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Moral RepairReview - Moral Repair
Reconstructing Moral Relations after Wrongdoing
by Margaret Urban Walker
Cambridge University Press, 2006
Review by Arto Laitinen, Ph.D.
May 8th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 19)

Traditionally, much of moral philosophy has been interested in the nature and content of moral norms, requirements and reasons, which tell us what we ought to do, or what is right and wrong. Margaret Urban Walker's book Moral Repair joins the growing literature which shifts focus from the analysis of such requirements to another aspect of moral life, namely to the dynamic nature of normative expectations, violations, responses to violations and processes of repair. Especially the literature on restorative justice and on theories of responsibility shares this focus.

The first chapter of Walker's book introduces the notion of "moral repair" and the chapters that follow discuss central elements of moral relations, namely hope (ch 2) and trust (ch 3), as well as one basic emotional reaction to violations, resentment (ch 4). The last two chapters concern forgiving (ch 5), and making amends (ch 6). Walker's book continues her project on developing a kind of feminist approach to ethical life. The book contains a number of illuminating real-life examples and is very accessible to readers who prefer clear accounts without too much abstract theorizing, and to ones who are not familiar with the relevant literature beforehand. This is not to say that the book is fit mainly for introductory purposes: Walker's thoughtful essays on these topics invariably manage to point out weaknesses in rival analyses, and to suggest improved understandings. Together the chapters provide a suggestive picture of how central elements of the dynamics of moral restoration hang together. In this review I will try merely to sketch an overview of this picture. (Throughout the book, there were interesting convergences with and enrichments to Hegelian social philosophy and theories of mutual recognition, developed in recent years by Axel Honneth and others, but I will not point out such convergences separately below.)

The book concerns responses to wrongdoing. Any moral violation is a morally relevant event (among other morally relevant facts) which gives reasons for certain further responses (emotions, attitudes, actions). In principle, it will remain a reason--giving or requirement--constituting fact, until adequate responses by relevant parties have satisfied or fulfilled the requirement. (Thus differing from such ordinary reasons which cease to exist when the situation is no longer on; we have no longer a reason to open an umbrella if it no longer rains; but we continue to have reasons to make amends even though the act of wrongdoing took place in the past). Or as Walker puts it, more colorfully, attending to past violations which have not been set right is not a matter of opening closed wounds, as the wounds have remained open all along: "if repair is owed, then repair must be attempted. If it has not been attempted, then wounds are still open and injuries and insults continue." (36).

The reasons and requirements that a moral violation creates are different for different agents (the victim, the wrongdoer, the members of the community). And they are reasons for very different things (emotions and attitudes such as resentment; actions or policies such as acknowledging one's responsibility, giving an account of the reasons or explaining why one did it, forgiving, punishing, compensating, making amends etc). The reasons that govern responses to normative violations are not merely backward--looking, as they have an implicit forward--looking aim, echoed in the subtitle of the book, namely reconstructing moral relations after wrongdoing.

Someone might have the worry whether in this context forward--looking reasons are reasons of the wrong kind, because what is at stake is adequate response to a past violation. Surely, what is an adequate response (punishment, blame, resentment) depends on the nature of the violation, and not on any kind of future benefit (otherwise we might have to admit we have reasons to punish the innocent, if that would happen to maximize future welfare etc)? This is indeed a good objection against some kinds of forward-looking reasons, but perhaps not against the forward--looking purpose of reconstructing moral relations. Perhaps the only responses that serve genuine moral repair are precisely the ones that are given by backward-looking reasons (that is, punishing only those who are guilty; etc), and they can have the desired restorative effects only if they are adequate given the violations. This may be a question that deserves further examination.

Walker's analysis of such reconstruction stresses the role of mutual trust and hope; the needs and emotions of the victim (the need to understand why the violation happened; the need to receive an apology; the need for emotional restoration and healthy self--relations), and both the interpersonal (between the wrongdoer and the victim) and wider communal nature of the damage (each violation is a challenge to the normative order). All and all, she aims to "clarify the moral psychology of stable and disrupted moral relations, finding what the relatively stable consist in, and what has been lost in the damaged or shattered ones."(6)

In agreement with P.F. Strawson's classic essay "Freedom and Resentment," Walker holds that normative expectations and such reactive attitudes as resentment are central to moral life. She adds that in sustaining moral relationships, hope and trust are relevant attitudes. We need to have confidence "that the moral understandings we share with others are indeed worthy and credible understandings of how to live", and "we need to trust ourselves and each other to be responsive to moral standards that are presumably shared."(66).

Our confidence that the standards, norms and values we have are not normatively and evaluatively misguided is to some extent hopeful. "Our moral commitments are never reasonably seen as beyond question" but at the same time "the stability of our ways of living requires the subscription and participation of most of us a lot of the time" (66). We hope that such subscription and participation will indeed lead to worthy lives. We bet our lives, as one might say.

And our trust in others and ourselves involves a normative expectation: it is not merely anticipation or prediction, but there is a sense of entitlement to what we expect. We hold each other responsible for acting accordingly. Such normative expectations "seem only sometimes to embody strong anticipation of fulfilment. At other times, we expect something of someone, without being certain, or even being doubtful, that we can expect them to do it."(69). Thus, while normative expectations embody trust, "that trust itself can be either more confident, when one relies on compliance one believes is somewhat or very likely, or more hopeful, when one relies on compliance that is possible, but more uncertain. The fact that people cling to trust in the face of evident unreliability, for example, suggests that trust is sometimes hopeful, rather than confident."(69). Thus, the trust in question varies from confident anticipation to uncertain hopefulness.

Another central aspect is the need for normative confirmation when wrongdoing has occurred: "When we express our resentment to others, we invite confirmation from others that we have competently judged a normative violation and that others share our interest in affirming the norms we hold, in showing disapproval of conduct out of bounds and perhaps in seeking redress of violations. Most fundamentally, we seek confirmation that these norms are meant to include and protect us; that we are recognized by others and that our dignity is valued by others." (26)

The goal in our responses to wrongdoing is restoration, or moral repair. "Moral repair is the process of moving from the situation of loss and damage to a situation where some degree of stability in moral relations is regained." (6). Or: "Moral repair is restoring or creating trust and hope in a shared sense of value and responsibility." (28). Or: "Repair of relations involves creating or stabilizing normative expectations, trust, and hope of some types for those parties affected by wrongdoing. The parties include primarily wrongdoers, victims and communities." (38)

Walker points out that this kind of restoration is not always possible, and there is usually a cost, "for the victim, the cost of absorbing some irreparable loss, pain, and anger; for the wrongdoer, the cost of some shame, vulnerability, and compensating action; for communities, the costs of providing acknowledgement and vindication for victims, placing responsibility and its demands on wrongdoers, and showing that standards are affirmed and enforced." (6).

Crucially, if requirements to address wrongs are not met, they constitute further wrongs. Walker calls "normative abandonment" a response which "ignores the victim, challenges the victim's credibility, treats the victim's complaint as of little import, shelters or sides with the perpetrator of wrong, or, worse, overtly or by implication blames the victim" (20). Such abandonment or isolation is a "second injury" that can be humiliating, painful and enraging, and constitutes a second case of wrongdoing on top of the first.

In Chapter Two, Walker takes a closer look at hope, and stresses four aspects of it: futurity, desirability, belief in possibility and efficacy. Hope is always oriented towards future in that it usually concerns events that lie in the future, and even in cases where hope concerns past events ("I hope she made it home safely", "I hope they didn't die in vain") the events are not yet known by the person who hopes. Secondly, hope involves an evaluative stance, "what is hoped for is welcomed, sought, or desired; and should the object of one's hopes come to be realized and its reality come to be known, one will be pleased by the fact" (45). Further, when I hope, I must believe that there is a non--zero probability that the thing I hope for might be or come true. And most importantly, hoping has dynamic effects, it will steer our thoughts, feelings, talk, attention and action, "to attend to or be attuned to what is hoped for in a way that tilts or propels us towards making it so" (47). It guides us to imagining alternative routes and looking for openings (50).

The connection of hope with moral repair is that any wrong can demoralize us and undermine our vital hopes. "This is why every reparative gesture or practice must assess and acknowledge the human harms and moral costs of lost hope. Every attempt at repair must seek either to restore or replenish hopes destroyed or diminished, or to cooperate in the establishment of new hopes and a vision of the future that supports them." (65).

In Chapter Three, Walker analyses trust. As pointed out above, central to Walker's analysis is the idea of normative expectations. Trust differs from mere reliance in that it is supported by responsibilities. A further central idea is the notion of default trust. Trust can be a matter of more or less specific entrustments (in which A trusts B to care for C), or of "trusting relationships" (ones of deep feelings or continued commitments, where motivations are characteristically part of the expectations) but importantly also of "default trust", an "unreflective and often nonspecific expectation that strangers or unknown others may be relied upon to behave in an acceptable and unthreatening manner." (84). "There is a sense in which, in myriad activities of daily life, we trust "people." We trust that they will behave as they should. Sometimes it seems that what we trust is the reliable good order and safety of an environment." (84). Walker calls networks of people or geographical locations where people feel relatively safe, or at home, zones of default trust, in which people know what to expect and who to trust. Default trust constitutes an unreflective and habitual background and it can "constitute a "climate" in which specific trusting relationships of many kinds seem normal and ordinary; robust default trust within a work environment, for example, is likely to foster the willingness of individuals to work cooperatively and to rely on others." (85)

Violations naturally affect the relations of mutual trust, and in worst cases, "it is not only the violated relationship that is shattered but a whole nexus of the injured person's beliefs about himself, his judgment, his understanding of a shared history, and even the nature of "people", "the world" and "right and wrong" (90). One may note that this converges with the Hegelian idea that relations to self and relations to others are mutually dependent, and that one's ontological "basic trust" depends on the care that one receives from others.

