By: Kathryn Coe, Ph.D., Science of Virtues scholar, Department of Public Health, School of
Medicine, Indiana University Purdue University, Indianapolis
Craig T. Palmer, Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri-Columbia
In our study of forgiveness, one aspect that has seemed to emerge consistently is how the processes for the resolution of conflict differ between small-scale, tradition-based societies and larger groups, including the early nation states. The behavioral rules of conduct that are found in more traditional societies, and the systems that support those rules, appear to be aimed at promoting enduring, cooperative relationships among individuals who are identified as kin. The system promotes forgiveness and reconciliation by requiring people to talk things through so that social relationships can be repaired and will continue and that, in an important sense, no one loses. In nation states, traditions largely have broken down and behavioral codes govern interactions that center on the exchange of goods and services that occur between non-kin. In such societies, the behavioral codes, as Jones (1997: 167) writes, “define and protect individual rights” and “dispense justice.” Individual rights and justice are often at the expense of enduring, cooperative relationships; they mean, according to former Chief Justice, Arthur Goldberg “that you consent to lose” (cited in Holthaus, 2008:25). As these early states typically included multiple kinship-defined traditional societies (e.g., a number of distinct tribes), they were vulnerable to splitting along these kinship divisions (van den Berghe 1981); consequently, a fundamental change in the rules of conduct and the system supporting those code was required. These changes included forgiveness being replaced by punishment.
Nearly anywhere you look in the anthropological literature you will see references to “traditional” societies. The use of this term implies that in the midst of the seeming chaos of cultural diversity in the world, there exists a recognizable dichotomy between traditional and nontraditional societies. Although this dichotomy is obviously actually a continuum, it provides a useful place from which to approach the cross-cultural study of rules of conduct and of forgiveness. The cause of the emphasis on forgiveness in traditional societies can be found in the definition of tradition as cultural behaviors copied from ancestors. Thus, traditional societies are those in which cultural behaviors tend to be have been copied from ancestors for many generations. These copied behaviors included not only the rituals that are recognized as being stereotyped and repeated from one generation to the next, but also the everyday behaviors related to subsistence, and most importantly, social interaction.
Although some traditional kinship-based societies are small, the tradition of passing descent names from ancestors to descendants over many generations enables some traditional societies to become very large over a period of many generations, as large numbers of kin are identified explicitly. As van den Berghe and Barash (1980:404) explain, unilineal descent “can be seen as a cultural adaptation enabling up to millions of people to organize.” In societies like the Tiv, we find “the whole population of some 800,000 traces descent by traditional genealogical links from a single founding ancestor” (Keesing 1975: 32-33; see also Evans-Pritchard 1951:29).
While traditions that dictate the use of descent names make it possible to identify, as kin, large numbers of individuals, other traditions that encourage enduring cooperation with those kin are necessary to produce the cooperative social relationships that form these individual kin into a society (Coe, 2003; Palmer and Steadman 1997). By enduring cooperation, we mean cooperation between individual that lasts over the lifetime and that then is transmitted to the children of the respective parties. These strategies including the use of the arts, including storytelling, and moral systems.
The ethnographic record is replete with evidence that ancestors have passed on such moral codes, sometimes referred to as tribal or ancestral law, to their descendants. Rattray (1929:3) writes that the origin of moral codes are ancestors, who “from time immemorial,” were the “primitive custodians of the unwritten, uncodified, unclassified rules of conduct.” Primitive law was ancestral: “All of it [primitive law],” Culwick and Culwick (1935: 8) write, “is neither more nor less than the rules of behaviour ordained by the ancestors” (see also Hoebel 1949: 366), and codes are said to “be based on the practices of one’s own ancestors” (Edel & Edel, 1957: 87). These rules often have no other justification than “we do it this way because the old men say it is wiser” (Sun Chief, 1942: 268), or “it was the custom of their ancestors” (Tylor, 1891: 252), and it is now our “duty” to our ancestors to behave the way they specified (Johnson, 1984; Westermarck, 1912).
