The Many Faces of Forgiveness

Given that wrong-doing is pervasive in human affairs,” writes philosophy professor Charles L. Griswold, “the question as to whether (and how) to forgive presents itself continuously” (Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, Cambridge University Press, 2007).

But because of an endless range of theological and philosophical ideas about what forgiveness means, finding a productive way forward—whether we have wronged someone or have been wronged—isn’t always easy. Still, says Griswold, “the daily fact of wrong-doing” requires us to do just that.

In this interview with Vision publisher David Hulme, the Boston University professor explores the subject of forgiveness: what it is, what it isn’t, and how it plays out in our politicized world as well as in our individual lives.


DH Why did you decide to write a book about forgiveness?

CG Philosophers have in recent years returned to writing about some of the great issues of human life. There’s now a whole literature on the nature of happiness, which is a classic philosophical theme. There’s also a lot of recent work in philosophy on issues of mortality and even the meaning of life. Forgiveness is a very important moral notion in common life. Like a number of philosophers, I want to bring the skills and resources of my discipline to bear on these great issues.

There’s also an intellectual as well as a biographical reason for writing the book. In my early years as a scholar, I worked a lot on Plato and the issue of Platonic perfectionism. I’ve become very dissatisfied with perfectionist moral and political theories that want us to judge things according to some standard of superhuman perfection. I started to think through alternatives that accept the fundamental imperfections of human life and respond to them constructively. My turn to forgiveness was an effort to understand what virtues would go well with an acceptance of the ineluctable imperfections of the world but avoided resignation or quietism in response to them, or an effort to flee to some other world. It became clear to me that forgiveness is indeed one such virtue.

On the biographical side, like most people who reach middle age, you wake up one day and realize that you’ve both realized a great deal of wrongdoing and done some yourself. This, to me, raises the question of forgiveness. Also, you’ve probably been part of—in one way or another—decisions that have caused hurt, or you’ve been the recipient of such decisions. Those, too, raise the question of forgiveness. I was divorced about eight years ago, and it was just then that I began to think all the more insistently on this question—whether one could forgive wrongs and be forgiven.

DH Has writing about the subject changed you in any way?

CG It’s probably not for me to pronounce whether I’m more or less forgiving, but I’m certainly much clearer about what it means to forgive and what it is that I’m doing when I put aside anger at someone for having done me wrong, or anger on behalf of someone who has been wronged. On the political side, the distinction between forgiveness and apology wasn’t at all clear to me before. Now that I have a worked-out view about that, my judgment about what’s appropriate in the political sphere is also much clearer than it used to be.

DH What do you expect your readers to go away with?

CG A new understanding of why forgiveness is a virtue, under what conditions it’s a virtue, what it means to forgive, the conditions that both parties to the transaction must meet, and how forgiveness differs from other concepts that are part of the same family of ideas and are easily confused with it; for example, excuse, pardon, mercy, apology and so forth.

DH When we hear the word forgiveness, a lot of us think of it in some sort of theological sense. But your approach is secular. Can you elaborate on the difference between the two perspectives?

CG The term does have religious connotations, and I would say that there are many different religious views of it, not just one. How it fits into Judaism, for example, is an extremely interesting question. I don’t think it fits in the same way as it does in Christianity. How does it fit into Islam? What role does it have in Buddhism? Did it have any role in Greek or Roman polytheism? So there’s not just one but many religious views, and they may not be compatible with each other. Even within the history of Christianity, I strongly suspect that there are actually competing views of the notion.

In spite of this, I don’t see any reason why one couldn’t work out a secular view of the subject—which doesn’t depend on the assertion that God doesn’t exist but just suspends judgment about the religious dimension. The logic of such a view is going to be quite different from the logic of a view that assumes the existence of God or gods.

DH How do you respond to the claim that the Judeo-Christian ethic provides a richer understanding because it brings in forgiveness from a very different direction—from a God-being?

