by Charles L. Griswold
(This piece was originally published in “The Stone” series of the New York Times (on-line), on Dec. 26, 2010, and is also available here along with responses by readers. Thanks to Roger Crisp for inviting me to post it here, and to the NYT for permission. Copyright held by the NYT.)
We are in a season traditionally devoted to good will among people and to the renewal of hope in the face of hard times. As we seek to realize these lofty ideals, one of our greatest challenges is overcoming bitterness and divisiveness. We all struggle with the wrongs others have done to us as well as those we have done to others, and we recoil at the vast extent of injury humankind seems determined to inflict on itself. How to keep hope alive? Without a constructive answer to toxic anger, addictive cycles of revenge, and immobilizing guilt, we seem doomed to despair about chances for renewal. One answer to this despair lies in forgiveness.
What is forgiveness? When is it appropriate? Why is it considered to be commendable? Some claim that forgiveness is merely about ridding oneself of vengeful anger; do that, and you have forgiven. But if you were able to banish anger from your soul simply by taking a pill, would the result really be forgiveness? The timing of forgiveness is also disputed. Some say that it should wait for the offender to take responsibility and suffer due punishment, others hold that the victim must first overcome anger altogether, and still others that forgiveness should be unilaterally bestowed at the earliest possible moment. But what if you have every good reason to be angry and even to take your sweet revenge as well? Is forgiveness then really to be commended? Some object that it lets the offender off the hook, confesses to one’s own weakness and vulnerability, and papers over the legitimate demands of vengeful anger. And yet, legions praise forgiveness and think of it as an indispensable virtue. Recall the title of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book on the subject: “No Future Without Forgiveness.”
These questions about the what, when, and why of forgiveness have led to a massive outpouring of books, pamphlets, documentaries, television shows, and radio interviews. The list grows by the hour. It includes hefty representation of religious and self-help perspectives, historical analysis (much of which was sparked by South Africa’s famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission), and increasingly, philosophical reflection as well. Yet there is little consensus about the answers. Indeed, the list of disputed questions is still longer. Consider: may forgiveness be demanded, or must it be a sort of freely bestowed gift? Does the concept of “the unforgivable” make sense? And what about the cultural context of forgiveness: does it matter? Has the concept of “forgiveness” evolved, even within religious traditions such as Christianity? Is it a fundamentally religious concept?
On almost all accounts, interpersonal forgiveness is closely tied to vengeful anger and revenge. This linkage was brought to the fore by Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) in his insightful sermons on resentment (his word for what is often now called vengeful anger) and forgiveness. These sermons are the touchstone of modern philosophical discussions of the topic. Butler is often interpreted as saying that forgiveness requires forswearing resentment, but what he actually says is that it requires tempering resentment and forswearing revenge. He is surely right that it requires at least that much. If you claim you’ve forgiven someone and then proceed to take revenge, then you are either dishonest or ignorant of the meaning of the term. Forgiveness comes with conditions, such as the giving up of revenge. What are other conditions?
If you seethe with vengeful thoughts and anger, or even simmer with them, can you be said to have forgiven fully? I would answer in the negative. That establishes another condition that successful forgiveness must meet. In the contemporary literature on forgiveness, the link between forgiveness and giving up vengefulness is so heavily emphasized that it is very often offered as the reason to forgive: forgive, so that you may live without toxic anger.
However, if giving up revenge and resentment were sufficient to yield forgiveness, then one could forgive simply by forgetting, or through counseling, or by taking the latest version of the nepenthe pill. But none of those really seems to qualify as forgiveness properly speaking, however valuable they may be in their own right as a means of getting over anger. The reason is that forgiveness is neither just a therapeutic technique nor simply self-regarding in its motivation; it is fundamentally a moral relation between self and other.
Consider its genesis in the interpersonal context: one person wrongs another. Forgiveness is a response to that wrong, and hence to the other person as author of that action. Forgiveness retains the bilateral or social character of the situation to which it seeks to respond. The anger you feel in response to having been treated unjustly is warranted only if, in its intensity and its target, it is fitting. After all, if you misidentified who did you wrong, then forgiving that person would be inappropriate, indeed, insulting. Or if the wrongdoer is rightly identified but is not culpable, perhaps by virtue of ignorance or youth, then once again it is not forgiveness that is called for but something else — say, excuse or pardon. (One consequence: as philosopher Jeffrie Murphy points out in his exchange with Jean Hampton in their book “Forgiveness and Mercy,” “they know not what they do” makes Christ’s plea on the cross an appeal for excuse rather than forgiveness.) Moreover, it is not so much the action that is forgiven, but its author. So forgiveness assumes as its target, so to speak, an agent who knowingly does wrong and is held responsible. The moral anger one feels in this case is a reaction that is answerable to reason; and this would hold too with respect to giving up one’s anger. In the best case, the offender would offer you reasons for forswearing resentment, most obviously by taking a series of steps that include admission of responsibility, contrition, a resolve to mend his or her ways and recognition of what the wrong-doing felt like from your perspective.
Of course, as the wronged party you don’t always get anything close to that and are often left to struggle with anger in the face of the offender’s unwillingness or inability to give you reason to forswear anger. But if the offender offered to take the steps just mentioned, you would very likely accept, as that would make it not only psychologically easier to forgive, but would much more perfectly accomplish one moral purpose of forgiveness — namely, restoration of mutual respect and reaffirmation that one is not to be treated wrongly. A similar logic holds on the flip side: if as the offender you take every step that could reasonably be asked of you, and your victim is unable or unwilling to forgive, you are left to struggle with your sense of being unforgiven, guilty, beholden. Offered the chance that your victim would set aside revenge and vengefulness, forgive you, and move onto the next chapter of his or her life, you would very probably accept.
