Thursday, September 15, 2016


347 days until my first class, and I sent the university my money to confirm that I will enroll in 2017. I seem to be committed.

Yet, there are Philosophy Bites podcasts that frighten me. They tell me not only how little I know, but how little I can know, even about subjects that are relevant to my main interests.

This morning, I listened to Lucy Allies on Forgiveness

It seems that I should be able to say something about forgiveness. To say something about forgiveness, I would need to find out what other people have said. There is a body of philosophical and psychological literature on the subject that I really should read before offering an opinion. Yet, that raises the question of how to fit my reading this body of literature into the set of other stuff I really should read. I will never be able to catch up.

I have offered opinions on some related issues.

I have written a series of posts on the subject of "excuses". Specifically, I have written on accidents, on false belief, on denying harm, on consent, on the greater good, and on deserved punishment. All of these things can - in certain circumstances - excuse an act that, at least on the surface, looks like a wrongdoing. They all show that what appears to be a wrongdoing deserving of condemnation is deceptive, and there was no wrongdoing deserving of condemnation.

I have written on apologies, which seem closely related to forgiveness since a common response to an apology is a forgiveness.

Forgiveness seems to have something to do with condemnation, and condemnation is a central focus of the theory that I use in these posts. Condemnation is a tool that is used to mold desires - most often to promote aversions (desires that not-P) that inhibit people from performing certain types of actions (e.g., lying, breaking promises). If I were to take a first guess on forgiveness, it is a decision to no longer condemn. However, if this is what forgiveness is, then forgiveness is a decision not to use the tool of condemnation to mold useful aversions. How can forgiveness ever be justified?

There are some other important things we can say about forgiveness.

First, forgiveness requires a wrongdoing. If you say, "I forgive you," then you are implying "You did something that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would not have done." You are implying that the person you are talking to has done something wrong - something to be forgiven.

If a driver should strike your parked car legally parked in front of your house because he was excessively tired as a result of helping people who were victims of an accident up the street, you may forgive him. However, if the driver should strike your car because of a manufacturing defect that locked the steering wheel, then there is nothing to forgive. Or, at least, the driver of the car has done nothing to forgive, because even a person with good desires and lacking bad desires could not have turned the car at that moment.

Furthermore, only the victim of a wrongdoing can forgive a wrongdoer. I have no legitimate authority to forgive the person who hit your car. I can only forgive the driver if the driver has wronged me in some way, and only for those things where I was wronged. In fact, third-party forgiveness is an insult to the person who was wronged - a claim that they lack moral significance.

Can forgiveness be justified? If forgiveness requires a wrongdoing, a wrongdoing is an act that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn, and forgiveness is a decision to stop condemnation, then it seems we have a contradiction.

Divine forgiveness is a forgiveness of wrongs done against God (assuming there was a God that one could wrong). However, even God cannot forgive the wrongs that a person inflicts on another person. After pummeling an individual in a bar, the claim "god forgives me" does not imply that the victim pummeled either does or should forgive the assailant.

Lucy Alles provides a paradigm example of a justified forgiveness. This happens in a case in which one person is in a long-term relationship with another; a family member or a friend. All of us are wronged in various ways by those around us. None of us are perfect, and each of us steps out of bounds from time to time with respect to others. Maintaining a state of condemnation against somebody for prior wrongs (holding a grudge) would poison those relationships over time. There comes a point at which a prudent thing to do is to "put the past behind us" and carry on.

In other words, forgiveness tells us that, even though morality is important, it is not the only thing that is important. Sometimes the concerns of morality have to give way to other concerns, such as our concern to have and maintain long-term relationships. Having and maintaining long-term relationships requires forgiveness. Yes, a wrongdoing was done. Yes, it was a type of thing that people generally have many and strong reasons to condemn.

However, people also have many and strong reasons to form long-term commitments and there are circumstances where this outweighs the concerns of morality and we are well advised to put aside our condemnation and carry on.

This account also has something to say about "asking for forgiveness".

Because forgiveness implies a wrongdoing, asking for forgiveness is, at least in part, an admission of wrongdoing. It is an admission of the fact that people generally have reason to condemn - even perhaps to punish - those who have done what the agent asking for forgiveness has done. One can only ask for forgiveness from the person wronged. And it is asking a lot. It is asking the person wronged to withhold condemnation when she is perfectly justified in that condemnation. However, in asking for forgiveness, one does signal that one is wanting a long-term relationship, without the corruption of perpetual condemnation. Forgiveness is essential in long-term relationships. However, some things cannot be forgiven.


Gary said...

Perhaps forgiveness is witholding punishment rather than condemnation. If the perpetrater has recognized the harm his desires led to, admitted it, and changed his desires, then there may be no need to punish him any more (except perhaps as a lesson to others), but it would still be wise to condemn the act.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I don't think that this would account for how forgiveness works, particularly in the context of a long-term relationship.

Let's say that my spouse lies to me about something important. I really would have no interest in punishing her. To punish her is to harm her, and that is not something I would want to do. However, I could condemn her. She may well find me expressing a great deal of condemnation and anger.

It's this condemnation and anger that one has to let go of for the sake of the relationship. This is where the concept of forgiveness seems applicable. "I forgive you. Let's move on."

Now . . . to PARDON somebody . . . that seems to have a lot to do with withholding punishment, and here the legal system seems to have borrowed from morality. (Or has morality borrowed from law?)