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Forgiveness: respect, autonomy and sovereignty

by Shlomit Harrosh

Five years ago Joanne Nodding was violently raped by a man she knew. As part of a restorative justice programme, she has recently met with the man at her own request and with his consent. Nodding told him of her experiences during the attack and of its effects on her family. The man offered what Nodding felt was a genuine apology. She chose to forgive him.

“I ended the meeting by telling him that I’d forgiven him and that I wanted him to forgive himself, if he hadn’t,” said Nodding, “because I wanted him to go on to have a successful life. Hatred eats you up, and you can’t change what’s happened.”

The subject of forgiveness has recently been addressed in an excellent piece by Charles L. Griswold. Griswold identifies the restoration of mutual respect as one of the goals of forgiveness. I want to further explore this idea, focusing on the way forgiveness can reorient a relationship compromised by grievous wrongdoing, like rape.

Forgiving involves a two-stage perceptual shift: first, from the wrongs suffered to their agent and, second, from the agent as offender to the agent as a person who is no longer defined solely by past offenses. This requires that the victim ignore reasons for resentment and vengeful anger as a response to wrongdoing, focusing in their stead on reasons for restraint and respect grounded in her recognition of the humanity of the offender as a responsible, yet fallible moral agent. (Compare with Heyd 1996.)

In so doing, the victim rejects the reduction of the offender to the offense. A man who rapes becomes more than just a rapist, his character and future actions no longer necessarily determined by his past wrongs. To forgive is thus to recognize the offender as an autonomous person, one capable of moral growth and right conduct, and as such deserving of respect.

Forgiveness also restores the autonomy and dignity of the victim, both in her own eyes and in the eyes of the offender.

Rape is an act that dehumanizes its victims, denying their status as agents and persons. Rape victims are reduced to objects to be used to satisfy the sexual and violent urges of another and his desire for dominance.

When an offender asks or agrees to meet with his victim on an equal footing, listens to her grievances, acknowledges the harm done and then asks for forgiveness, this in itself is an expression of respect towards the victim, an affirmation of her humanity. No longer is the victim someone to be humiliated, dominated and used, her will denied or ignored. To ask for forgiveness is to ask the victim to exercise her will to overcome resentment and anger in favour of restraint and compassion. It is to recognize her capacity for autonomy.

Rape constitutes a radical assault on this capacity, an assault which extends beyond the duration of the act itself.

“That day [of the rape],” says Nodding, “he had control, he controlled me for that short time. I don’t want to let him control me any longer. He did for a little while, I just wanted to sit in the house. I didn’t really want to do anything. I think it’s the shock”

The first step towards autonomy is gained when reactivity stops and the victim is no longer controlled by debilitating fear and mistrust, depression and helplessness. By restraining herself during the meeting and showing the man that he had not ruined her life, that she was still doing what she loved, Nodding denied the man’s power over her and reaffirmed her control over her own life. Her choice to forgive him was a further exercise in autonomy.

Forgiveness thus restores the autonomy of both victim and offender. But it goes beyond that. Just as the original offense tipped the scales of power in favour of the offender, asking for forgiveness tips them in the opposite direction. In asking for forgiveness, the offender recognizes the victim’s sovereignty, admitting that only the victim can release him from the psychological and moral burden of his crimes towards a new future. The victim is thus granted the authority and power to significantly impact the offender’s life and well-being by granting or withholding the gift of forgiveness.

Refusing to forgive (when forgiveness is justified) maintains this power imbalance, and can be a way for the victim to exact revenge over an offender by denying him release from immobilizing guilt.

By choosing to forgive, the victim uses her sovereignty over the offender to release both herself and him from a toxic power struggle. A certain closure is achieved and both are now free to continue their lives, remembering what had happened without letting it destroy the rest of their lives

Instead of remaining a victim, one “reduced or destined to suffer under some oppressive or destructive agency,” (OED) one becomes a victor, a person who overcomes destructive forces without and within.


Heyd, D. (1996). Introduction. Toleration: an elusive virtue. D. Heyd. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. It could be, the way you characterize it, that the logic of the transaction is such as to be redolent of Nietzsche's "debtor-creditor" orientation. If this is the case then it is not a question of "autonomy" but merely one of power conceded — "autonomy" is thus compensation renamed (denying the transgressor his power over you is still reactivity). The desire for outright revenge is thus by no means forsworn but merely relinquished (sublimated) for a less, shall we say dramatic?, form of reconciliatory satisfaction (closure, appeasement, what you will). But in any case, the meaning of "forgiveness" as an empowering act is only obfuscated when it is claimed that "restraint", "compassion", and "respect" can be grounded in (or should be the logical corollary of) the recognition of autonomous agency — rather, it is the other way round.

  2. Here we go again with free will. If a malefactor has free will, then she has sinned. This, of course, has nothing to do with the injured person.In such a case. forgiveness is nothing but an act of arrogance, without substance. If the malefactor owes the injured party a debt, then forgiveness is something important to the norms governing debts. Here, is where autonomy applies. of course, unless there is free will, the act of the creditor is simply the result of calculation of gains against losses. If your welfare is important to me, I am inclined to forgive. If I think the rule under which the obligation arises is wrong, I may also be inclined to forgive. But that's already-built me against already-built you. Self-rule is simply another version of action, taking constraints into account. Why do I forgive? Because I was taught that under this sort of circumstances, I should.

    What's left? Rejecting free will, what is left is a proper policy to be taught the child as to how to deal with harms to that child. What does Autonomy mean, then? To me,. and others who deny free will, Autonomy is simply a term for decentralization of authority with respect to allowing/determining conduct. It is a return to Aristotle's idea about flourishing. Aristotle's mistake, of course, is missing the value of flourishing without regard to the nature of the being flourishing.

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