CG I think that assertion is false. Show me that this other view is richer, and explain to me what “richer” means. I don’t think it’s richer; I think it’s different. I suspect that the Judaic and the Christian views themselves differ from each other. The key point that is often made for the thesis that the Christian view is richer or superior—to speak in these broad generalizations—is that if you assume there is a forgiving God, you have a solution to a set of problems that the secular view can’t solve. It is held that the Christian view allows a kind of unconditional forgiveness—forgiveness no matter what the wrongdoer does—and that the model for this is God, who forgives unconditionally. If you are unable to forgive some terrible wrong, you receive a kind of moral or spiritual support from God, who helps you to forgive, or God does the forgiving for you if you can’t, thereby giving the wrongdoer a new lease on life, or a new chance for a moral life. The claim is that the secular view doesn’t allow for that, and that that’s a defect.

DH I distinguish between biblical principle and what we are calling Christian principle; I don’t think they’re necessarily the same thing. Jesus and Paul had the Hebrew Scriptures as their basis. The widely accepted Christian perspective that comes from early church fathers such as Origen or Augustine may be antithetical to biblical definition.

CG Yes. A colleague, Ilaria Ramelli, is writing a paper for a volume of essays that asks “Is forgiveness unconditional when you look at early Christianity?” And her answer is going to be no, and that it’s a later development. Not even God forgives unconditionally. There are all kinds of things you’re supposed to do, such as repent, etc.

Not even God forgives unconditionally. There are all kinds of things you’re supposed to do, such as repent.” 

Charles L. Griswold

DH In your book you make the point that political apology is not the same as asking for forgiveness. 

CG Yes. I think of forgiveness in an interpersonal context. It’s about a moral response on the part of a victim to a wrongdoer. Issues of anger and resentment are at stake, of recognition, of respect; evidence to the effect that a person is really changing his or her ways and thereby earning forgiveness—that’s at stake; and a whole set of moral ideals are at play also, which have to do with holding people to certain moral standards and living those standards by becoming changed people. 

Apology is certainly part of interpersonal forgiveness, but in the political context you can have apology without forgiveness: apology does require taking responsibility, but accepting it doesn’t require giving up resentment. It requires giving up revenge, but you could genuinely accept an apology without giving up resentment. I think that’s appropriate to the dynamics of a political context, and also the fact that the transaction is often taking place not between two individuals but between an individual and a corporate entity, or two such entities—nations or corporations or churches. In the book I look at the case of President Clinton apologizing on behalf of the United States to the Japanese Americans who were wrongly interned during World War II, and to their descendents. President Clinton had nothing to do personally with the wrong in question. So he’s uttering an apology as the representative of an entity, many of whose current members also had nothing to do with it. And some of the people to whom he’s offering the apology were not themselves in the camps. That doesn’t mean that the apology is not real or morally important; it’s just different from what’s going on in the interpersonal context of forgiveness. 

DH What you’re after here is more a case of linguistic precision, isn’t it? 

CG It is a case of linguistic and conceptual precision, but it’s not just semantics, because the conditions for the satisfactory execution of an apology are not the same as for forgiveness, though some of them overlap. In political apology as well as forgiveness, a commitment is made to the idea that the truth should be told. So when you apologize, the idea is to state what it is you’re apologizing for, which entails making the facts of the matter publicly accessible. So too in forgiveness: if I forgive you for such-and-such, you will have asked for forgiveness and also stated what it is that you’re asking forgiveness for. But the individual who did the wrong doesn’t have to be the one who’s apologizing for it, or the individual who receives the apology could do so on behalf of someone else. And the way in which it connects with a moral sentiment such as resentment is quite different. So the distinction is not just semantic. 

DH Do you see the recent Australian government apology to the aboriginal people in the same terms as the Clinton administration’s apology to Japanese Americans? 

CG Yes. And by the way, from the account I read in the newspapers, the Australian prime minister’s apology was well done because it was very explicit in taking corporate responsibility, stating that it really is a wrong and that the government really is apologizing for it. It also put on record the wrong that was done. 

DH Whereas in the case of President Richard Nixon, you have a very different perspective. 

