The work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has generated a great deal of interest in the role of forgiveness in politics. More specifically, it has raised the question of whether forgiveness should be a constitutive part of reconciliation processes between groups. In this paper, I argue that it should not, and that it might be both more useful and more realistic to consider something like Adam Smith’s notion of ‘sympathy’ instead. The first part examines the arguments for and against policies promoting political forgiveness. The second part suggests sympathy as an alternative. The third part considers and rejects some objections to the employment of sympathy in this context.
On the Benefits of Sympathy for Political Reconciliation
In the last seventy years the nature of war has changed dramatically. Rather than involving two or more national armies fighting in uniform and obeying an orderly chain of command, most organised violence since the end of the Second World War has been asymmetrical, involving a regular army on the one hand and militia or guerrilla forces on the other.1 At the same time, the nature of battle – the intense, adrenaline-fueled close quarters confrontation that has traditionally defined the very heart of our idea of war (Keegan 1983) – is also changing as a result of dramatic advances in our ability to fight remotely. The increasing role of robotic devices and drones in recent conflicts, as well as the exponentially growing potency of cyberwarfare, are changing what it means to do combat. Now, asymmetrical war has been around forever. Defeated armies and weaker parties have often turned to guerrilla tactics against stronger foes. But, in recent decades, asymmetrical war has become the primary form of violence we encounter. Similarly, the history of military technology has always been the history of killing at a growing distance (swords allow more distance than fists, longbows than swords, rifles than longbows and so on). And yet, recent years have seen a qualitative leap in what we can do from far away.
What They Mean, How They Work
In previous work I developed an account of truces focused on 'truce thinking' – the moral and psychological commitments made by those who seek to manage and reduce conflict rather than permanently end it. In this article I further develop that theory by placing truce thinking in conceptual context and by exploring a case study. Part 1 rehearses the main features of truce thinking. Part 2 situates it against the related concepts of political reconciliation and containment. Part 3 takes up Spain's transition to democracy as an example of how truce thinking works in practice.