Friday, January 12, 2007

Questioning Forgiveness

Is forgiveness an unquestionably good thing? I think it is generally a good thing, for at least two reasons. Most obviously, it may benefit the forgiven one ("an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," and all that). And - perhaps more importantly - it may also help the forgiver, since bottled up hatred and bitterness can't be good for you. Granting all that, I want to instead discuss some problematic aspects of this topic.

For one thing, holding forgiveness in high regard may risk creating an expectation of forgiveness that is unfair on the victims. Consider: forgiving is a part of "getting over" some harm or grievance. But even granting that it's a good thing when people can get over their problems and move on with their lives, still it may be callous and inappropriate to snap "get over it!" to someone whose wounds have not yet healed. "Forgive and forget" is merely a politer version of the same. In some cases, it may even serve to deny the legitimacy of the victim's anguish -- when surely they've been through enough without now also placing their reactions under the knife.

So we must beware perceptions of a "duty to forgive". Do you think that understanding forgiveness as supererogatory ("above and beyond the call of duty") is sufficient protection here?

A related problem, I think, is the practice of asking forgiveness. Contrition is all well and good, but to go that extra step and "beg forgiveness" creates a weird moral inversion. The victimizer now claims the moral high ground, and if their victim doesn't (or can't) oblige, then suddenly they're the villain (e.g. made to seem "un-Christian").

Does this mean it's always wrong to ask forgiveness? On the one hand, it seems awfully selfish to place such a burden on someone you've already harmed. But can contrition always be expressed so well by an apology alone? Is there something laudable about taking that extra step towards reconciliation? Other factors I've missed? Suggestions welcome...

8 comments:

  1. I think there should be an expectation of forgiveness. People do what they are expected to do generally. Often in society there is an expectation that you would never forgive certain things and that creates a problem potentially out of nothing. Better an expectation of forgiveness than one of twisted hatred.

    >still it may be callous and inappropriate to snap "get over it!"

    I think the problem with that sort of statement is not what you are asking for but that you are not explaining how to get it. Of course figuring out what a ‘person’ is able to do can be difficult.

    > When surely they've been through enough without now also placing their reactions under the knife.

    That sounds more socialist than utilitarian.

    > 'begging forgiveness'

    I guess at some level that might be a useful system (from a legal sort of stand point) and little cathartic (for the individuals, But I think the important thing is that person X forgives and that person Y regrets their actions they need not be related.

    > Does this mean it's always wrong to ask forgiveness?

    I don’t think so. In many situations the other-side will clearly want you to prostrate yourself and togive them the illusion they have somthing to offer or power might be just what they need.

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  2. I don't agree that asking forgiveness puts the victimizer on any moral high ground. Maybe you could explain what you mean by "weird moral inversion."

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  3. The worry comes from perceptions that when asked to forgive, one really ought to oblige. It is seen as a moral failing on the part of the original victim if she fails to do so. (She may seem "embittered", "uncharitable", "un-Christian", etc.) The moral inversion comes when one then concludes that the victim has wronged the victimizer, through her failure to forgive him. But perhaps you think that such perceptions are not likely to arise?

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  4. Anon - your final point about power is a good one that I'd missed. Also, asking forgiveness indicates that you care about the other's opinion of you, and hence expresses a kind of respect.

    "Often in society there is an expectation that you would never forgive certain things and that creates a problem potentially out of nothing. Better an expectation of forgiveness than one of twisted hatred."

    Best of all if there is no fixed expectation either way, I reckon. But I don't know that being unforgiving entails "twisted hatred". One might simply remain disappointed in, and untrusting of, their betrayer. (That might also be the most prudent response -- at least if forgiveness entails a naive restoration of trust. What do you think?)

    "I think there should be an expectation of forgiveness. People do what they are expected to do generally."

    What of those who are not yet able to forgive? Should they be condemned or stigmatized for this?

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  5. most people who suport forgiveness seperate the good and bad aspects. christian forgiveness uses repentance and others may say "forgive but not forget"

    > What of those who are not yet able to forgive? Should they be condemned or stigmatized for this?

    should the offender be stigmatized above and beyond the standard punishment?

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  6. Richard,

    Great topic. I think there are certain distinctions though that, if correct, need to be made. For instance, is forgiveness and act or a feeling? Can't we feel hurt, betrayed, etc. and still forgive a person? In fact, one is probably having to forgive because one was hurt, betrayed, etc., so it doesn't seem odd that one would feel that way. Basically, I don't think you have to "get over it" to forgive it. But that of course depends on one's understanding of forgiveness. Also, if forgiving is better (morally speaking) than not forgiving then the person refusing to forgive does seem to be in some sense failing.

    You raise the issue of if forgiveness is always a good thing, which reminds me of certain often made statements: "How can you forgive that?!" "There are just some things one can't forgive" and so on. However, I think (though I could be wrong) that these statements confuse forgiving with excusing. The two, though, are in a sense opposites, for excusing means saying that there's nothing to forgive.

    Lastly, I'm not sure in what sense asking/begging for forgiveness places a burden on someone. It would appear to be a burden only in the sense that a person might feel as if she ought, even though she hasn't, offer the forgiveness which is being asked for. Other than that I'm not sure how it could be burdensome. If someone asked me for hatred, I wouldn't feel a burden.

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  7. Don Jr. came up with some good points, notably the difference between forgiveness and excusing, a distinction many people don't get.

    Forgiveness is in some ways a moral necessity. It should be thought of separately from the offense being forgiven. It's always a free choice, and the greatest beneficiary is the forgiver.

    The issue to me is one of time. An offender may have to go through some suffering, blame, punishment, or other "redemption" to bring the victim to the point where they can feel able to forgive. Sometimes this is really just giving the victim time to "heal". This needs patience, and sometimes the "victimizer" feels the offended party is too hard on him.

    Personal relationships are different from social acts, though, such as slavery, oppression, etc. I don't think those are usually resolved by the same type of forgiveness, but usually only reach a resolution when there is a role reversal or some actual compensation.

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  8. I was wondering what you felt appropriate for repeat offenders? I agree that the expectation of forgiveness can lead to the victim not being able to cope fully or not really having a choice in the matter of forgiving, but I cannot shake the idea that begrudging someone can in no way increase virtue. The more relationships one has; the better networked and social, the more successful a person (at least, it can be argued). This is a bit of slippery slope, but if you fail to forgive in any situation and find that it is easier to hold on to anger and distrust your social circle will inevitable dwindle. Though, when it comes to repeat offenders, like I said before, I am kind of unsure what to do. I speak, of course, from a personal occurrence, and am turning my fellow philosophers for the answer.

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