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Public Sinners: Forgive or Forget?

If you haven’t heard anything about the ongoing saga of Donald Sterling, here is a quick run-down. Sterling owns an NBA team – the Los Angeles Clippers. By most accounts, Sterling is not a morally upstanding person (see here and here). But according to (at least) the court of public opinion, Sterling went too far recently when an audio recording emerged in which Sterling said several horribly racist things. Sponsors began withdrawing support, players threatened to boycott Clippers games, and the NBA reacting swiftly by banning Sterling for life from the NBA and fining him $2.5 million.

Since then things have gotten worse (at least in one sense) for Sterling. Consensus emerged that the NBA could, and would, force Sterling to sell his team – something Sterling said he would not do. But things appear to have been taken out of his hands. Before the NBA had to force Sterling to sell, Sterling was given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and was declared mentally unfit to make decisions for his team. At that point his wife decided to sell the team, and is in the process of doing so, for a reported $2 billion.

There are many ‘ethics in the news’ issues here. I’m going to focus on just one. How ought we to think about blame and forgiveness in these kinds of very public cases? What does Sterling owe us (the public), and do we owe Sterling anything? It is easy to find on-line vitriol directed at Sterling, and his largely unapologetic reaction to the whole episode has if anything fanned the flames. Is there a point at which such vitriol is too much? Should the diagnosis – which Sterling challenges – that Sterling is ‘mentally unfit’ influence how we feel about his blameworthiness for this episode? Should his well-documented past behaviour?

I’ll be honest: I don’t know what Sterling owes us, that-group-of-people-who-have-heard-of-this-event. I think he definitely owes Clippers and NBA employees, stakeholders, and fans a serious apology, and a more contrite response to this whole episode than he has given. He also owes the people at whom his awful comments were directed some genuine acts of contrition.

But I don’t know whether that needs to happen before the relevant parties should be willing to move on. Should we, the viewing public, forgive Sterling? Can we? What would that look like?

In an interesting reflection on similar circumstances, the philosopher Linda Radzik considers the role of so-called ‘moral bystanders’ in such cases. As Radzik notes, “public indignation helps shape our moral communities.” Even when we are not the victims of some wrong, we can show solidarity with victims and reinforce certain norms by expressing indignation. But for Radzik, there is a virtue-theoretic aspect to the indignation of the moral bystander. Indignation often shades into self-righteousness and Schadenfreude. As a result, “we should also recommend that this indignation be regulated by virtue. A virtuous bystander must strike the balance between moral laxity and vindictiveness, between compassion for the wrongdoer and solidarity with the victim, and between a concerned involvement with other people and respect for their privacy.”

I agree with Radzik that indignation has its place. I also agree that the virtuous person will not want the indignation to go too far (whatever ‘too far’ comes to). I’m less sure that forgiveness is the appropriate category here. Perhaps it is best to forgive and forget. In these kind of cases, however, I prefer to simply forget.


Linda Radzik (2010). Moral Bystanders and the Virtue of Forgiveness. In Christopher R. Allers & Marieke Smit (eds.), Forgiveness in Perspective. Rodopi.

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1 Comment on this post

  1. I was waiting for someone on this blog to write about the Sterling affair – well done. Besides wondering how I should react, I was also wondering if the recording actually justifies all the outrage. If you listen to it, Sterling says a lot of strange things along the lines of “it’s okay to have sex with black people, but don’t bring them to a game”. While bizarre itself, it appears to be strange that a fall of a known-racist billionaire – known to his employers, the fans of the club, the NBA, and the basketball-interested public – is stripped from his franchise for this, but not one of his more horrific / damaging past racist behaviors. Once we can listen to it (not just read about lawsuits), we – the moral bystanders – get all the rage. So, besides forgetting this despicable man, maybe we should also question our own moral outrage mechanism which remained relatively calm once we knew that he kicked out black and poor people from his real estate properties – they lost their homes because of the color of their skin – but got all fired up once we hear him say racist and bizarre stuff.

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