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Forgiving for good

Eve Garrard and David McNaughton ask whether it’s always right to forgive and forget

The Prodigal Son in Modern Life: The Departure, James Tissot (1836-1902)

The Prodigal Son in Modern Life: The Departure, James Tissot (1836-1902)

When the Reverend Julie Nicholson’s daughter was killed in one of the 7/7 terrorist bombings, she felt that her religion required her to forgive her daughter’s killers. But she found that she just couldn’t bring herself to do this, so she resigned from her post as vicar of a Bristol church.

Eric Lomax was traumatised and embittered after being tortured in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Decades later he was asked for forgiveness by one of his torturers, a man who had become filled with horror and remorse at his own war-time activities, and had devoted the rest of his life to trying to help those who had suffered under the Japanese. Lomax finally forgave him, and was glad to do so.

Anthony Walker was killed at the age of 18 by an ice axe wielded in a racial attack. His mother Gee Walker forgave his killers.

Winnie Johnson, mother of a 12-year-old victim of the Moors murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, never forgave her son’s killers, and after Hindley’s death said that she hoped Hindley had gone to hell.

Which (if any) of these victims was right? Is it always good and admirable to forgive? Is it ever good or admirable to forgive the vicious torturers and murderers of the innocent?

Forgiveness, in Western culture at least, has generally had a very good press. This is not surprising, given the influence of Christianity and the huge role played by forgiveness in the whole Christian narrative; and also given the more recent and very widespread view that forgiveness is therapeutic – it’s good for the victim to forgive the offender; it enables her to release herself from the trauma of the offence and to move on.

Not everyone accepts the Christian narrative, of course; and there are good reasons for thinking that the therapeutic picture of forgiveness is sometimes inaccurate, and that in any case forgiveness for purely therapeutic reasons may not always be a desirable thing. In fact many people, including many philosophers – Charles Griswold’s Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration is an example – think that even though forgiveness is generally good and admirable, there are certain circumstances in which it’s wrong to offer forgiveness, most notably when the offender hasn’t repented of his crimes. They feel that forgiveness should be conditional on repentance, and perhaps on apology and restitution too.

Why do people feel this – what’s the underlying reason for wanting to withhold the generous offer of forgiveness from unrepentant offenders? One possible answer is that the unrepentant offender doesn’t want to be forgiven. But it’s fairly obvious that in many cases the repentant offender doesn’t deserve to be forgiven either – forgiveness is a gift, which the victim really isn’t obliged to provide. So what is it that’s so special about the unrepentant offender that makes many people feel he shouldn’t be forgiven? What’s wrong with unconditional forgiveness?

We can find a possible source of this hostility to unconditional forgiveness in a widely held account of what forgiveness actually is. On this popular account, forgiveness involves “wiping the slate clean”, so that the victim overcomes all negative feelings towards the offender, and establishes or re-establishes relations with him just as if the offence had never been committed. The victim forgives and forgets: on this understanding, forgiveness is as near as we can get to restoring the world to what it would have been if the offence had never occurred. In forgiveness the offence’s bad consequences are, as far as possible, wiped out, leaving the offender’s slate morally clean. This is in some ways a very attractive view: wrongdoing creates a rent in the moral fabric, so to speak, and forgiveness mends it, so that the fabric is made whole again as if it had never been torn.

On this account of forgiveness, we can see how admirably generous it is, what a gift the forgiver gives to the offender. This generosity seems appropriate for the repentant offender, who has placed himself on the side of right, so to speak – he now stands with the victim against his own previous bad behaviour, which he now rejects. He’s a proper recipient for the gift of forgiveness since he’s not, morally speaking, exactly the same as the person who committed the offence: he no longer endorses his own wrongdoing, and is now aligned with what morality requires of him. So it can be morally appropriate to wipe the slate clean for him.