The paradigm case of interpersonal forgiveness is the one in which all of the conditions we would wish to see fulfilled are in fact met by both offender and victim. When they are met, forgiveness will not collapse into either excuse or condonation —and on any account it is essential to avoid conflating these concepts. One of the several sub-paradigmatic or imperfect forms of forgiveness will consist in what is often called unconditional, or more accurately, unilateral forgiveness — as when one forgives the wrongdoer independently of any steps he or she takes. Some hold that unilateral forgiveness is the model, pointing to the much discussed case of the Amish unilaterally forgiving the murderer of their children (for an account of this case, see “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy,” by D. B. Kraybill, S. M. Nolt, and D. L. Weaver-Zercher). I contend, by contrast, that the ideal is bilateral, one in which both sides take steps. I also hold that whether forgiveness is or is not possible will depend on the circumstances and reasons at play; not just anything is going to count as forgiveness. Establishing the minimal threshold for an exchange to count as “forgiveness” is a matter of some debate, but it must include the giving up of revenge by the victim, and an assumption of responsibility by the offender.
Other familiar cases of imperfect forgiveness present their own challenges, as when one seeks to forgive a wrong done to someone else (to forgive on behalf of another, or what is commonly called third-party forgiveness, as for example when the victim is deceased). Another case concerns self-forgiveness. The latter is particularly complicated, as one may seek to forgive oneself for wrongs one has done to others; or for a wrong one has done to oneself (say, degrading oneself) by wronging another; or simply for a wrong one has done only to oneself. Self-forgiveness is notoriously apt to lapse into easy self-exculpation; here too, conditions must be set to safeguard the integrity of the notion.
Excuse, mercy, reconciliation, pardon, political apology and forgiveness of financial debt are not imperfect versions of interpersonal forgiveness; rather, they are related but distinct concepts. Take political apology, for example. As its name indicates, its context is political, meaning that it is transacted in a context that involves groups, corporate entities, institutions, and corresponding notions of moral responsibility and agency. Many of the complexities are discussed by philosopher Nick Smith in “I Was Wrong: the Meanings of Apologies.” Apology figures into interpersonal forgiveness too. But in the case of political apology, the transaction may in one sense be quite impersonal: picture a spokesperson apologizing for a government’s misdeeds, performed before the spokesperson was born, to a group representing the actual victims. A lot of the moral work is done by representation (as when a spokesperson represents the state). Further, the criteria for successful apology in such a context will overlap with but nevertheless differ from those pertinent to the interpersonal context. For example, financial restitution as negotiated through a legal process will probably form an essential part of political apology, but not of forgiveness.
But, one may object, if the wrongdoer is unforgivable, then both interpersonal forgiveness and political apology are impossible (one can pronounce the words, but the moral deed cannot be done). Are any wrongdoers unforgivable? People who have committed heinous acts such as torture or child molestation are often cited as examples. The question is not primarily about the psychological ability of the victim to forswear anger, but whether a wrongdoer can rightly be judged not-to-be-forgiven no matter what offender and victim say or do. I do not see that a persuasive argument for that thesis can be made; there is no such thing as the unconditionally unforgivable. For else we would be faced with the bizarre situation of declaring illegitimate the forgiveness reached by victim and perpetrator after each has taken every step one could possibly wish for. The implication may distress you: Osama bin Laden, for example, is not unconditionally unforgivable for his role in the attacks of 9/11. That being said, given the extent of the injury done by grave wrongs, their author may be rightly unforgiven for an appropriate period even if he or she has taken all reasonable steps. There is no mathematically precise formula for determining when it is appropriate to forgive.
Why forgive? What makes it the commendable thing to do at the appropriate time? It’s not simply a matter of lifting the burden of toxic resentment or of immobilizing guilt, however beneficial that may be ethically and psychologically. It is not a merely therapeutic matter, as though this were just about you. Rather, when the requisite conditions are met, forgiveness is what a good person would seek because it expresses fundamental moral ideals. These include ideals of spiritual growth and renewal; truth-telling; mutual respectful address; responsibility and respect; reconciliation and peace.
My sketch of the territory of forgiveness, including its underlying moral ideals, has barely mentioned religion. Many people assume that the notion of forgiveness is Christian in origin, at least in the West, and that the contemporary understanding of interpersonal forgiveness has always been the core Christian teaching on the subject. These contestable assumptions are explored by David Konstan in “Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea.” Religious origins of the notion would not invalidate a secular philosophical approach to the topic, any more than a secular origin of some idea precludes a religious appropriation of it. While religious and secular perspectives on forgiveness are not necessarily consistent with each other, however, they agree in their attempt to address the painful fact of the pervasiveness of moral wrong in human life. They also agree on this: few of us are altogether innocent of the need for forgiveness.
Charles L. Griswold is Borden Parker Bowne Professor of Philosophy at Boston University. His books include “Forgiveness: a Philosophical Exploration” (2007) and “Adam Smith and the Virtues of Enlightenment” (1999). He is currently co-editing a book with David Konstan on ancient Greek, Roman, Christian, and Judaic notions of forgiveness. An exchange between Griswold and Father William Meninger about forgiveness was published by Tikkun in its March/April 2008 issue.