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On Forgiveness

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.

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7 Comment on this post

  1. What an excellent piece of writing. Although most of the commenters in the NYT did not seem to have read the article very carefully, there were a couple of points they made which I feel are worth exploring further.

    1. Comment 13 from somone who says that the word “forgiveness” can be collapsed out of existence, and the appropriate reaction to being hurt by someone else is to recognise the loss of trust and the harm done and try to rebuild the trust and make good the harm. The onus on doing so, morally, should be with the harmer. However it is pragmatic to make up for people’s shortcomings in their ability to do so adequately and meet them halfway if need be. “Forgiveness” need therefore never be asked for, given or “experienced”.

    2. Comments 11,15, 19 and 20 argue forgiveness can be a one-sided affair, as an outcome of understanding what led a person to behave as they did. I don’t think this is based on faith that the person in some way did not intend their acts to be harmful, but by recognising we all have similar angry, anti-social and cruel impulses in ourselves, and we have to forgive ourselves and others by understanding (in a visceral way) the fact that human nature is as it is, not as we would morally choose it to be.

    I think the first argument that does away with “forgiveness” seems to solve what may be too difficult thing to do (in terms of relating to people in such a radically diffierent way that we almost expect no better of them, as seems to follow from the second argument).

    To argue, as Charles Griswold does, that forgiveness expresses other ideals which are fundamental does seem to give it a place in our moral thinking, but it may be an inessential one if defined in that way. A good society should see us trying to give restitution to those we harm, and to accept other’s attempts to give restitution in good grace, as it enables us to show respect, responsibility and so on. But I think there is a pragmatism or consequentialism which underlies this intuition – that we need to be able to trust one another not to want to harm each other for life to be bearable and therefore to enable us to show our better selves.

    The bind remains – if the one who harmed gives an insincere apology and no restitution, the one who is harmed will be hard pressed to rebuild their trust in them, but they may feel they have to act as though they do in order to avoid a further downward spiral, if the spiral continues anyway with further btrayals of trust, then (in the absence of some form of revenge) there needs to be a separation. Forgiveness at any point in such a situation is irrelevant to its dynamics, or to making a moral choice from the position of the one being harmed.

  2. It would be a monumental step towards getting back to being human beings, if the people in this world practiced ethics and respect towards each other. For years we have seen a decline in civility towards one another, for reasons that when analyzed, are so petty, but have made such an impact, it drives behaviors forward, that self consumption and lack of empathy has taken the spotlight. This does not mean we are on a irreversable path and nothing can be done as a society, it just means we need to start bringing words like respect, honor, dignity and ethics back into that spotlight. Once we can chart that course among others and start momentum, than we as humans, can start living as such. Please join us on the Gentlemen’s Association ( and help support our international community of true gentlemen.

  3. Is there not anyone in intellectual history who argues that “forgiveness” consists in recognition of the total unaccountability of man for his actions — i.e., that one is not the ultimate “author” of the deed(s) in question?

  4. Sebastian, I think comments 11 and 15 to the original piece are variants on the argument you present:

    “To see the insanity in others is to forgive them”


    “The need for Forgiveness comes from prior judgment. We judge that something should not be as it is. We say it is wrong, bad, incorrect, or some variation thereof. When we accept that what is, is – not right, not wrong, just is, there is no need to forgive. And when we understand the causes of such actions that may be judged to be “wrong,” there is nothing that remains to be forgiven.”

    Is that the sort of thing you are getting at? I’m not sure in what sense you mean “unaccountable”. Are people similarly unaccountable for their acts of forgiving or not forgiving? Are you saying anything others do should be recognised as outside moral judgment, or that the one to be judged and forgiven/unforgiven is someone other than the person we believe to have wronged us?

  5. No, “moral judgment” is itself predicated upon the logical error of assuming “accountability” in the causal sense on the part of the wrong-doer for his action(s), that he is, in effect, the ultimate “author” of his actions, etc. Comment 15 is a variation, but comment 11 is confused since it implies “forgiveness” only where there is (presumably) no blame (“insanity” as an exception). I presume that Professor Griswold largely agrees with this assessment — he writes that “To forgive someone … assumes their responsibility for the wrongdoing.”

    1. Just to get a clearer handle on your perspective, Sebastian, hope you don’t mind if I ask a few questions:

      1. Am I making the same logical error if I feel guilty for my actions? Are you saying that the “me#2” which feels guilty is diferent from the “me#1” who previously did the action – so a changing identity over time?

      2. If I feel guilty and feel I want to be forgiven for an action, it may be illogical from a particular metaphysical perspective on the nature of identity, but if
      a) the people around me do not share that metaphysical perspective, but believe that we are in a relevant sense accountable for our previous actions
      b) that before co-operating with me, the people around me require evidence that although my previous actions have been harmful, I will not continue to act in a harmful way
      c) that I need co-operation with other people to survive and prosper from my own perspective
      Then it is a logical action to ask for forgiveness. It is also important for others to believe I feel guilty or otherwise recognise the wrongness of the previous action for the forgiveness to be given.

      Is this (position 2) compatible with your perspective, or would it be irrational or morally dubious because it is collaborating with a discourse of accountability for our actions?

  6. “Guilt” is perhaps the most sophisticated of the reactive emotions, but no — I take it that the conclusions of Galen Strawson and Wallace Matson render all reactive emotions illogical. Their arguments hold independent of any criteria for or perspective on the nature of personal identity one might have. In the scenario you give it would not be a “logical” action to ask for forgiveness, but merely a practical (or rational) one. Position 2 is incompatible with this perspective only insofar as attributions of “accountability” are logically unjustifiable. I think it helps to remember that the original impulse for the attitude of “forgiveness” was, as far as we know, unknown to pre-Christian antiquity. This is the argument of David Konstan’s extraordinary “Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea”.

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