What is Forgiveness?

By Christian B. Miller, Ph.D.
May 3, 2022
A member of Templeton’s Forgiveness Scientific Advisory Council helps us understand the nature of forgiveness and the philosophy behind it.
What is Forgiveness by Christian B. Miller

Discover Forgiveness is a joint initiative of the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) and the John Templeton Foundation (JTF), supported by a Forgiveness Scientific Advisory Council. This council includes representatives from around the world with interdisciplinary expertise in the science of forgiveness and related fields. With the goal of sharing how forgiveness science is interwoven across cultures, contexts, geographies, and traditions, the council has carefully curated the Discover Forgiveness library to make forgiveness research accessible and actionable for people and institutions around the world. In this series of articles, council members offer insight into select pieces of research from the Discover Forgiveness collection.


The focus of the Discover Forgiveness campaign is on the science of forgiveness and how individuals and institutions can benefit from the latest empirical research. As a philosopher, I always want to start any discussion by getting clearer about what we are focusing on. In this short blog post, I introduce some of the main issues and debates that arise about forgiveness, and direct the reader to various resources at DiscoverForgiveness.org for deeper discussion.

What is Forgiveness?

Forgiveness is typically a matter of a certain kind of response to wrongdoing, or at least perceived wrongdoing. Suppose a student of mine, after being disappointed in the grade I gave him on a paper, smashes my computer. Afterward, I have the opportunity to forgive him for his wrong toward me. 

Note that, as nicely clarified by Hughes and Warmke 2017, forgiveness is distinct from a variety of related notions. It is not the same as excusing the student; if the student were excused completely then forgiveness need not enter the picture. The same applies to justification – if the student were justified (somehow) in smashing my computer, then there was no wrong done to me and so nothing to forgive. Nor is forgiving the same as condoning, in the sense of approving or accepting what was done to me. I can forgive the student while still thinking that he did something wrong. The concepts of pardon, mercy, and reconciliation are also distinct.

Forgiveness is distinct from a variety of related notions.

 

Standing to Forgive

To have standing to forgive is to be eligible to forgive. In our example, my colleague in the office next to mine does not have standing to forgive the student who destroyed my computer, whereas I clearly do. While the person who is directly wronged is the most obvious candidate for the one who has standing to forgive, there is a lively debate as to whether others do so as well. For instance, perhaps someone can legitimately forgive on behalf of someone else. Or perhaps even more remotely, there might be cases where someone has standing to forgive without having been wronged and without forgiving on behalf of others.

The Nature of Forgiveness

What is it to actually forgive my student for the wrong he did me in destroying my computer? Philosophers have come up with a variety of theories, with no clear frontrunner. Here, I briefly highlight three of them (for an extensive review see Hughes and Warmke 2017, Pettigrove 2012)

  • Overcoming Negative Emotion. Suppose I feel a negative emotion towards my student after I find out about the computer. To forgive him, then, would ultimately be a matter of taking care of that negative emotion. Different proposals are offered about what it is to take care of it, such as “overcoming” or “forswearing” or “eliminating” it. There are also different views about what the negative emotion is in the first place. The leading proposal is resentment, but other candidates include anger, hatred, and disappointment. One might think of forgiveness as having to take care of just one particular negative emotion, but there are a range of possible views here, including at the other end of the spectrum holding that forgiveness involves having to take care of all the negative emotions being felt about the wrongdoer.

  • Punishment Canceling. When my student breaks my computer, it seems as if it would perfectly appropriate to punish him, or at least report him to the administration to be punished, say by being suspended or expelled from the university. But if I forgive him, then according to this approach such punishments have to go away. On this view, punishment cancelation is all there is to forgiveness, or at the very least it is a necessary condition on forgiveness.

  • Normative Power. On the approach that I favor, forgiveness involves a discharging of the debt owed by the wrongdoer, which for instance could take the form of an obligation to apologize and make reparations. That is at least a large part of what my student owes me for smashing my computer. By forgiving, a new normative relationship is formed, in which the two parties are to see each other as equals, rather than as wrongdoer and victim (for more see Bennett 2018).

Forgiving Acts versus the Virtue of Forgiveness

Much of the focus on forgiveness in the philosophical literature concerns discrete acts of forgiving. Here there are questions about the moral status of such actions. For instance, one might think that it is obligatory to forgive a wrongdoer, whereas another view treats such acts as supererogatory, or morally optional but highly praiseworthy. 

There are also questions surrounding when forgiveness is morally appropriate. One might think that there are conditions that the wrongdoer has to meet in the first place before forgiveness becomes appropriate. Some possibilities include:

  • The wrongdoer has repented.
  • The wrongdoer has committed to not repeat the wrong.
  • The wrongdoer has explained why he did the wrong.

Or one could hold that there is nothing that the wrongdoer has to do to be eligible for morally appropriate forgiveness.

Similarly, there are various conditions that the victim might have to meet for forgiveness to be appropriate, such as forgiving the wrongdoer for the right reasons or communicating to the person that she is forgiven (Hughes and Warmke 2017).

Besides thinking of forgiveness as a discrete act, one can also think of forgiveness as a character trait. As such it would be a stable disposition that can reliably lead to acts of forgiveness both across various situations where the person might be wronged, as well as stably over time from day to day and week to week.

Even if forgiveness exists as part of some people’s character, it does not follow that it is a virtue. On some interpretations, for instance, Nietzsche would resist this conclusion. But it is probably fair to say that the majority of philosophers and theologians who work on forgiveness the character trait, treat it as a virtue that is worth including in any approach to character education (see in particular Roberts 1995).

Forgiveness research has only just begun

This is only to scratch the surface of the many complex and fascinating issues which arise when thinking about forgiveness. We have not mentioned what is involved in self-forgiveness (Holmgren 1988), for instance, or theological discussions of divine forgiveness (Swinburne 1989). Philosophers have just begun to extensively research forgiveness, and much important work remains to be done in the coming years.

This entry was heavily influenced by Hughes and Warmke 2017.


Christian B. Miller is the A.C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and the Director of the Honesty Project. He is the author of over 100 articles and 5 books, including The Character Gap: How Good Are We? Oxford University Press.

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