CG President Nixon never really apologized. David Frost asked him in the famous interview, “Do you apologize?” and Nixon said something like “There could be no greater apology than resigning from the presidency.” That’s a classic evasion. You could resign the presidency for all kinds of reasons. That’s not an apology. To apologize you’ve got to say that you apologize. 

DH One of the things that stands out in seeking forgiveness is that it has to be from the heart, and the forgiving has to be from the heart. How does that play into the kind of secular virtue that you’re discussing? 

CG It plays directly into it. I don’t use that metaphor, but what it’s getting at is compatible with what I’m saying. In a successful interpersonal scene of forgiveness, the wrongdoer truly changes his or her ways in addition to providing an explanation for how he or she came to do the wrong, as well as understanding how it affected the other individual. So a real commitment to change is shown in word and deed. But the same is also true on the part of the wronged, because the wronged person not only gives up revenge but changes internally by letting go of what was warranted anger. But they also change their view of the wrongdoer. This is referred to in the philosophical literature as “reframing.” You come to see the wrongdoer in a different way. These are fundamental changes. They are “from the heart,” if you like. 

In a successful interpersonal scene of forgiveness, . . . a real commitment to change is shown in word and deed.” 

Charles L. Griswold

DH Can an individual seek forgiveness from a group? Let’s take the savings-and-loan executive who pillages his clients’ accounts, then asks for forgiveness. Let’s suppose it is indeed from the heart. Does that fit in with your model? 

CG I think it’s certainly possible and appropriate to apologize, and to apologize from the heart. But the idea of being forgiven by an abstract entity like a group doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t think groups forgive. Individuals do the forgiving. 

DH You’re saying that in some instances, the popular model of forgiveness just doesn’t fit, and that in certain cases, an apology could be viewed as equivalent to seeking forgiveness. 

CG That’s correct, and I think it’s very useful to know that. That’s one of the ways in which this philosophical analysis can help us understand what is appropriate to demand and not to demand in various contexts. And this is also true of reparations. None of the above touches the issue of justice. The loan executive who stole the depositors’ money—no matter what he or she does with respect to apology or forgiveness—may still have to meet the requirements of justice. For example, he may need to compensate the people whose money he took, or serve time in jail, or whatever is appropriate. No amount of apology or forgiveness obviates the need for considerations of justice where appropriate. 

DH This brings in the concept of mercy, and what mercy is and isn’t. It has often occurred to me that this is where people get tangled up; they want to be soft-hearted but end up being soft-headed. People have an indistinct view of what it means to forgive, and they never get to the point of justice. 

CG I would agree with that. If we’re embezzlers and we both get caught and both apologize, but your depositors happen to be given to mercy and successfully ask the court not to prosecute or punish you, whereas mine are not and I get punished for the exact same crime that you committed—that really raises a question of fairness, and it is soft-headed to wave it away on grounds that mercy is a virtue. It’s not that there’s no room for mercy or clemency in a judicial context, but it shouldn’t trump considerations that are appropriate to that context. 

DH I raise it because you also talk about a culture of apology and forgiveness that seems to have developed. How has that happened, and what are its pros and cons? 

CG I suspect it’s come about recently as a product of the self-help therapeutic movement on the one hand and a certain interpretation of Christianity on the other. And there’s a lot of overlap between the two. If you look at the mountains of nonphilosophical literature on forgiveness, you’ll often see an overlap between the self-help approach and a religious or Christian view emphasizing unconditional forgiveness. It also has deep roots in notions of compassion, of public transparency, and of an expectation that people in political life will be responsive to the people. It’s probably part of a flowering of democratic culture, and one could probably learn a lot about how this happened by reading people like de Tocqueville, but I haven’t done a sociological study of the matter and indeed don’t know of one. 

As to the pros and the cons, in the book I talk about some of the dangers that this sort of culture is open to, and one of them is that forgiveness and apology become merely theatrical. They cease being heartfelt, which robs them of much of their moral seriousness. There’s even the worry that once forgiveness and apology become expected in the culture and in the public sphere, they become coerced, with punishments for not performing correctly. 

DH Is it possible to apologize to people who are dead, for wrongs others have committed toward them? 

