This post is by Lucy Allais (pictured above). Lucy teaches philosophy at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and the University of California in San Diego. She partly works in the history of philosophy, on the work of the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant (mostly on his metaphysics but she is increasingly interested in his moral and political philosophy), and partly on some topics in moral philosophy and moral psychology, such as forgiveness, resentment, and related moral emotions. In this post she writes about her research on forgiveness.
Augustine once said that he knows exactly what time is until anyone asks him, and it seems to me that something similar can be said about forgiveness. It is a concept we are pretty confident we understand, until one tries to give a philosophical account of it, at which point it seems to start dissolving, to the point that a lot of philosophers have thought it to be paradoxical and impossible to make sense of.
The difficulties start because most people agree that forgiveness should be distinguished from excusing and justifying, as where there is an excuse or justification there is nothing to forgive. Many philosophers start from the view that the resentment or hurt that forgiveness overcomes is warranted or justified: this is precisely what follows from the view that forgiveness comes into play in relation to culpable wrongdoing. Since forgiving does not involve changing your mind about whether the wrong was really wrong (in which case it would be justifying or accepting), it seems that it does not change your view of the wrong as attaching to the wrongdoer. Yet the way we often use the term suggests that forgiving involves a change in your emotional orientation to the wrongdoer in which you no longer see it the wrongdoing as attaching to them or reflecting on them—you somehow wipe the slate clean.
The challenge is to characterise this change in a way which is compatible with the forgiver not having changed her mind about whether there was really culpable wrongdoing—without justifying or excusing. A number of philosophers attempt to dissolve the apparently paradoxical nature of forgiveness by giving up on one side of the considerations that seem to drive it—for example, by re-characterising forgiveness as something other than overcoming warranted resentment, or by setting stringent conditions the wrong doer has to meet in order to justify the giving up of warranted resentment.
In my view, properly characterising forgiveness requires taking seriously both sides of the considerations that seem to make forgiveness paradoxical. As I see it, forgiveness plays an essential role in our lives because of the intrinsically flawed kind of agents we all are. Unlike those who think the wrongdoer must meet stringent conditions to show that they have changed and have now have a well-ordered will, on my account, being forgiven is being seen as flawed yet oriented to better willing, rather than being seen as fully well-ordered. In forgiving, we do not change our view about the wrongdoing, but express to the wrongdoer an optimistic view of them that sees them as better than their wrong actions indicate them to be, and in a way in which it is possible for them to be.
We need forgiveness to move forward with optimism and hope with people who have let us down and who we let down, whose willing we deeply care about.