Is Forgiveness Possible?

Imagine being the sort of person who is impervious to harm. Or more specifically, one who is impervious to offense. The virtue of forgiveness is superfluous, or perhaps more consistently, an evidence of weakness. You would not be given to the sort of temptations of rage and anger, bitterness and resentment; calmly you would be able to dispose of wrongdoing from a motive of justice rather than revenge. You would not have to forgive anyone nor would you do anything that would require forgiveness. We would be able to take our stand with Socrates against our enemies with the assurance that we are better persons than they, for it would be a fact of life that though we be sheep lead to the slaughter a better man could not be harmed by a worse one.

Such curiosities are only fanciful, however, and rightly so, since we all know (well most of us) that we are vulnerable persons. The virtue of forgiveness is evidence enough of our weakness and propensity to harm one another whether it be with or without cause. It is the fact of our vulnerability that makes forgiveness a virtue and not, unlike our Socratic fantasy, a sign of weakness. Socrates may have been correct in his other-worldly summations of moral perfection (or maybe not), but we live in a world were certain virtues are needed to counteract certain vices. Courage confronts fear, patience suffers trial, and hope waits for the good. Alexander Hamilton once quipped that if men were angles there would be no need for government. The same could be said of forgiveness.

This is where Charles Griswold begins his analysis of forgiveness in his book Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration (Cambridge University Press, 2007).* Our lot is one of imperfection following from our finitude and fallibility as embodied sympathetic creatures with affective characters (pg. 14), who all fall short of our moral demand for dignity and fair treatment. The violation of these values results injury that leaves us morally angered. When we are injured we are left with resentment: moral outrage at the devaluation of our value.

Griswold follows Bishop Joseph Butler in carefully understanding that forgiveness forswears revenge, but not necessarily resentment. In fact, to forswear all resentment may be altogether unreasonable and collapse into condonation, excuse, or mere pardon. Many times these are mistaken for forgiveness, which does not turn a blind eye towards wrongdoing or simply dismisses it as trivial or unimportant. The forgiver is wise to dispel the kind of resentment that corrodes into hatred or settled anger that replays the wrongdoing over and over in self-justifying narratives. Furthermore, she is wise to understand that there is a warranted species of resentment that seeks to hold the injuring party responsible for his actions.

In order for the wronged to avoid totalizing the wrongdoer in demonic and monstrous terms, she must “re-frame” the wrongdoer in such a way that he or she is released from moral judgment. One might be able to stop resenting another, but it does not follow from this that one has forgiven the other. Such a thing, Griswold argues, proves nothing more than amnesia (pg. 40). Re-framing, on the other hand, is conscious of the memory of wrongdoing, but is able to reform the attitude towards the wrongdoer with new information. For Griswold, this forces us to reckon with a number of conditions that must take place for forgiveness to obtain, and not surprisingly, they are first to be met in the reformation and contrition of the wrongdoer.

Essential to Griswold’s argument is that forgiveness is a virtue expressed within a moral community. Such a community is interdependent; it is not reducible to the individual and his or her behavior. The consequences of this mean that “the offender depends on the victim in order to be forgiven, and the victim depends on the offender in order to forgive” (pg. 49). With this supposition in mind, Griswold lays out six conditions for the wrongdoer to meet in order to obtain true contrition: 1) responsibility, the offender takes the moral blame for their actions; 2) repudiation, the offender disavows the wrongful deeds; 3) regret, the offender must show remorse for the aberrant actions; 4) reform, the offender must commit to being a different person and express that it is unacceptable to repeat the offense; 5) Reimagination, the offender shows an understanding of how the injured party feels; and 6) retelling, the offender is able to recount the events that lead the wrongdoer to do wrong without making excuse or minimizing the issues relevant to the wronged (pgs. 49-51). If these conditions are sufficiently met one may warrant forgiveness.

