I was in a cafe the other day and the song "Prodigal Son," by the Rolling Stones came on. It's an amazing song, and I hadn't heard it in ages, and I got to thinking about the parable. I'm sure you know the story: father has two sons; one takes his inheritance and squanders it, living a dissolute life, while the other stays close to home; when the "prodigal son" returns, begging help and forgiveness from his father, his father is thrilled to have him home and throws a giant celebration. The other son, naturally, is indignant at this unfair treatment.
The father says to him,
"My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."
I consider myself a morally sensitive person even though I'm not religious, and I got to thinking about how to understand this story from a secular moral point of view. It's not obvious, I think, because we tend to put fairness front and center when we talk about morality, and there's a sense in which the celebration for the prodigal son really isn't fair to his brother. The point of the story in a religious context seems to be partly that approaching human life with excess concern for things like "equal treatment" reflects a narrow and ungenerous nature. Which seems sort of right to me, prompting me to wonder: how might such a thought be explained in a non-religious context?
Some traditional interpretations of the story seem to take the lesson to concern the importance of forgiveness. But forgiveness is very puzzling from a moral point of view. The famous "paradox of forgiveness" points out that if the person deserves condemnation, then forgiveness is unjust, whereas if the person does not deserve condemnation, there is nothing to forgive. And furthermore, we tend to think that morality is fair when it applies to everyone in the same way. But a lesson of forgiveness can't be a lesson to treat everyone the same way: if you forgave everyone all the time there would be no meaning to forgiveness at all. In a way, forgiveness isn't even something you can plan for. If the father planned to forgive the son from the beginning the story wouldn't really be about forgiveness at all - it would be more about a father who doesn't mind that his son squanders his money and lives a bad life. But uncaring is different from forgiveness.
Other traditional interpratations seem to focus on compassion and love instead of forgiveness per se. The father is so patient and loving with his son that he cannot but rejoice to see the son returned to him. This seems to be a little different from the forgiveness idea: it's not that there was a transgression that must be forgiven but more that any considerations of justice, punishment, and equality are just insignificant in the face of the power of the basic fact that this person, who was gone astray, has now returned.
They're not mutually exclusive, of course, but I resonate more to the compassion and love idea than to the forgiveness one, perhaps because forgiveness seems so puzzling. Interestingly, love and compassion, while certainly having moral aspects, don't fit tidily into the category of "secular morality" the way "fairness" and "equality" seem to. But they're not unsecular emotions at all. This seems a pretty universal experience: the joy at the return and safety of someone you love suddenly overwhelming any indignation you might have felt, or even would have been justified in feeling. This universality transcends the religious/secular distinction.
So maybe the "moral" point of view is too narrow for living a good life, and we need some richer concepts for talking about how to live in the secular way -- concepts that go beyond just "morality," concepts that would include the importance of things like love, compassion, and even forgiveness.