Forgiveness is Underprovided

Forgiveness is Important

Whether one might socially offend us or whether one commits a crime, we face a fundamental tension between punishment and forgiveness. Punishment is important because it acts as a deterrent to the initial offense or to subsequent offenses. But punishment is also costly. Severing social or commercial ties reduces the number of possible mutually beneficial transactions. We lose economies of scale and lose gains from trade when we exclude someone from the market. Forgiveness is important because it permits those who previously had conflict to acknowledge the sunk cost of the offense and proceed with future opportunities for trade. However, an excess of forgiveness risks failure to deter destructive behaviors.

In the US, we enjoy a state that can prosecute alleged offenders and enforce punishments regardless of the economic status of the offended. While not perfect, the state incurs great cost by being the advocate of those who could not enforce great retributive punishment by their own means. A victim may choose to press charges against an offender, or the state can press charges despite a permissive victim.

In fact, our system of prosecution is somewhat asymmetrical. The state can press charges against a suspect, regardless of the victim’s wishes. While a victim can’t compel an unwilling state to press charges, say if the evidence is scant, an individual can engage in litigation against the accused.

Most of the possible combinations of victim and state strategies result in some kind of prosecution of the alleged offender. Except for litigation, our punishments in the US tend not to be remunerative – the victim isn’t compensated for the evils of the offender. ‘Justice’ is often construed as a type of compensation, however.

Herein lies a problem.

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