Texas A&M philosopher offers tips for righting wrongs

By Catherine Maggio Texas A&M Liberal Arts student

What do Wall Street scam artist Bernard Madoff and your neighbor who broke the chainsaw he borrowed from you have in common? They both committed a wrong and many people would agree they must make reparation.

Granted, the wrongs committed by these two individuals occurred on monumentally different scales, but that doesn't alter the view of many people that both have an obligation to correct the wrongs they committed.

It might seem easy for your neighbor to correct the wrong he has done: buy a new chainsaw, apologize and that's that. But is it possible for Madoff to make amends for what he did?

Linda Radzik, associate professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University, explores such questions of reparation in her new book Making Amends (Oxford, February 2009). Radzik, who has been teaching at Texas A&M since 1997, poses a critical question in her book: What do you have to do when you have done something wrong?

"We have an intuition that you have to do something," Radzik says. "I was trying to figure out in more concrete terms, or in more detailed terms, what might be required of you."

The focus of Radzik's book is not the victim but rather the wrongdoer, a viewpoint she says has not been explored much. "There is a lot of literature on things like forgiveness and punishment," she says. "And the question there is either what should the victim do? Should the victim forgive? Or the state? Should the state punish?"

Radzik contends that this focus on the victim does two harmful things. It places "another burden on the victim," she says, and it treats the wrongdoer "as if she didn't have the moral capacity to do anything or as if she was so morally bankrupt that she wouldn't want to do anything."

So instead Radzik, in<ITALI Amends, focuses on the perspective of the individual who commits the transgression, and seeks to find whether it is possible to atone and, if so, how this is done.

The first concern, whether it is possible to make amends, actually comes back to the victim, she says. Radzik believes that amends are possible if the victim allows for it, permitting "a way back in for the wrongdoer" to make their amends. She says there "might well be cases that can never be made up fully," but she believes those instances are few and that most wrongs are capable of atonement.

Once it has been established that atonement is possible, Radzik turns to the central question of her book: What exactly must be done? The process of making amends, she says, has three main elements: communication, reform and restitution.

For Radzik, the first step to reparation is "some sort of respectful communication between the wrongdoer and the victim, and sometimes the community as well. Because wrongs often happen in the view of the community, and part of what the wrongdoer has to do is let the community know that this was a wrong, and this shouldn't have happened, and they intend to make it better."

The second step, Radzik says, is that "the wrongdoer has to undergo some sort of reform." To Radzik, this could be as simple as recognizing did something wrong, and resolving not to do it again." But she also recognizes that sometimes "we really have to reform our character" - and the reformation is not as simple.

The third and final part of atonement consists of "some sort of response to the harm that was created by the wrong," she says. The idea of simple restitution here may fall short. Radzik says that "repairing harms can take all sorts of forms," including repairing self-esteem or relationships with the community. In terms of punishment, Radzik says there is a common view that "wrongdoing just deserves punishment; it just deserves suffering."

She disagrees. "One of the most controversial aspects of the book is that I think that's wrong," she says.

Radzik says she understands the need for remorse. However, she views it as a form of recognizing the wrong committed, which leads to pain.

"When you care about something and you realize you violated it, it hurts," she says. "So the pain is just like a side effect of what we really care about, which is that the wrongdoer renew her commitment to the right and the good, to the value of other people."

To tie together her views on atonement, Radzik uses a case study of the Catholic Church and its alleged mistreatment of unwed women in "Magdalene Asylums" in historic Ireland. "I think the Catholic Church should atone for that," she says, "and it sounds like what I'm saying is that the Catholic Church should impose suffering on itself, some sort of penalty. And that, of course, is offensive to a lot of people...But I don't think of atonement as a form of punishment. I think of it as a kind of repairing of relationships."

It is this repairing of relationships that Radzik believes should be the focus of all atonement. "It's not a punitive process," she says. "It's a reparative process."

Radzik says she hopes her readers take away "a more hopeful view about righting wrongs." Instead of being concerned with the idea of"changing the past...we should be focused on fixing relationships," she says, "and that's certainly something we can do."

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