In my last post on this topic I advanced a double-barreled thesis to the effect that (i) unconditional forgiveness is in most cases morally objectionable, and (ii) in most cases conditional forgiveness is genuine forgiveness. But now we need to back up and focus on the very concept of forgiveness since deciding whether (i) and (ii) are correct depends on what exactly we take forgiveness to be. So here is my preliminary stab at an analysis. After this task is completed, it may be necessary to back up once more and ask how I arrived at my analysis. Ain't philosophy fun?
1. Forgiveness has a triadic structure: to forgive is for someone to forgive someone for something. X forgives y for z, where x and y are persons (usually but not necessarily human) and z is typically an action or an action-omission. We typically forgive deeds and misdeeds, but perhaps states can be forgiven, for example, the state of being insufferably arrogant. An interesting side-question is whether x and y could be the same person. Is it possible to forgive oneself for something? I mention this question only to set it aside.
2. Only those we perceive to be guilty can be forgiven. Necessarily, if x forgives y for z, then x perceive, whether rightly or wrongly, y to be guilty of doing or having done z, or guilty of failing or having failed to do z. The necessity of this necessary truth is grounded in the very concept of forgiveness.
3. It follows from (2) that only what one rightly or wrongly takes to be a moral agent can be forgiven or not forgiven. For anything one takes to be morally guilty one must take to be a moral agent. I can neither forgive nor not forgive my cat for sampling my lasagne. Not being a moral agent, my cat cannot incur guilt.
4. It also follows from (2) that what I forgive a person for must be a wrongful act or act-omission. Tom, unlike my cat, is a moral agent; but it is not possible to forgive Tom for feeding his kids.
5. Forgiving works a salutary change in the forgiver: it alters his mental attitude toward the one forgiven. True forgiveness is not merely verbal but involves a genuine change of heart/mind (a metanoia if you will) that is good for the forgiver.
6. Forgiving cannot remove the guilt of the one forgiven if he is indeed guilty. Suppose you steal my money. You don't admit guilt or make restitution. But I forgive you anyway. Clearly, my forgiving you does not remove your moral guilt. You remain objectively guilty of theft. The demands of justice have not been satisfied.
7. Forgiving cannot retroactively make a person innocent of a crime he has committed. Suppose again that you steal my money. You admit guilt and you make restitution. My forgiving you does not and cannot change the fact that you wrongfully took my money. Forgiveness does not retroactively confer innocence. It follows that you remain guilty of having committed the crime even if you do admit guilt and satisfy the objectve demands of justice by making restitution, etc.
Assuming that the above analysis is correct, albeit not complete, does it allow for the possibility of unconditional forgiveness? It does. Suppose again that you steal my money, but don't admit guilt let alone make restitution. If I forgive you nonetheless, then I do so unconditionally, as opposed to on condition that you admit guilt, make restitution, etc.
Note that unconditional forgiveness is not an inter-personal transaction between the forgiver and the person forgiven, but something that transpires intrapsychically in the forgiver. This is because unconditional forgiveness doesn't require the one forgiven to acknowledge anything or even to be aware that he is the recipient of forgiveness. One can unconditionally forgive dead persons and persons with whom one has no contact. Since unconditional forgiveness is merely intra-personal as opposed to inter-personal, one may question whether it is forgiveness in the strict sense at all. Accordingly, one might add to the list of the concept's features:
8. Necessarily, if x forgives y, then y perceives himself as having done something wrong and admits his wrongdoing to x.
Now I don't think that features 1-7 are controversial, but #8 is. For it rules out unconditional forgiveness. The underlying issue is whether forgiveness is an inter-personal transaction or merely an attitude change within the mind/heart of the forgiver. If forgiveness is inter-personal, the one forgiven must accept forgiveness. But he can do that only if he acknowledges guilt.
But if unconditional forgiveness is possible, and not ruled out by the very concept of forgiveness, it doesn't follow that it is morally acceptable. I say it is not. To forgive unconditionally is to refuse to take a stand against it. But I will leave the elaboration of this point for later.
The other main question is whether conditional forgiveness is genuine forgiveness. I say it is.
One might think that there is nothing left to forgive after the offender has admitted guilt, made reparations, etc. But there is something left to forgive, namely, his having committed the offense in the first place.
A second consideration. If unconditional forgiveness is possible, then what makes forgiveness forgiveness has nothing to do with the the one forgiven: it does not require his admission of guilt, his doing penance, or even his being guilty. If I forgive a person, I must take him to be guilty, but he needn't be in fact. Unconditional forgiveness is merely an alteration of the forgiver's mental state. Now if forgiveness is what it is whether or not there is any non-relational change in the one forgiven, then it doesn't matter whether or not the conditions are satisfied. So conditional forgiveness will be just as much forgiveness as unconditional forgiveness is.
So for these two reasons conditional forgiveness counts as genuine forgiveness.