By Jesse Couenhoven, Science of Virtues scholar
It is hard to find anyone
today who does not think of forgiving as virtuous, at least when done under the
right circumstances. Yet this apparent consensus in favor of forgiveness can be
misleading, because there is little accord about what it means to forgive! Some
think of forgiveness as an attitude, others as an action, and still others
consider forgiveness a religious concept unavailable to secular societies. So
how can one go about clarifying the meaning of “forgiveness”? Margaret Urban
Walker suggests in her fine book Moral
Repair that we should not try to settle on one meaning of forgiveness;
forgiveness is a rich concept in part because it is a term with many meanings.
My view, by contrast, is that forgiveness researchers should develop and defend
specific conceptions of forgiveness. If they take advantage of the insights
provided by other views of forgiveness, my hope is that this process of
articulating rival conceptions of forgiveness can be illuminating for all who
value the virtues of forgiveness.
It can be helpful for
scholars to begin the work of clarifying what they think forgiveness is by spending some time delimiting the
concept, attending to what forgiveness is not.
Mercy, pardon, and graciousness, for instance, are ideas that overlap with
forgiveness in some ways, and it is helpful to know what, if anything, makes
forgiveness a term with its own singular significance. One way to begin
figuring out what difference it makes to speak particularly of forgiveness—as
opposed to some other good—is to differentiate forgiveness from what it is
It is widely agreed that
forgiveness differs from excusing—which
says that while a person may seem to have been in the wrong, there is good
reason to consider that person justified for having done what she or he did—or condoning—which says that what a person
did was not wrong even if some might think it was. Saying that something is
“just fine”, or is “no big deal”, is not the same as saying “I forgive you”.
The idea is that forgiveness is an active stance, not simply a way of saying
that something is not problematic, or does not matter. Since what does not
matter does not need to be forgiven, we can say, minimally, that forgiveness is
thought to be possible only when a person has a genuine grievance of some sort.
It is also widely agreed that forgiveness differs from forgetting: because forgiveness is a response to a grievance, one
must have that injury in mind, protest it, and address it in some manner, in
order to forgive.
I find these distinctions
important, and insightful—they begin to help us see what is distinctive and
important about forgiveness. Interestingly, however, our everyday language
tends to run roughshod over these distinctions. For instance, a briefly popular
recent news story recounted the story of a six year old girl who was bitten by
a shark. After surviving the attack, she told reporters that she forgave the
shark, and that she did not believe it meant to harm her. My instinctive
response was critical: talking that way diminishes the idea of forgiveness by
falsely imputing moral intentionality to a fairly unintelligent animal, against
which it is hardly fair to hold a grievance for simply doing what comes
naturally to it. In addition, the girl seemed to be equating forgiveness with
excusing. Yet making use of the idea of forgiveness in these ways is far from
idiosyncratic. Rather than criticize this child for applying the idea of
forgiveness to creatures that lack the agential credentials necessary for
forgiveness, I find it helpful to see her as a guide. Her comments suggest that
she is properly making use of a popular idea of forgiveness—one more broadly
accommodating than the one that began to be hinted at above. The “folk” concept
of forgiveness she is working with involves the ideas that forgiving is not
being angry at, or visiting retribution on, something that has caused you
trouble. And she has rightly perceived that it is now common to justify
forgiveness—meaning, not visiting a punishment or penalty on someone—on the
basis that that one is not really to blame. I find it hard to make philosophical
sense of the claim that one can forgive a shark, because sharks cannot be
blamed for their behavior. But this story reflects a common way of thinking
Consider the fact that my
car insurance company believes in something they call forgiveness: as a
platinum customer (because I have been with the company for over six years), I
have “accident forgiveness,” which means that Progressive will not hold it
against me if I have a minor or even a major car accident. Here the idea of
forgiveness in play seems to be that of not visiting a penalty on someone for
that one’s being involved in something regrettable. Whether the accident was my
fault is not something that the insurance company seems to care about.
forgiveness in these ways—ways that ignore the distinctions between condoning,
excusing, and forgiveness— are now common, but they drain the term of its
significance, avoiding the profound questions about grace in the midst of fault
that the term has traditionally evoked. Such ways of thinking about forgiveness
undermine the meaning and inspiration the idea of forgiveness still widely
evokes. If this is all that one means by forgiveness, we might as well use other
terms, which would seem to serve just as well. But it would be better to
reserve use of the term forgiveness for times when something deeper than
excusing is taking place.
So far, then, my argument
is that the meaning of forgiveness has to be delimited in certain ways in order
for us to do justice to the significance we attribute to the term. For
forgiveness to provide a way towards a positive future, as Bishop Tutu as so
compellingly argued it can, it must be something more than excusing,
forgetting, or overlooking evil. This line of thought can only take us so far,
however. One can agree that the concept of forgiveness should be marked off in
significant ways, yet still disagree about the positive content of the term.