The ancestors who gave the rules are said to still participate in social life, rewarding those who obey and punishing those who violate their rules (Santos Granero, 1991), a claim that may be universal in all traditional societies (Steadman et al. 1996). Middleton states that among the Lugbara, “the rules of social behaviour are the ‘words of our ancestors’” (1960:27). Santos Granero (1991: 226) reports that even today, tribal people such as the Peruvian Amuesha, claim that “’yi’ (morality), which promotes such kinship responsibilities as love and generosity,” is crucial to the existence and perpetuation of harmonious and enduring social relationships. “Immoral” behaviors, in contrast, are those that are “antisocial,” demonstrating selfishness or “greediness or meanness” (Santos Granero, 1991: 226) in their “disregard for kinship duties and failure in one’s duties towards other fellow Amuesha” (p. 45). Selfish behaviors are the ones that require forgiveness and forgiveness is a crucial part of the moral behavior prescribed by ancestors for their descendants to follow. For example, it is the first trait listed in the Ndembu’s “concept of the ‘good man’ . . . who bears no grudges, who is without jealousy, envy, pride, anger, covetousness, lust, greed, etc., and who honours his kinship obligations . . . [and] respects and remembers his ancestors” (Turner 1979: 374 emphasis added).
In contrast, in a non-traditional society the laws and the procedures that are designed to identify guilt and seek justice through fines and punishment that matches the judged severity of the crime may damage, irreparably, enduring social relationships (van Baal, 1981). In the many parts of the world where traditional moral codes continue to exist within a non-traditional punitive legal system, it is possible to observe people using the two systems on the basis of whether or not the people involved are kin. That is, the type of relationship in which individuals are involved (kinship or non-kinship) affects the manner in which conflict is resolved. Breaches in enduring kinship relationships,or social relationships that had a “time dimension…are not amenable to handling through law” (Yrgvesson, 1978: 83). Collier (1973) found that in her work with the Zinacantecan of southern Mexico that if individuals wished to preserve a valued relationship they would avoid legal procedures and seek traditional procedures that make reconciliation possible. This is because strong punishment and “revenge denies the presence of social ties” (van Baal, 1981: 106). To resolve problems and allow social relationships to continue, settlements will typically “restore the victim of the crime to his status and give the criminal the opportunity to be reaccepted as a member of the group by his atonement” (van Baal, 1981: 106).
Due to their very nature, relationships based on traditions cannot be instantly reinstated. It is, however, possible to learn about consequences of certain aspects of traditions, such as their ability to encourage forgiveness, and then implement mechanisms resembling those aspects in a way that produces similar consequences, such as increased forgiveness, in modern societies.
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This is a very thought-provoking piece. Here are a couple of thoughts or questions that I think would be worth discussing by the science of virtues community.
1) The essay seems to take a negative view of legal justice as practiced in states, compared to the more "organic" justice characteristic of smaller, traditional societies. The current "restorative justice" movement is trying to fashion a more personal, less punitive approach to justice than legal systems often provide. Does this satisfy the authors' call for a blending of the two systems?
2) David Hume noted that "justice" is a concept invented for use in large, modern societies, to mimic the effects of moral sentiments whose natural envorinment is the family or smaller social groups. In the family (and in the tribe?), people don't need "justice," but in larger societies, the kind of moral community characteristic of those smaller units does not exist.The more informal/traditional methods of forgiveness may be resorted to among kin or local people who know each other well, but can it have any wider application in mass states?
3) We should not forget that the softer, more forgiving aspects of traditional social morality is sometimes coupled with institutions or practices that we would find undesirable. At the extreme, we have traditional kinds of "justice" like honor killings or blood feuds. The authors argue (relying on Jones, 1997, which I have not been able to get my hands on), that traditional societies "define and protect individual rights." But I think it's important to recognize that individual rights do not occupy the place we would like in these societies. For example, a woman has certain rights and privilegesaccruing to her place, but she does not usually have the right to select a place or role other than that assigned by the traditional order. The same holds for individuals generally, as I understand it. To what degree are these confining aspects of traditional cultures separable from the 'kind and gentle' institutions we would wish to maintain or adopt?
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