The Function and Morality of Forgiveness

Back in the aether, I wrote two posts about forgiveness (first and second). That particular post gained a lot of attention from Paul Quixote. We didn’t finish the conversation before I vanished from the blogosphere, so I am going to get back to explaining why God, Jesus and the police cannot offer you meaningful forgiveness: if I accidentally knock you over on my bike and break your hip, there’s no meaningful way God can forgive me. What I would like to discuss now is what forgiveness is and how forgiveness interplays with morality.

Forgiveness does have a function, it is not just polite etiquette. Forgiveness is helpful for both the perpetrator and victim of a transgression.

Quickly, here are the definitions I am using:

Victim – a person who had their right trespassed against.

Perpetrator – a person who trespassed against another persons rights.

The most clear purpose of forgiveness is as a benefit to the perpetrator. But the function there is reasonably limited: forgiveness will only ever help the truly remorseful perpetrator. An unapologetic perpetrator cannot benefit from forgiveness because the purpose of forgiveness is to help the perpetrator move past the guilty they feel. If the perpetrator is remorseful, the forgiveness can help them develop and move on. You can forgive an unapologetic person, but it’s dangerous: an unforgiving person (especially if they suffer from a dis-social personality disorder) may see your forgiveness as weakness and take advantage of you again. There is a limitation to forgiveness: forgiveness cannot protect you against repeated transgressions. If it turns out a person will continually violate your rights then, even if you let go of the anger and forgive the perpetrator, you should still make steps to protect yourself. If they steal from you, don’t leave your property unattended or given them access. You can do that, and still forgive.

It is more interesting to think about when forgiveness can help the victim. Obviously, as the victim, only they can forgive. But the act of forgiving one’s own assailant is cathartic. Truly forgiving another person releases you from the anger and resentment that you have for another person. It can be useful to forgive a person even after they are dead or otherwise completely unaware of the step you are taking. The perpetrator takes no benefit from this, but the catharsis still exists for the victim.

It is difficult to think of a time when forgiveness is useless if it is sincerely given. To sincerely give forgiveness, first the forgiver must be a victim of the transgression; bystanders and observers have no place to forgive: what would it even mean? Secondly, the forgiver must actually let go of the anger and resentment, else it’s not really forgiveness but is just going through the motions. If the victim tells the perpetrator they are forgiven, then the perpetrator cannot throw it in your face or take advantage, else the forgiveness will have been useless because the catharsis doesn’t get time to set in. But that is the only time it is useless: when the perpetrator immediately throws it back at you.

There is an argument that all transgressions against a person are transgressions against God, because it is Its law. I’m not sure that is correct. After all, does the state get to forgive people for violation of their laws? I think not. The only effect on God could be how indignant it feels watching a transgression take place. But God is not actually a victim. More importantly, is obligatory or guaranteed forgiveness meaningful? The answer is no. If forgiveness were obligatory then the victim would just be going through the motions, not legitimately forgiving. Forgiveness cannot be obligatory because there cannot be a guarantee that a victim will let go of their anger and resentment. Part of the reason that it’s not God’s job to forgive is that God is not a real victim of a transgression, another part is that the narrative of God is that It automatically forgives under some circumstances which is not real forgiveness.

The function I have described for forgiveness has an effect on wellbeing, you may have noticed: the catharsis and the relief. Is this a moral consideration? I am not going to surprise my readers by saying that if an act, symbolic or otherwise, can have that large an impact on one’s Mental Universe (read: wellbeing) then it is a moral consideration. To question whether this is a moral question, however, Paul and I will have to agree some definition of morality (an issue he has promised not to bore me with).

Forgiveness can be a source of immoral behaviour, however. It is possible to scapegoat morality to justify taking advantage of a person. This happens in families where a parent forgives a child who repeatedly goes against the wishes of the parent: how many times can a parent forgive a child stealing from their wallet? Will the child stop if they are supported past the guilt? Forgiveness is also vulnerability.


11 thoughts on “The Function and Morality of Forgiveness”

  1. Here, the atheist is expressing Christian values while denying that he is doing so.

    In the state of nature, which is all there is under atheism, tit for tat or getting even is simple justice.

    The emotions associated with being a perpetrator or a victim are subjective and depend on the personality type.

    Some people hold grudges. Other people just let it go. While some people find joy and purpose in being either perpetrator or victim.

    There is no forgiveness in the atheist state of nature since relationships are all about power and self interest.

    Friedrich Nietzsche is rolling over in his grave right about now seeing as how the atheist is preaching docility instead of the will to power.

        1. But by refusing to acknowledge the possibility that one can create a mind-based emotional and well-being world that does not necessarily relate to the indifference of nature, you are revealing only that you are coming at the issue with extreme bias in your reading and your approach.

        2. Alla,

          If what you claim were possible we would have world peace.

          Authentic ethics is based on a code of behavior, a subjective emotion called empathy.

          Besides, your thesis here comes right out of the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus gave humanity a code of behavior:

          “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

          That proves that your claim, “so I am going to get back to explaining why God, Jesus and the police cannot offer you meaningful forgiveness,” is yet another false claim.

          Alla, I have shown here and elsewhere that you habitually make one false claim after another and then base your arguments on your false claims.

          In the philosophy business that is called sophistry which is the kiss of death to anyone who values truth and credibility.

          Nevertheless, sophistry is the tool of choice for hucksters who happen to be atheists.

        3. Your quote from the lords prayer doesn’t explain why Jesus needs to forgive us, how or whether we trespass against him or is any way rebut my post.
          What you are doing really is sophistry (you’re really pushing the boundaries of sensible definitions the way you define sophistry); you’re basing your rebuttal in a quote with vague reference to the issue in the hope the reader will make up what your argument is. But then your argument is not based in anything except the guess work of the reader. You’ll see from my questions above that if you stop making wild assumptions about what you might mean then you really aren’t saying anything at all.

        4. Alla,

          Isn’t this post about ethics?

          If so, Jesus forgiving us or how we trespass against him is irrelevant.

          My claim is that objective ethics is based on specific behavior not a subjective emotion like empathy.

          Your respond was to bring up Jesus when you need to explain how a subjective emotion can be the basis for universal ethics.

  2. Actually, I understand you want to describe the relationship between victim and perpetrator, which I can agree.

    But when you want to justify the action/behavior of 3rd dimensional view i.e God in 2 dimensional view. It kinda mix up.

    I suggest you try to test and understand the relationship between victim, perpetrator, and Court of Appeal or Supreme Court. If you want make it more complex, you can add the system of insurance and evidence.

    When I read your articles, your mentality of “forgiveness” is something very rigid, and not flexible. In real case, it depend on situation, limitation of rights and power, etc. There was no such thing 1 definition works in any situation even in secular’s view.

    1. Your English is coming along very well; I am very impressed.
      I’m not sure how insurance plays a role in forgiveness, could you talk me through what you think.

      1. Insurance play a big roles in “forgiveness”.

        A set a fire for fire camp near B’s house. Accident happen, the fire spread to B’s house.

        From the view of law, the victim is B and the perpetrator is A. At the same time, we don’t know the intention of A either he intentionally set the fire or accident happen.
        Can B just forgive A? Of course it depend on situation, evidence, etc.

        In the view of B, he have lost his house. In reality, he will not easily forgive A. In simple theory, A need to replace B’s house. Based on evidence that being tabulated, judge give a decision that A accidentally burn the house.

        In this case, insurance specifically fire insurance will help the burden of B.
        The insurance itself have an impact to loosen the burden or replacing the lost, and B have more reason to forgive A and decision making more easier.

        Even, insurance may not replacing the same item, but it help a lot.

        Important Note: Not all human are saint. (in context of highly righteous, moral and ethics)

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