Should we think of forgiveness as overcoming resentment for good reasons, as
avoiding retributive practices for the sake of love, as a divine act of
redemption through atonement…? Since we don’t all agree about what it means to
forgive, it seems clear that the meaning of the term cannot be determined by
grammatical fiat. Intuitions about the term’s meaning fall all over the map,
and use of the word in common parlance is vague and confused. In professional
work, too, the term has a variety of implications.
In view of these
difficulties, one might simply stipulate a definition for the idea of
forgiveness, and then see what sort of headway one can make in developing that
idea. One might also pursue a number of ideas of forgiveness, exploring their
various strengths and weaknesses, perhaps in the interest of finding one that
would be best, or in the interest of applauding many of them. However, we can
do better than hold to a kind of forgiveness-fideism. And we should aspire to
do more than merely map intuitions, and the relations between them.
The function of forgiveness in our lives begins with the recognition of our own limitations and our own faults. Under the circumstances it seems remarkable to think of it as a virtue of any kind. Presumably, if we were free of faults we would also be above the need to forgive. So that is one paradox of this act, a virtuous act surely. But it is not the only paradox. If there is forgiveness, there is also bring forgiven, but the two are fundamentally different. To forgive is a virtue and to be forgiven is also a virtue of sorts but above both of them stands a third act that is the greater virtue: to accept forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the act of refusing to seek revenge that could arguably be justified, when judged purely on the merits of the case. When someone wrongs one, it is only natural for the aggrieved party to seek revenge, but it is better to forgive. Forgiveness is the decision not to seek revenge. It places the good of the offender ahead of the desires of the victim. One often hears forgiveness invoked in the absence of wrong. For instance, when someone wrongs my neighbor, I am urged to forgive too, but forgiveness without guilt is vain. I have no justification for seeking revenge against third parties, and no basis on which to forgive them.
Revenge above all is pure animus, a pure desire to hurt without regard to guilt or innocence; it is the desire to diminish others because of the way they have diminished me. In this day we are not so very conscious of the reality of revenge and perhaps not so inclined to seek it. For that reason perhaps we are correspondingly hard put to define it, but it has not gone away. It is now what we sometimes called meanness or pettiness, perhaps, but above all it is the desire to hurt those who hurt us, and to do so purely because of the hurt we feel, not out of a sense of justice or right but because of the hurt itself.
Revenge is in principle different from retaliation, though they often come mixed together. Retaliation is a tactic which, if it was forbidden, would leave us no alternative but to strike first. We naturally and wisely prefer to control harms by imposing superior force to prevent injustices, but that is not always feasible. Injustices happen and self-defense is sometimes necessary. In those instances the threat of retaliation is an essential means of preventing or minimizing wrongs. For that reason retaliation is very different from revenge. But the two cannot be kept entirely separate, because while revenge is a passion and retaliation is a tactic, the two often come together in practice. These confront us with knotty dilemmas at times, but at those times we are especially in need of objective judges of right and wrong, who can impose retaliation even when they seek to restrain revenge.
The call to forgive is not a sacrifice of self-defense. As Aquinas reminds us, if the offender wrongs us or wrongs the innocent, it is no favor to him to encourage him in his evils ways. It is better for all to restore rightful order, though to do so with resort to the minimum collateral harm. This also reflects the call to defend the rights and interests of other innocent parties, because we certainly cannot justify greater solicitude for the guilty than we exercise for the innocent. In all things, we bear in mind the injunction that we cannot sacrifice the innocent in order to preserve the guilty.
For every case the rises to the level of harms envisioned in this way, there are hundreds or thousands of small wrongs that occur every day in our lives that call us to forgive. In those cases we should be especially sensible of the slippery nature of harm itself, and of guilt. Uncle So-and-so promised, we firmly believe, a share in his estate at his death, but he left us nothing. So we are outraged. But is that really the truth of the case? And were there other more pressing considerations that interposed themselves between his promise made to us and the needs of his other heirs? When we forgive, we gain some portion of that cool objectivity, that ability to judge honestly, that we profess to admire so much in others. Forgiveness is a demand of honesty; there is no honesty without a capacity for it because we are not the center of the universe and our needs and desires are not the standard of right.
In the same vein we recognize that in the interests of harmony we should surrender even our legitimate desires when the conflict with others. Those desires are legitimate in themselves, given to us, as it were, out of the gracious bounty of nature, and we pursue them without embarrassment or any sort of guilt, but they are not rights. If they are not necessary to our lives, they are gifts given to us so that we can share them freely with others. Everyone is called to draw a line demarking those goods that are needful and those that are convenient so that he or she can live up to the potential that we have to pursue and achieve good ends, and at the same time also have the power to facilitate the good in others around us.
