In this article I explore and clarify issues fundamental to an understanding of forgiveness and its justification. I do so as a necessary preliminary to a related project falling beyond the scope of the present study, one that will examine the idea of nurturing a culture or spirit of forgiveness in public (state) schooling from a wider and more inclusive perspective than what has been typically advanced in the educational literature, (2) what this might entail, and why those directly concerned with schooling should take the cultivation of forgiving attitudes or dispositions seriously.
This present work is divided into three sections. The first identifies what I take to be the central features or characteristics of "forgiveness" insofar as its morally relevant uses are concerned. (3) Some of these features are formal in nature, others substantive. Most are presented with relatively moderate analysis and argument, and none are exactly new in the sense of not having been discussed in the philosophical literature on forgiveness before, though my selection and treatment may vary at times from that of others. The second section examines the reasons or grounds on which the act of extending forgiveness might be defended, as well the conditions under which forgiveness might be limited, inappropriate, or objectionable. The final section briefly identifies some issues and questions for further study that my analysis raises with respect to the practice of nurturing a culture or spirit of forgiveness in schooling.
Forgiveness is a complex and contestable notion, one easily given to popular misconception, e.g., that it returns a situation between two parties back to normal, that it lets culprits "off the hook" or condones what they do, as well as to much derision, e.g., that it is only for the weak, the sentimental, or the religious, or that it smacks of new-age "mushiness," and so on. Yet forgiveness is an extremely powerful idea, one critical to an understanding of the human condition, of our vulnerabilities, fallibilities, and capacities for doing both good and ill. How should we see and respond to others whose words and deeds hurt or wrong us in some way? How should we respond to ourselves when our own thoughts and attitudes are self-damaging or self-deceiving, and when we say or do things we regret? What role should forgiveness play in our flourishing as human beings, in our becoming persons more fully and, consequently, in schooling insofar as its basic purpose is (or ought to be) the preparation of students to lead as flourishing lives as possible? (4)
In this work I focus primarily on interpersonal forgiveness rather than self-forgiveness or social-political forgiveness. (5) Interpersonal forgiveness seems particularly relevant to the contexts of schooling I have in mind, not withstanding the importance and value of the other two. My approach to interpersonal forgiveness is from a secular-philosophical perspective rather than a religious or theological one. Hannah Arendt once opined that modern societies tend to overlook or under-estimate the importance of forgiveness because it was "presumed to be a purely theological matter" (in Govier, 2002, pp. 42-43). In taking a secular-philosophical approach I acknowledge the multicultural character of our liberal and democratic society, the separation of church and state reflected in the practice of public (as distinct from faith-based) schooling, and the rational belief that in order to forgive or seek forgiveness one need not be religious or a person of faith any more than to be moral is it necessary that one be religious or a person of faith. A transcendent reality, in other words, is not a necessary presupposition of forgiveness and forgiving, though much of the history of forgiveness at least in the context of Western civilization has been closely associated with such a reality. (6)
I follow the lead of those (e.g., Holmgren,1993; 2002; Govier, 2002; Roberts-Cady, 2003; Wolfendale, 2005) generally sympathetic to a Kantian ethic of respect and its ability to provide a secular-philosophical underpinning for forgiveness, (7) though I acknowledge this is not the only such secular basis to be advanced. In apparently challenging an ethic-of-respect rationale Eve Garrard and David McNaughton (2003) argue that forgiveness needs to be grounded not on any innate goodness of persons or on what is "noble or admirable about us" but on what is "pitiful, weak and degraded" (p. 59), i.e., on our common human predicament which is that, as a species, we are "morally pretty unimpressive" (p. 54). Since we are all in this boat together we need (they argue) to be "forbearing about each other's weaknesses and indeed wickednesses" (p. 59).
