working on their theses?

Per-Erik: My PhD was long. It took me 7.5 years to do my course work, write a thesis proposal, and then complete the dissertation. It’s hard to give advice about this, but here’s one thing that helped me a lot. In the last year or two of my PhD, two friends and I formed a dissertation reading group where we met every week or two to discuss an in-progress chapter. We were all working on very different projects—Joyce on the philosophy of biology and chemistry, Adam on Robert Brandom’s logic—but we all had a broad philosophy background. We would read one person’s chapter ahead of time and talk through it for two hours or so, asking for clarification, making suggestions, and challenging the arguments. By the end, they had read more of my dissertation than anyone but my advisor and it made an enormous difference in the quality of the thesis and my ability to talk about it clearly and convincingly to people outside my area. And I think I helped them, too. Plus, we would play board games and eat burritos afterwards, so there was a short-term reward mechanism, too.

So why was this helpful? Beyond simply setting deadlines, our meetings forced me to defend particular ideas and arguments and explain them in ways that were accessible. (A dissertation can become a warren of arguments that get you to your conclusion but are completely unnavigable to non-residents.) My group also gave me regular reminders that other smart people—people I might only have seen saying clever things in class or at colloquia—were struggling in the same ways I was. This was very reassuring because it’s easy to think that everyone has their shit together but you, especially because we often encounter our peers in circumstances designed to make all us look as clever as possible. Finally, I think the experience showed me what it’s like to build something together. Academic philosophy can seem like a very individual pursuit; a smart person sitting in their office being smart. But this was a collaborative and constructive endeavour, which is always what philosophy should be, whether in classes, seminars, conference talks, or mentoring advisees.

How do you balance teaching and research? Do you write every day?

Per-Erik: How I balance teaching and research depends on the job I have. I’ve had jobs where teaching duties take up 40+ hours a week and I do research in whatever time, and with whatever energy, I have left. In this situation, whatever research you do is essentially extracurricular. It’s taking the place of time with friends, family, running, board games, etc.—you know, life. However, I’ve also had jobs with no teaching requirements. Then I do usually write every day or at least read in preparation for writing.

When not working …

Per-Erik: I hang out with my partner or with friends. I run, either with friends or with a history podcast. I play board games, read, watch old movies (usually from the 80s, but recently from the 30s), or go for walks. I have ambitions to do things like cycling or kayaking or cross-country skiing, but those require gear.

Can you list two papers in philosophy that you think more people should know about?

Per-Erik: I’m never sure how well known a particular paper is, but here are a couple I think are not well known. Shelly Kagan’s “Do I make a difference?” (2011) discusses a puzzle for consequentialists: What do we say about cases where the actions of many, taken together, clearly make a difference, but the actions of any individual seem not to make any difference at all? Can we be obliged, as consequentialists, to act in ways that might not make a difference taken individually? His answer is that in these kinds of cases—e.g. buying factory-farmed meat or emitting greenhouse gases—an individual might make a difference and that is enough to generate obligations to do (or not do) something. To me, this paper is an exemplar of a good journal article in lots of ways. It identifies an important problem in normative ethics that also has immense practical significance. It’s clear, direct, well-argued, and engaging. And it has prompted a continuing debate about the problem among other philosophers (notably Julia Nevsky and Mark Budolfson).

Another is Lucy Allais’ “Wiping the Slate Clean: The Heart of Forgiveness” (2008). This is probably the single best philosophy paper about forgiveness that I’ve read. She offers a clear account of the nature of forgiveness that captures an important dimension of our experience and which fits with a plausible theory of the ethics of forgiveness. Moreover, the paper demonstrates a thoughtfulness about our actual practice of forgiving and care for the lived experience of forgivers.

Can you tell us a few words about two or three books that have influenced your philosophical views the most?

Per-Erik: Can I count Mill’s Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and The Subjection of Women as one book (they’re collected in The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill)? If so, that’s definitely one. Each of these short books has dozens of passages that will make you tear up or shake your fist in righteous agreement or scribble an unhelpful exclamation point in the margin of your book. Mill’s writing shows care and compassion and time spent thinking about the most important problems philosophy can tackle. These books make the kind of arguments that challenge you to think harder about your own views on these issues. And each is a good introduction to deeper and more complex philosophical discussion, whether about the plausibility of utilitarianism, the importance of opportunities for “experiments in living,” or continuing and subtler forms of oppression.

Derk Pereboom’s Living without Free Will is the most influential recent defence of responsibility scepticism—i.e. the view that no one is responsible for their actions. The book takes on the leading libertarian and compatibilist accounts of free will and argues that they cannot overcome worries about luck and determinism. However, what has influenced me the most is the account, in the second half of the book, about how to live once we accept that no one is free and responsible. He offers an optimistic story of how to live without free will that has prompted a significant portion of the free will debate to focus on the value or importance of free will in addition to the question of whether we have it.  This was also the inspiration for my dissertation, which developed his argument that, if no one is responsible, then we should abandon reactive attitudes like anger, resentment, and guilt.

Susan Moller Okin’s Justice, Gender, and the Family made a big impression on me in grad school. It considers an institution—the family—that’s usually taken to be outside the purview of justice and explains how it contributes to continuing gender-based oppression. Okin shows how families influence citizens and institutions and vise versa in pernicious ways; and she then argues that a plausible theory of justice should promote justice in the family as well as in our legal, political, and economic institutions. It’s also cool because it shows that a widely accepted view, understood properly, has some radical implications for how we ought to act and arrange our institutions.

Favourite books outside philosophy?

Per-Erik: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro’s timing and prose style are reason enough to read this book. But it’s also an incredibly powerful story of human weakness and the difficulty and importance of knowing yourself. (Actually all of his books are excellent and each shows how hard it can be to know and understand yourself and your place in the world.)

Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. This book was recommended to me by a lot of friends when I asked for non-fiction recommendations. It’s an absolutely devastating account of eviction in American cities. Desmond is a sociologist and ethnographer who embedded himself in poor neighbourhoods in Milwaukee in order to document this phenomenon. It’s a horrifying look at how millions of Americans live, but it’s also rich and human and explains why things are this way.

Carol Ann Duffy’s Rapture. Duffy is a poet and Rapture is a book of love poems where she explores the ups and downs, beginnings and ends, of relationships. The poems feel modern, even when they have traditional forms. Every poem is a perfect vignette, with an image or an attitude that can remind you of a personal experience. But at the same time, over the course of this short book of short poems, Duffy creates a character that you can understand and care about whether or not you’ve had the experiences that they have. My favourite is a sonnet called “Hour.” She also has a bunch of great books, including one, The World’s Wife, where every poem is from the perspective of the wife of a famous man. It’s fantastic and often hilarious!

For more on Per-Erik and his work, click here.