But the unrepentant offender has undergone no such change. He’s still aligned with the wrongs he’s committed, he’s still untroubled by the harm he’s done to the victim; he’s morally unchanged. Why should we wipe the slate clean for such a person? It looks dangerously as if wiping the slate clean here would amount to denying the moral significance of what the offender did, pretending that it carried no moral weight, supposing that the injustice and harm done to the victim don’t really, ultimately, matter. What’s wrong with unconditional forgiveness, on this account, is that it rates the moral significance of the offence at too low a level, and it rates the moral significance of the victim at too low a level as well. (Nietzsche’s excoriating attack on forgiveness, in which he berates it as a pathetic device of the weak to pretend that they can somehow control the harm done to them by the strong, rests partly on the view that since forgiveness involves denying the moral importance of the victim and the crime committed against her, it thereby involves a contemptible failure of self-respect on the part of the victim who forgives.) Unconditional forgiveness, on this view, is at best morally flabby and at worst morally disgraceful, because in wiping the slate clean for the unrepentant offender it fails to acknowledge the moral importance of the offence, and the moral dignity of the victim.

These are serious charges, and hard to refute so long as we buy into the view of forgiveness which underlies them. But the conception of forgiveness as “wiping the slate clean” is not the only one which is available, nor is it as attractive as it seems at first sight. For a start, there are cases in which treating the offender, even a fully repentant offender, as if the offence had never taken place, is morally undesirable, and forgetting about the offence would be morally outrageous and probably impossible. Consider the case of a woman whose child has been murdered. The mother of that child can never forget what happened to him, and it would be morally obscene to expect her to do so. Nonetheless it’s possible that she might eventually come to forgive the murderer. Gee Walker forgave the killers of her son. Cases like this, where forgiveness is a possibility but forgetting or behaving as if the offence had never happened is clearly out of the question, suggest that “wiping the slate clean” isn’t the most helpful or accurate way to think of what forgiveness actually is.

A different conception of forgiveness claims that what’s involved is overcoming hostile attitudes to the offender: to forgive someone is to give up on wishing him ill, on wanting him to suffer. On this account, the forgiver can still maintain some negative attitudes towards the wrongdoer, so long as they aren’t hostile ones: forgiveness is compatible with feeling indignant about what the offender has done; protesting about it, if that’s what the situation calls for; refusing to resume the old relationship with the wrongdoer, if it would be too dangerous or distressing to do so; and even requiring that the offender be punished, if the safety of others or the demands of justice call for it. What forgiveness is compatible with, on this view, is hating the wrongdoer, or wishing him ill, or bitterly resenting him, or wanting to take revenge on him. Nor is it compatible with total indifference to him: in forgiveness, we adopt an attitude to the wrongdoer which is at least minimally well-wishing.

What does this conception of forgiveness show about the rights and wrongs of unconditional forgiveness? If the main objections to this are that it downplays the moral importance of the offence and the moral significance of the victim, then it looks as if this second, more robust, conception of forgiveness can evade these criticisms. The surviving victim of a genocide – such as the Holocaust, say, or the Rwanda killings in 1994 – may feel that she owes it to those victims who didn’t survive, and perhaps to future victims of violence and terror, to continue to express outrage and indignation about the horrors that were committed. She may reasonably think that the perpetrators should be punished, perhaps because the delivery of justice would comfort and strengthen other surviving victims, or perhaps because she thinks that punishing them is the only way in which perpetrators of mass murder can be brought to see the moral horror of what they’ve done. Nonetheless it’s possible at the same time for her to forgive them, difficult though that would be: she can overcome her (entirely justified) resentment and hatred of them, and ultimately wish them well, while continuing to voice her indignation and protest at what they did. Of course, in the case of serious evil-doers, their future well-being might involve their coming to see the real moral nature of their actions, and punishment might be the only way to get them to see this.

On this way of thinking about forgiveness, there doesn’t seem to be any necessary underrating of the moral importance of what was done, or of the victim herself. So the principal objections to unconditional forgiveness seem not to apply here. What follows from this – do we now have to think of unconditional forgiveness as being morally obligatory? And even if the objections to it fail, are there any positive arguments in favour of it, which show it to be good and admirable?