In order to forgive the wronged must also meet certain conditions. She will not dismiss the wrongful acts as merely actions detached from the actor, because the acts and the agent are conceptually connected and cannot be separated. To so would fail to properly forgive the person who committed them. Secondly, forgiveness cannot be contingent upon the administration justice. The outcome of legal consequences differs from those of morality. An adulterer breaks no civil law by committing adultery, but he or she may not warrant forgiveness. Conversely, a thief may be sentenced to jail time and yet warrant forgiveness if the appropriate steps are taken to amend. Third, re-framing the offender, not by separating him from the offense, but by seeing him as a whole person in new light of his repentance revises judgment. Fourth, the wronged commits to forgiving the wrongdoer recognizing that it would be inappropriate to bring up the matter at a later time. Fifth, the wronged releases herself from the self-concept of victimhood and swears off moral superiority. Lastly, the wronged verbally grants forgiveness to the wrongdoer.

With these twelve conditions met, six by the wrongdoer and six by the wronged, forgiveness obtains in the “paradigmatic” sense.

Griswold goes on to examine other pertinent subjects that he would consider to be “imperfect” such as forgiveness from a third party, forgiving the dead, the unrepentant, and forgiveness of the self. In each of these cases he examines how forgiveness is a muddled subject that does not fit the paradigm as delineated. He acknowledges that in the world we live it is safe to assume that not all the conditions will obtain. The question is whether these forms of forgiveness are defeated by logical deficiency. In the cases where the wrongdoer is unavailable or unwilling to meet the conditions of repentance, the wronged may engage in meeting “baseline” conditions of “imperfect” forgiveness: 1) a willingness to lower resentment towards the wrongdoer, 2) a willingness to forgive if the wrongdoer were to meet the criteria of repentance, and 3) seeing the wrongdoer being humanly forgivable (pg. 115). In each case he sees the impurities of excuse, condonation, amnesia, or self-interested pardon that militates against the inherently relational and interdependent virtue of forgiveness. Forgiveness “for self” is an intelligible and sometimes necessary practice, but it is often subject to abuse, and creates problems with identity as it tries to reconcile the injured and injuring self into some sort of psychological harmony. The forgiveness of an unrepentant wrongdoer may lapse into the morally objectionable state of condonation where the wrongdoer is not held responsible for his actions. The classic example of spousal abuse is relevant here as the abused “forgives” her abuser though he has no intention of changing.

Griswold’s project is primarily an analysis of forgiveness from a purely secular standpoint. Though he acknowledges religious influence, he seeks to keep his terms precisely defined for a non-religious paradigm that not only is relevant to private and personal matters, but to public and political as well. The book is both stimulating and insightful in that it offers much wisdom in the way of how interpersonal relationships can be restored, and it offers a rigorous logical construction of the dynamics of apology and in both public and private affairs. There is much to be learned here that should not go unnoticed.

However, on an intuitive level some of the claims seem incorrect. The supposition that forgiveness is interdependent upon both the wronged and wrongdoer seems to belie the very obvious imperative people sense that to release those who have offended us from contempt is a good thing. Contrary to it simply being an act done out of “insecurity” it is an act of virtue that tempers resentment bringing it down from loathing to distrust that puts the matter to rest in one’s consciousness. It does not condone the action, it holds the wrongdoer responsible. It recognizes the pain the wrongful action caused and feels its impact. It asserts that one will not be not be held hostage to another’s refusal to make amends, and it moves forward tolerating the wrongdoer’s right to make his or her own choices, though not recognizing them as trusted members of the moral community.

Moreover, there is an impression of incongruity in trying to imagine a “paradigmatic” world where forgiveness perfectly obtains all twelve of its conditions. Such a world seems about as likely as one where a person would never need to forgive because they are impervious to harm. The fact of the matter is that we don’t live in such a world, and it would seem that true forgiveness is about as likely as being morally angelic. If forgiveness is a virtue it is so because it strives for the good in an imperfect world. If this is so, forgiveness should not be confused with reconciliation—a state of resolution—which is truly interdependent. Forgiveness, if a virtue, is one that imposes itself on the wronged, not the wrongdoer, and therefore is an individual virtue.

Yet with these criticisms in mind, it would be a mistake to conclude that Griswold’s argument is invalid. Many things pass as forgiveness in our personal relationships that rarely if ever live up to the character forgiveness. We should be able to hope, however, that our efforts at reconciling, though imperfect, will eventually bring peace.

* The book also covers political apology as well, but I have only focused on the personal.

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