The Murder of Botham Jean and the Ethics of Forgiveness
On Tuesday October 1, 2019, Amber Guyger was sentenced to ten years in prison for the murder of Botham Jean. Guyger, a former Dallas, TX police officer was off-duty and shot Botham in his own home. She claims to have mistaken his apartment for hers and, believing him to be an intruder, shot Botham. At her sentencing Botham’s brother, Brandt, announced that he forgave Guyger for her crime, and proceeded to hug her in court.
Brandt Jean forgiving his brother’s killer occasioned critical remarks. People argue that Brandt Jean, and other black victims forgiving white attackers, are systemically coerced into forgiveness because public anger from black people and communities is not acceptable to white society. Likewise people argued that Brandt Jean’s forgiveness does nothing, and signifies nothing, about the large-scale problem of violence and discrimination against black people in the justice system of the United States.
What exactly is forgiveness and under what conditions is it appropriate to give it? To answer this it is helpful to look at three separate answers: that forgiveness can be obligatory, that forgiveness can be forbidden, and that forgiveness is always optional. What would it mean for the Jean case for any one of these answers to be true? If forgiveness can be obligatory under some conditions, then what needs to be determined is whether those conditions obtained in the Jean case. If forgiveness is forbidden then Jean’s forgiveness might be inappropriate. Of course, if forgiveness is optional then it is entirely up to Jean whether he decides to forgive Guyger or not.
One prominent tradition committed to an obligation (under certain circumstances) to forgive is the Talmudic scholarship of the philosopher Maimonedes. In the Mishneh Torah he argues that forgiveness is required when the person who has done wrong is sincere in their contrition, has made amends, and has asked for forgiveness. In the Jean case, Guyger expressed regret in court for killing Botham and will begin serving her sentence soon. These two facts make at least a provisional case that she qualifies under Maimonides’ criteria: that is, that those who Guyger has wrong are obligated to forgive here. Botham’s brother himself expressed a sentiment similar to the criteria in the Misneh Torah saying, “If you are truly sorry—I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you.” Moreover he expressed the wish that Guyger not serve any jail time at all. This is an act of what Maimonides calls mechilah, which is forgiveness is the sense of removing a debt.
Importantly, Brandt Jean’s statement implies that there are more people from whom Guyger needs to seek forgiveness. He speaks only for himself, and he was not the only one wronged. The Talmudic tradition is clear that a wrongdoer must seek forgiveness from each and every person that they have wronged. Moreover most views of forgiveness agree that only those who were wronged are in a place to forgive in the first place, meaning that forgiveness is a fundamentally interpersonal thing. This touches on an aspect of many critical remarks surrounding Jean’s forgiveness of Guyger. It should not be mistaken as general absolution for the pattern of police violence against black people, nor put forward as a model of how all victims of police violence should behave. Forgiveness, even if it can be obligatory, is a case-by-case thing.
An alternative to the sort of response found in Maimonides comes from the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca. He argues that if a person’s deeds are genuinely worthy of punishment or incurring a debt then to forgo that punishment or debt is unjust. As such Seneca would vehemently object to Brandt Jean’s expressed wish that Guyger not face any jail time at all. Guyger’s action is clearly one that is genuinely worthy of punishment: she killed Botham in his own home. Seneca would view as more apt the reaction of Botham Jean’s father, Bertrum Jean, who said that though he forgave Guyger he wanted to see her receive a longer sentence. This expresses a different form of forgiveness, what Maimonides refers to as selichah. This is, rather than removing a debt, expressing an understanding of the wretchedness of a wrongdoer and their situation. However, this is not the form of forgiveness that is obligatory in Maimonides’ view—only mechilah can be obligatory. Selichah remains optional but represents a significant moral achievement on the part of the forgiver.
Viewing forgiveness as an optional, but laudable, achievement is to say that forgiveness is a supererogatory act: that is, an act which is morally good but not morally required. The paradigmatic supererogatory act is something heroic—jumping in front of a bullet, for example. When someone does something supererogatory they have “gone beyond the call of duty.” The concept of selichah Maimonides puts forward fits the bill, and generally it’s clear why forgiveness might be treated as supererogatory. Just as it would be overly demanding to require people to risk their lives to save strangers, it would be overly demanding to require a person to forgive someone who caused them tremendous harm or trauma. If a victim can bring themselves to forgive a person who has ever wronged them—as is the case with the Jean family—this could be seen as a sign of a honed moral sensibility and significant effort.
If there are any grounds for thinking Brandt Jean’s forgiveness of Amber Guyer is inappropriate, it could only be that it is unjust to let deserving offenders go unpunished. While Bertrum Jean’s statements are unexceptionable on any of the views of forgiveness presented here, the critical remarks concerning the whole episode also ring true. In the end, as forgiveness is an interpersonal phenomena, no general lessons or absolution are in the offing.