Helping v Punishment & Forgiveness


Groups have a powerful influence on our feelings, beliefs, and behavior.

This article explores how helping, punishment, and forgiveness influence our codes of conduct and rules of behavior in groups.

How individuals, small groups, classrooms, and other social groups interact to share identities to inspire both personal change and social movements for good or bad.

Consider these situations ...

  • Your friend ignores your snub and invites you to dinner. Should you go?
  • A co-worker makes you look bad in front of your boss. Should you try to get even?
  • Should you cheat on a test?
  • Should we kill killers?
  • If a power company supports a symphony orchestra, ought we ignore its destructive, although legal, pollution of the environment?
  • Shattering a worldwide voluntary moratorium, North Korea resumes its testing of nuclear weapons. Should we?

An example of forgiveness ...

Ten days after 9/11, Rais Bhuiyan was shot by a white. His near-death experience caused him to make his death bed promise: to do more for others. His promise and recovery led him to restorative justice and leading an international campaign to advocate to save his attacker from death row.

He was unsuccessful in saving his attackers life, but before his execution he wrote to Rais:

More about Rais Bhuiyan and his World without Hate Organization:

His promise set him on a mission to prevent and disrupt hate and violence through empathy and storytelling to create a world without violence, victims, and hate.

Most people doubt or don't believe this is possible so what are the different ways people deal with others?

What are the different codes or rules possible, ethical or pragmatic, that people use to make decisions?

Let's consider what these are. Many, which have been given different labels.

Historical codes or rules to live by

The golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Almost no one follows it consistently, since there are people that will take advantage of such behavior and there is a limit to most resources.

Philosopher - K'ung-Tzu (Confucius) was asked his opinion of the golden rule about repaying evil with kindness, he replied.
Then with what will you repay kindness?

The silver rule: Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.

Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Asked their followers not to repay violence with violence, but not to be compliant and obedient either. Nonviolent civil disobedience. It works to a point. However, if it is used against those able and willing to harm, there may be injustice.

The golden and silver are complacent. They systematically reward cruelty and exploitation. Imagine a Hitler or Stalin being shamed into redemption by good example.

The brazen rule: Repay kindness with kindness, but evil with punitive justice.

An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth and one good turn deserves another. In actual human and chimpanzee behavior, it's a familiar standard that offers no forgiving.

The iron rule: Do unto others as you like before they do unto you. He who has the money makes the rules.

Despite its practicality it has a fatal flaw. Unending vendetta. Each act of retribution triggers another. Violence begets violence.

Rule of bullies: Suck up to those above you and intimidate those below. This is the golden rule for superiors and iron rule for inferiors.

Rule of blood: Give precedence of all things to close relatives, and do as you like to others.

What rule or combination should be used?

What really works?

Is there a way to test these different codes of ethics?

Most games will not work because they use the iron rule. There is a winner and loser.

Team work would, but not if their is an opponent.

Our groups have a powerful influence on our feelings, beliefs, and behavior - and how these shared identities can inspire both personal change and social movements.


Source "A new Way To Think About Rules To Live By" By Carl Sagan, Page 12 November 28, 1993 Parade Magazine.

Related ideas

The prisoner's dilemma is a game with win-win, win-lose, and lose-lose outcomes (see conflict resolution...). For example: if you and your friend are arrested for a crime, separated, and interrogated. The following are possible:

  • If you and your friend both deny the crime, then the case may be hard to prove and you both get cleared.
  • If you both confess, then the state will not have to spend much for a trial and you will receive a lighter sentence, although not as light as if you both did not confess.
  • If you plead not guilty and your friend confesses, the state will ask for the maximum sentence for you and the minimal punishment, or maybe none for your friend. You are very vulnerable for a double cross and so is s/he.

When you think of it you are better off confessing. So is your friend. However if both of you confess, you both are worse off than if both of you had pleaded innocent and you get off scott free. That is the prisoner's dilemma.

Robert Axelrod pioneered the study of the prisoner's dilemma with two players playing a sequence of such games with no direct communication. At the end of the game they can determine how the other player pleaded. Will they learn to cooperate? Will both deny they committed the crime even if the reward for finking on the other is very large? If one cooperates too much (pleads not guilty or guilty in harmony), will the other player take advantage of that good nature? If one confesses (in disharmony) too often will the other retaliate more? These questions were investigated by Axelrod in continuing round-robin computer tournaments.


Strategies that are slow to punish, lose. In part because they send signals that non cooperation works.

Both the golden and iron rule always lose, one from an excess of kindness, the other from an overabundance of ruthlessness.

The most effective strategy in many tournaments is tit-for-tat. That is you start by cooperating and in each subsequent round you simply do what your opponent did the last time. You punish defections, and once the other player cooperates, you're willing to let bygones be bygones. At first it seems to get only moderate success, but as time goes by the other strategies beat themselves, from too much kindness or too much cruelty, and the tit-for-tat pulls away. Except for being nice on the first meeting it is like the bronze rule. It promptly rewards cooperation and punishes defection and makes this strategy absolutely clear.

Axelrod describes the superiority of the bronze rule in his book The Evolution of Cooperation.

A variant of the tit-for-tat rule is one that forgives players for defecting occasionally, 10 percent of the time, does better if there's any chance of misunderstanding. Axelrod claims it does so because it breaks out of an unending vendetta.


Conclusions from Axelrod's research related to the classroom:

Be friendly at first meetings. Do not envy. Be generous; forgive your enemy if he forgives you. Be neither a tyrant nor a patsy. Retaliate proportionately to an intentional injury (within the constraints of the rule of law). Make your behavior fairly (although not perfectly) clear and consistent.

  • Most students want to be in school and will cooperate to learn.
  • Build rapport or positive relationships of mutual respect with all students. Ninety percent of the discipline problems come from 5% of the students.
  • Be assertive about teaching and learning. Students won’t respect you unless you are determined to teach and not let anyone or anything interrupt. No fear.
  • Focus on learning and the planned activities. There are less problems when students are learning and the majority want and deserve it.
  • Plan on how you want to start and know when to move on. 95% of discipline problems occur in the first five and last five minutes of class.
  • When students seem to lack social skills, or procedures on what to do, teach them.
  • Be sure you include how students should think about the content you are teaching. Often this can be done with a think aloud strategy. Saying something like: this is what I am thinking about when I ...
  • Humor (not sarcasm) is one of the best tools for developing mutual respect; students particularly look to see if you have a sense of humor about yourself.
  • Provide directions. Either through direct instruction or if negotiated with students, make sure the steps are understood. Best if they are in writing. It is also good to include time frames in which the task or subtasks can be completed as targets.
  • Collaboration. Consider having students work in pairs. More learning usually occurs collaboratively then alone and working with others is often motivational. as well.
  • Provide choices. Both for learning and behavioral. A simple express of a natural consequence for misbehavior or poor choices. Privately stating. You can do it now or ...
  • Have students set goals so they know the expectations and have a time frame for completion.
  • Negotiate with students on plans for achievement for the goals. An individual contract for personal needs on steps of achievement within an agreed upon time frame.
  • Know what you want students to do if they finishes early. So you can say, “Go work on ... Will reinforce the importance of learning and education.
  • Be prepared to remove students who refuse to learn. Remove them from a group, part of the room, or talk to your administrator and make arrangements for removal from the classroom. If students are interfering with other student's learning, then they need to be removed.

Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes