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.