Sunday, November 2, 2014

Forgiveness and Repentance

In this post, senior philosophy major Daniel Thweatt makes the case that forgiveness does not require repentance.  A common view of forgiveness in the philosophical literature claims that in order for genuine forgiveness to occur, the offending party must recognize and repent of the offense; but Daniel argues that this is not so.

Daniel's topic brings to mind a song about forgiveness by Don Henley called "Heart of the Matter," and so, as a bonus, I include here a video of Henley performing that song live with the Eagles.  Daniel's essay follows below.

Background Note

I will be assuming the view of forgiveness that philosopher Jeffrie Murphy holds, where forgiveness is “the overcoming, on moral grounds, of what I will call the vindictive passions -- the passions of anger, resentment, and even hatred that are often occasioned when one has been deeply wronged by another.”

Forgiveness and Repentance: Some Thoughts

Murphy and Charles Griswold see a close connection between forgiveness and repentance. Murphy thinks it is reasonable to condition forgiveness on the wrongdoer’s repentance, while Griswold takes it that the notion of forgiveness is conceptually tied to repentance such that if there is no repentance (or at least the willingness to repent) by the wrongdoer, there is no forgiveness.

Murphy claims that making forgiveness depend on the wrongdoer’s repentance can guard against “sacrificing our self-respect or our respect for the moral order -- a respect that is often evinced in resentment and other vindictive passions.” According to him, “hastily forgiving” the wrongdoer may condone his or her action(s) and the degrading message conveyed by it. Withholding forgiveness until repentance can not only guard one against the harm of not showing self-respect, it can also give the wrongdoer an incentive for “moral rebirth.”  Likewise, Griswold warns that unconditional forgiveness may condone or encourage wrongdoing, as well as damage victims’ self-respect.

I disagree. First, it seem to me that there are counterexamples to this view. Consider, for example, the priest who preemptively forgives Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. His act seems to me to be both legitimate forgiveness and not any less morally praiseworthy than an act of forgiveness done in response to repentance. I can also think of instances in my own life where (I take it) I have genuinely and rightly forgiven people despite their not repenting.

Second, and in continuation of this thought, there seems to me to be a variety of morally justifying grounds for forgiveness that do not require repentance.  Consider these examples:  God might command unconditional forgiveness; forgiveness might help realize various goods in the wake of wrongdoing (such as peace and the avoidance of cycles of revenge); forgiveness without repentance may be necessary for the thriving, or perhaps even the possibility, of valuable close relationships; and unconditional forgiveness could motivate moral reform in the wrongdoer (as it apparently did with Jean Valjean). I do not take this list to be exhaustive, but offer it as a selection of examples.

Moreover, it is not obvious to me that unconditional forgiveness sacrifices one’s self-respect or respect for the moral order. It seems entirely possible to conceive of oneself as having inherent value and conceive of the wrong done to one as really wrong despite unconditionally forgiving. The beliefs that “I have inherent value” and “What person X did to me was wrong” and even “I am entitled to resentment/anger towards person X for wronging me” seem compatible with the belief that “I forgive person X (for reason Y)”. Moreover, belief in one’s inherent value and respect for the moral order can be expressed in ways other than appropriate vindictiveness, such as deep sadness over what was done (which I take to be consistent with forgiveness) or verbal repudiation (unless this is an act of revenge).

In addition, Murphy himself outlines how a Christian worldview can furnish one with a conceptual framework that can guard against a loss of self-respect and respect for the moral order while unconditionally forgiving.  Consider two points he makes.  First, on the Christian view God will see to it that the moral calculus of the universe is not ultimately out of balance. This, he says, can help one to “relax a bit the clinch-fisted anger and resentment with which [one tries] to sustain [one’s] self-respect and hold [one’s] world together all alone.” Second, on the Christian view we are all loved by God and all created with inherent value as God’s image-bearers. A firm commitment to these claims can shore up one’s self-respect regardless of what is done to one.

It is also not obvious that unconditional forgiveness risks condoning or encouraging wrongs. After all, the claim that “You did something wrong and inexcusable to me” seems necessarily implicit in the assertion that “I forgive you.”  If the wrong were excusable, then it would be excused, not forgiven. As Murphy points out, excusing, unlike forgiveness, is a response to non-culpable wrongdoing.  Forgiveness, on the other hand, responds to culpable wrongdoing.  So, to communicate to someone that they have been forgiven is necessarily to communicate to that person that they did something wrong and are culpable for it.  So forgiving doesn’t condone or encourage wrongs.

Moreover, there are ways to discourage wrongdoing while at the same time unconditionally forgiving the perpetrators.  One might do so by way of verbal repudiation, or by setting an example of virtuous character.  One might also discourage wrongdoing by refusing reconciliation under certain conditions, such as when responding to a perpetually adulterous spouse, perhaps.  The act of forgiveness itself in these situations may nonetheless so move the unrepentant wrongdoer as to encourage or bring about moral reform.

All that being said, if unconditional forgiveness does risk condoning or encouraging wrongs, it is not necessarily to be faulted on that account. The pursuit or attainment of some goods often comes at the expense of other goods. For example, to choose to become a surgeon may mean forfeiting becoming a pastor. Similarly, spending more time with family can entail spending less time with friends.  If unconditionally forgiving in some circumstances likewise entails risking being seen as condoning or encouraging wrongs, I think it can be worth taking that risk.

I conclude that we can have forgiveness without repentance.  Such forgiveness can be justified for all sorts of reasons; it need not have the costs attributed to it by Murphy and Griswold; and even if it does, the benefits could outweigh those costs.    

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