This is the barest minimum that we can say about forgiveness and revenge. What then can we say about being forgiven, because they are naturally conjoined.
Notwithstanding that, they are entirely different. Each of us has the power to forgive, but none of us has the power to make forgiven. If someone injures me I have the power to forgive, and even better than that I may have to ability or opportunity to offer help, offering good for evil. What no one however has the power to do is to make forgiven. This seems to be another paradox. If I forgive my enemy, is he not therefore forgiven, by definition as it were? Sadly no. He always retains the capacity to reject forgiveness. More than that, he retains the power not to accept forgiveness, because if he is in the wrong it is incumbent upon him to accept that and to change. That is an affirmative obligation on him: to accept forgiveness, accepting that he is in need of forgiveness.
That is no small demand, though it is unavoidable and in a sense its absence unforgivable. At the start we posed the question of what is this virtue called forgiveness, or is it a virtue at all. But along the way we have found a perhaps greater virtue, which is to accept forgiveness. That is to say, to accept the need to change and to act on it. To be contrite. To accept correction. That is the greater virtue and the one that we mortals find most galling of all and more at odds with our nature. But it is also the most necessary, because it is truly said that guilt is a thief that steals the soul.
In important matters, the kind of offenses mentioned above, the virtue of forgiveness is obvious, but it is no virtue to forget. If we could impose a state of forgiveness on someone, it might be virtuous simply to overlook the wrongs they are guilty of, on the premise that it is up to us to make them spontaneously disappear. We cannot however impose forgiveness. We do not have the power, or in a sense even the right, to simply makes wrongs disappear. This refers of course to grave wrongs of course. For our part, to do so would be tantamount to assuming complicity in those acts, to condone them. More importantly, for the guilty party the freedom he has to reject forgiveness cannot be taken away because we have been fashioned not only with the power of will, which we take even to be free will, though realistically we ask ourselves who is actually free, but we have the power of effective will. What we do and what we will have consequences. What we will matters for us. What we will is what will be accorded to us. So the guilty must will to be forgiven because no power will force them if they do not will it.
As we all recognize, for every grave offense there are innumerable small ones that, when we are confronted with them we should seek simply to forgive too, and in these matters we have some ability to absolve by forgiving. Simple kindness and thoughtfulness, and simple concern for the wellbeing of others leads us wherever we can to be tolerant and patient of them, as they are perhaps patient with us. This is a genuine sense of forgiveness and it graces our lives and is a real virtue too. So we bear patiently with one another, cherishing the gifts of peace that we have all received in abundance. And in graver matters we still place the good even of those who injure us as worthy of respect, but make the service of what is right and just for all preeminent.
By Joel Clarke Gibbons
Joel Clarke Gibbons is a mathematician and economist, and the principal officer of Logistic Research & Trading Co., a commodity speculator. He writes on the philosophical implications of the social and behavioral sciences, including his recent book, Man and God in the World: a Treatise on Human Nature.
Web Site: www.logisticresearch.com
The Virtue of Forgiveness Part II
This definition of forgiveness seems in a somewhat fuzzy way to miss something of what we commonly are thinking about when we say the word "forgiveness." Isn't forgivenss something more?
That simple question is really two questions, with two very different answers. First question: is the measure of forgiveness simply not seking revenge? Isn't there more to forgivenss strictly speaking. I assert that there is not, again "strictly speaking." To the extent that forgivenss is a virtue, this is the virtue. All that is required of us is this. Revenge doubles harms; it deepens wounds; it insures that the evil that men do can live after them and continue to injure. To forgive is to stop the outward spreading circle of evil. It is to insure that at least the harm that men do will be buried with their bones. And it is sufficient. No guilt attaches to the one who forgives.
But there is more. It is not properly forgiveness, and it is not properly a virtue. What is more than forgiveness is love, and it is not only virtue, but it is sanctity. In defining forgiveness we made the point that it arises only as the reciprocal of injury. It is the call to love however that knows no bounds. The call to brotherly love is too vast a topic to address here, but we can at least identify it. It is the call to attempt in every setting to leave those we deal with better off than they were before. If they are guilty of wrong, it extends to reminding them of the wrong and call them to repentance and change. At our best, we treat everyone that way. Of course, those words -- so easily penned -- are far beyond our mortal powers, but we can do this: we can sometimes succeed in leaving someone we meet better off in some useful way than he was before. Then any little good we do can take on a life of its own and grow, while our faults too are buried with our bones.
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