Thus, moral repair is a matter or restoring the relations of trust, and meeting the victims' needs for emotional restoration, which are often more important than material or financial reparation. Damages to trust call for assurance, but such assurance may be lacking due to isolation, abandonment, or systemic distortions. And as Walker stresses, not responding to a violation constitutes a further violation.

In Chapter Four, Walker discusses various theories of resentment, and ends up suggesting as her considered view that resentment "responds to threats to expectations based on norms that are presumed to be shared in, or justly authoritative for, common life. In some cases resentment also responds to experienced threats to one's standing to assert or insist upon those norms." (114). There is a variety of things that can occasion resentment: wrongful harms and losses (assaults, cheatings, sufferings, stealings); exploitations (free-riding and manipulative profiting); improprieties (disturbances of presumed status ordering); demotions (lowering the resenter's position); slights (treatment beneath one's proper status); offences (victimless social fouls) (123--4).

Resentment is an accusing anger, and like other reactive attitudes it is a kind of moral address, sending a message and inviting a response. It can be addressed to the offender, or to others who are in the position to reaffirm standards. "What resentment calls out for is assurance of protection, defense, or membership under norms brought into question by the exciting injury or affront." (134) "What is at stake in resentment is the mutual recognition of norms that define our society and our claims to membership in it." (136). The answer that is sought for is something like "be assured, trust again" or "be assured, we judge as you do". (135).

Walker notes that continuing success in meeting the resentment of victims of injustice demands "clear practices of communal acknowledgement that assert the victims' deservingness of repair and the wrongdoer's obligation to make amends as well as communal determination to see that meaningful repair is done."(144). What kinds of practices are these? Walker mentions judicial prosecutions, amnesties, truth commissions, material reparations for victims, as well as "moral reparations and satisfactions such as apologies, memorials, accurate history, continuing education, preventive measures and legal guarantees." (145).

Walker is careful to distinguish the questions of when resentment is justified, and when it should be taken seriously: we have reasons to care about widely diffused resentments even when they are not well founded. "Resentments can signal fissures in the social body and breaks in people's attachments to it and to each other." (118).

In Chapter Five, Walker approaches forgiving with the view of moral repair. Three aspects of forgiving that are popular in philosophical analyses are all important, but in her view, not necessary. First, forgiveness settles a wrong in the past while releasing the future from its impact. Second, forgiveness overcomes or lets go of resentment or other "hard" feelings against the offending person. Third, forgiveness restores damaged or broken relations between those injured and their offenders, and perhaps relations between them and others. (154)

Concerning this topic, as well, Walker makes a number of interesting and well-founded observations and claims. The only place where I felt her treatment was a bit sketchy was the discussion on what it might mean to hold that some things are unforgivable. I would have thought it is just to hold that something cannot be forgiven, but Walker suggests a number of things that people might have in mind when they hold some things unforgivable, including the idea that the violators are to be "exiled permanently and without appeal from human moral communities" (189). I was not sure what that sort of "exile" was supposed to mean (but I'm sure it does not mean that we'd cease to have any moral obligations, such as not to torture, towards such persons).

Chapter Six is devoted to the topic of amends, intentionally reparative actions by parties who acknowledge wrongs. Walker discusses the discrepancy between our rich repertory of routine reparative gestures in ordinary everyday situations, and the sad tendency of violators to deny their deeds in large-scale cases of wrongdoing. But naturally, even after "episodes of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and mass rape and killing in such places as Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, or Sudan" moral repair is called for. "Applying remedies for this kind of distortion will inevitably be a long--term process on many fronts, most likely including orchestrated political, legal, and social change, changes in education and custom, carefully considered displays and rituals of recognition and respect, and substantial reparative measures of several kinds." (35).

All and all, Walker's accounts of all these topics make good sense, and are well thought through, and I would like to recommend the book to anyone interested in these topics. And naturally, I would recommend interest in these topics to anyone.

© 2007 Arto Laitinen

Arto Laitinen, PhD, Department of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of Jyväskylä.


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