(a) Contexts that make interpersonal forgiveness a morally relevant consideration are typically those in which one person (a perpetrator) deliberately or through wilful negligence offends, harms, or wrongs another (a victim) in word or deed (8) and where the latter experiences negative or hard feelings in the belief that he or she has been wrongly or unjustly treated. Several implications of this claim are worth noting, the most obvious of which is the logically odd or incoherent idea of extending forgiveness to those who treat us well. To speak of forgiving others for their deeds of kindness or thoughtfulness simply makes no sense (barring a special explanation). Nor does it make sense to speak of forgiveness in cases where victims falsely believe they have been mistreated, or where individuals mistakenly see themselves as victims or as hard done by. Nor does talk of forgiveness seem to ring true where one had no intent to harm or wrong another or could not reasonably have known or predicted one's actions would have the hurtful effects they did, and who may thus be unaware of such consequences, i.e., where pleas such as "I didn't mean to," "I honestly didn't know," or "I was actually trying to help" are credible and sustainable. (9) Nor (finally) does it ring true in contexts where persons are forced against their will or driven by some inner compulsion or pathological illness to mistreat others, i.e., where there is an absence of agency or where factors are simply beyond one's control and pleas such as "I was made to," "I couldn't help it" are credible and sustainable. Thus, if forgiveness is to get off the ground as a logically coherent and morally relevant consideration, it is necessary that those who offend, harm, or wrong others be the agents of what they say or do, that they act knowingly and freely, and that victims are correct in thinking or having good reason to believe they have been unjustly wronged.
(b) The Greek for forgiveness, asphesis, means to liberate or release from bondage (Vanier, 1998, p. 135); and according to the OED (Compact Edition, 1987, p. 1057) to forgive is literally to give up something. In forgiving a loan, for example, what is relinquished is a legitimate claim one has against one's debtor, freeing that individual from any obligation to repay what is rightfully owed. In forgiving those who maltreat us (or someone close to us) (10) what is said to be "given up" or more appropriately "abandoned" or "overcome" are the negative emotions (11) and feelings we quite naturally and justifiably experience as victims as well as any temptations or desires to retaliate or seek revenge, harbour grudges or ill will. According to a philosophically prominent account of forgiveness, the negative emotions victims need to overcome are invariably claimed to be those of anger, resentment, and hate. (12) No doubt certain conceptual truths concerning the cognitive content of these emotions (or their rough equivalents of indignation, bitterness, animosity) are at play here, but to limit the negative emotions that can be experienced in being victimized and that would need to be dealt with in reaching forgiveness to just these alone, especially in light of the countless ways there are of being harmed or wronged and of the diversity of contexts involved, seems both arbitrary and morally questionable. The restriction is arbitrary since the emotional responses of victims can vary widely and may at times fall outside the "standard" range of vindictive feelings. A youngster who is sexually abused or exploited by an adult in a position of trust and authority, for example, will almost certainly feel humiliation or shame, revulsion or disgust and possibly fear rather than (or in addition to) anger or hate. A teenager jilted by a girl or boyfriend in favour of some other classmate may be consumed more with jealousy and feelings of betrayal and perhaps contempt than with those of anger and resentment. And the restriction is indefensible because of its morally unacceptable consequences, namely that for victims, who, say, experience shame or disgust but not resentment; fear rather than hate, grief, or sadness but not bitterness; and who succeed in overcoming these emotions, forgiveness could not (on the standard account) be a possibility for them since none of these emotions are acknowledged to be ones the overcoming of which forgiveness is claimed to require. (13) A wider scope of negative emotions in contexts of human mistreatment therefore needs to be acknowledged in the analyses of "forgiveness," one that allows not only for feelings of anger, resentment, and hate but disgust, humiliation, shame, embarrassment, betrayal, jealousy, contempt, grief, and perhaps others as well. (14)
(c) That we may succeed in overcoming our hard feelings, at least to the point they no longer function as barriers to forgiveness, does not mean we have thereby forgiven our offenders. In a posthumously published article, journalist June Callwood (2007, pp. 36-37) tells the story of a young woman raised in a Finnish community on the Canadian Prairies who fell in love with a man of African descent. The couple married and had a son and when...