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Thursday, March 14, 2013


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In a couple of posts (“The Putative Paradox of Forgiveness” (3/13; 5:38am); and “More on the Putative Paradox of Forgiveness” (3/14/13; 2:35pm)) Bill advances two theses:

(CF) “Only conditional forgiveness is genuine forgiveness.”

(MO) “It is morally objectionable to forgive those who will not admit wrongdoing, show no remorse, make no amends, do not pay restitution, etc.”

In this response I wish to ignore for the time being whether there is a genuine paradox of forgiveness. Instead I wish to focus on an apparent tension between CF and MO.

But first we need to clear up a problem with CF. If I understand Bill correctly, conditional forgiveness is forgiveness conditional upon some kind of repentance extended by the wrongdoer toward the wronged. So unconditional forgiveness would be a case where forgiveness is extended even when repentance is absent.

Now, CF implies that unconditional forgiveness is not a genuine case of forgiveness. What would it mean for a case of forgiveness to fail to be genuine? Clearly, Bill cannot simply mean that in such cases forgiveness is not sincere: i.e., the forgiver fakes it or pretends as if he forgives the wrongdoer when in fact he really does not. Even if we suppose that one can pretend to forgive, this is not pertinent to the present case.

The alternative is that a case of unconditional forgiveness is not really a case of forgiveness. But how can a sincere act of forgiveness fail to be real? Suppose I sincerely assert (or think to myself) “I forgive you” for some wrongdoing and suppose I mean it with all my heart. Bill would insist, I suppose, that even with all the heartfelt sincerity, forgiveness still fails in the absence of repentance. I may simply be wrong in thinking that I forgave the wrongdoer. But how can this act of mine (mental or verbal) fail to be a real case of forgiveness? What is missing?

Well, Bill may respond along the following line: ‘to forgive’ is a success verb and the success-conditions require an external element; namely, that the wrongdoer repents. The sincere intentions of the agent are not enough. So even if the agent is sincere, when the external element of repentance is absent, forgiveness fails. Bill now has what he needs to explain how an agent can be wrong about whether they have forgiven a wrongdoer. Such failure occurs just in case the proper intentions to forgive are present, but the external element of repentance is absent. When both of these conditions obtain together, then the agent is liable to falsely believe that they have succeeded in their act of forgiveness.

I will now turn to the tension I see between CF and MO. CF (together with our account above) implies that a sincere attempt to forgive fails in the absence of the external element of repentance, even if the agent wholeheartedly believes (albeit mistakenly) that they have succeeded to forgive a wrongdoer. And it is at this point that I sense the tension with MO.

MO says that it is “morally objectionable to forgive those” who fail to repent for a wrongdoing. But according to CF, when repentance is absent, there is no act of forgiving, even when the agent sincerely intends to forgive. So I ask: How could something that fails to exist be “morally objectionable”? After all, according to CF, there is no act of forgiveness under the circumstances we imagine. So there is nothing to pin our moral objection on. Or is there?

I suggest that Bill’s idea is that it is morally objectionable to sincerely *intend to forgive* a wrongdoer in the absence of repentance. So Bill pins the moral objection on the agent’s sincere intention to forgive an unrepentant wrongdoer.

But what are the grounds for such a moral objection? Is the moral objection warranted because it is wrong for an agent to attempt to do something which they know, or should know, is doomed to failure? But according to this reasoning, the agent is at most blameworthy for being either ignorant or somewhat foolish. I do not think that under the circumstances either of these shortcomings rises to the level of moral blameworthiness.

Now suppose that the agent knows that the wrongdoer failed to repent for his wrongdoing, yet he still insists to sincerely forgive him. Is that morally objectionable? But on what grounds would this be morally objectionable? What is the moral failure exhibited by such an agent? I think Bill needs to offer us a justification why such an agent is morally blameworthy.

after atonement has been made, the wrongdoer is not guilty of anything any longer and thus there is nothing to forgive, nor would continued resentment be appropriate
Maybe unconditional forgiveness targets the feeling of hatred as such, that is hating a person is inappropriate always, even when we are victims of her misdeeds.

Hi Peter,

Good comment. You write: Bill may respond along the following line: ‘to forgive’ is a success verb and the success-conditions require an external element; namely, that the wrongdoer repents.

This would not be a good route to take, insofar as we can forgive persons from whom repentance, atonement, etc., is impossible: for instance, the dead.


Thanks for your astute point. I suppose much of my way-to-long post is not pertinent anymore in light of Bill's most recent post stating his position. In any case, it is certainly a very intriguing topic.

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