Firstly, unconditional forgiveness needn’t be seen as morally obligatory at all. Who would have the nerve, the presumption, to tell the mother of a murdered child that she ought to forgive the murderer, that she’s morally deficient if she fails to do so? And there are many good reasons for refusing to forgive, reasons to do with demanding justice for the victims and truth about what happened to them. Sometimes only the psychological energy of hatred keeps people going in the fight for justice with respect to great wrongs. But it needn’t always be like this: some people, with extraordinary and remarkable characters, can insist on justice, and fight unceasingly for it, without hating the perpetrators of injustice. This is a very difficult thing to do, but it’s not psychologically impossible, and there’s nothing in the concept of forgiveness that rules it out.

Secondly, there are some positive reasons in favour of forgiving even unrepentant wrongdoers. Terrible though the perpetrators may be, monsters of cruelty though they often are, they’re still human beings, and to some extent we can see how they came to be as they are. Without in any way denying their full moral responsibility for their crimes, we can at least sometimes come to feel that there are circumstances in which we too might have done such terrible things (and if we had, then of course we too would have been fully to blame.) The human condition is a difficult and often unhappy one, and some people spectacularly fail to live up to its moral challenges, sometimes thereby becoming moral monsters. Many of us feel that had things gone differently for us we too could have become such monsters, and hence would have been in need of forgiveness, whether or not we realised it. A sense of human solidarity, of a shared and often terrible predicament, may lead us to overcome our hostility to those who have utterly failed to behave as human beings ought to, and to hope for their ultimate recovery as moral beings, unlikely though that may seem. When we forgive, it has been remarked, we give up on the hope for a better past. But we don’t entirely give up on the hope for a better future, for ourselves but also for the nightmarish perpetrators who may at this point face us in unrepentant malice. We can still hope that somewhere, somehow, they can be made well again.

(What we’ve described here is a secular account of the reasons we may have to forgive unconditionally. For people with religious commitments, things may be in some ways more straightforward: for example, in Christian eyes the principal reason for forgiving might be that to fail to do so is to fail in love, the love for our fellows which Christianity requires of its adherents.)

Is forgiveness, understood in this way, a good thing? Yes – human solidarity, when it’s clear-eyed and honest, and neither excuses nor condones evil-doing, is a refusal to completely abandon the wrongdoer, and a refusal to give up on hope, in the face of the most unpromising circumstances and persons. Is forgiveness admirable? Yes, when it’s given in full knowledge and recognition of what the perpetrator has done – those who manage it make a generous and unforced gesture of solidarity with human nature, even at its worst. Is forgiveness the only good or admirable way to respond to wrongdoing? No – a victim who maintains resentment towards and rejection of the people who have wronged her, when she puts these feelings and attitudes at the service of justice and truth, may also be aiming at good. And she too may find it difficult to maintain her pursuit of justice, when all around her are telling her that she really ought to forgive and forget.

Finally, when push comes to shove, is forgiveness better than hatred? Yes – solidarity and love (and its cognates) are better than enmity and hatred – though it’s extremely hard to find an argument to support that claim, since at this point we hit moral bedrock. But very often push doesn’t come to shove, so to speak, and it’s certainly true that pursuing justice against a hated perpetrator of hateful acts can be a better thing to do than providing a cheap and light-minded forgiveness which barely recognises the horrors of what was done, and hence inevitably diminishes their importance. Justice is a great good, but on the account of forgiveness which we favour, the pursuit of justice for the victim is compatible with forgiving the offender. We don’t have to think of them as alternatives, though in practice it’s very hard to realise both together. But however that may be, unconditional forgiveness doesn’t, or at least needn’t, involve any moral underestimation of the victim or the offence. Those people who, without neglecting the demands of justice, manage to forgive the unrepentant perpetrator are pursuing a high and difficult good, and this is something we can and should find admirable.

Eve Garrard and David McNaughton are authors of Forgiveness (Acumen). Eve Garrard is honorary research fellow in the department of philosophy at the University of Manchester. David McNaughton is professor of philosophy at Florida State University

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2 comments for “Forgiving for good”

  1. [...] A thoughtful discussion of forgiveness, here. [...]

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