CG That’s a complicated question, because it involves not just the matter of apologizing to the dead but apologizing on behalf of others to the dead. Third-party forgiveness is built in to such a question. That introduces one set of considerations, but the other is whether—third-party or not—it makes any sense to apologize to the dead. I would say yes, and indeed it’s possible under some conditions to be forgiven by the dead. I know that sounds strange initially, but imagine the mirror case: you’ve been wronged by someone who then died, and you find on their deathbed an elaborate letter of apology and contrition and a credible statement that, had the person lived, they would have taken all the appropriate steps to seek your forgiveness. They have now died. Is it possible to forgive such a person? I think so, if you can construct a narrative of the sort just indicated. 

So, too, in the case of apologizing to people who are dead. If one could construct a narrative according to which they would receive it—and thereby alleviate one’s guilt—and if one genuinely takes other important steps to warrant forgiveness, then why shouldn’t it be possible to imagine them as forgiving you for good reason? But these are imperfect cases of apology and forgiveness. What I mean is that one would wish for the person to not be dead and to apologize to someone who could receive it, or to be able to forgive someone who had earned that forgiveness at the right moment and in the right way. 

DH When we talk about forgiveness, we’re usually talking about giving up resentment toward someone else. What about people who say “Well, I’ll forgive but I’ll never forget.” Their meaning is that they are still bearing a great deal of resentment. They haven’t in fact forgiven. 

CG Right! That is indeed not forgiving. You can’t forgive and continue to boil away with active resentment. Giving up that resentment is part of forgiveness. So if by not forgetting you mean still remaining resentful, then that’s a contradiction. 

You can’t forgive and continue to boil away with active resentment. Giving up that resentment is part of forgiveness.”

Charles L. Griswold

DH Bearing grudges enters the picture here. One of the big challenges in life is that you often have situations where people show no remorse; they’ve wronged you but they’ll never face it. How do you go about the rest of your life with that sort of memory? It’s difficult if you don’t come to terms with the fact that it is possible to live life without bearing grudges. Is it possible to be in a condition of “preparedness to forgive”? 

CG It is a perplexing and maddening situation when you’ve been wronged and the other person will not take even the most elementary steps to earn your forgiveness. Some version of that is probably the norm, unfortunately. So we often are stuck in a situation where we would like to forgive, in principle, but in a sense are prevented from doing so. Forgiveness is not the magic bullet for solving all of these issues—including responding to the unapologetic wrongdoing and the toxicity of the anger that one feels in response. There are other things one then has to do: these range from therapy, to forgetting, to somehow moving past, possibly to excusing and constructing some kind of narrative that explains why this person is incapable of apologizing—say, that the person is morally and psychologically damaged, and trying to find some way to excuse them on that basis (which is different from forgiving them). I think there’s a whole range of responses that one might need to adopt for this very common problem. 

It is a perplexing and maddening situation when you’ve been wronged and the other person will not take even the most elementary steps to earn your forgiveness. Some version of that is probably the norm, unfortunately.” 

Charles L. Griswold

DH So if a person won’t admit wrong, it’s very difficult for us to actually forgive; in fact, it’s illogical. 

CG What you’re actually doing is not forgiving. And again, this isn’t just a semantic point—it does make a difference what you call it. 

I think there’s another profound issue here about whether people do wrong knowingly or not. Everything I’ve said about forgiveness depends on the thesis that in some sense of the term, people do wrong knowingly (at least some of the time). If you’re a Socratic, you would argue that the thesis is false and that people, when they do wrong, actually don’t know that it is wrong. They think it’s good, or right. And if that’s true, then the appropriate response isn’t forgiveness but understanding and excusing. 

DH It could also be not bearing a grudge as a consequence. 

CG Absolutely. And I think excusing can effect a lessening of resentment or anger. Whether it requires forswearing anger is something that I haven’t worked out. It probably does, but I’d have to think about that. 

DH Is forgiveness essential to reconciliation? 

CG It all depends on what you mean by reconciliation. If you mean cessation of hostilities, then no. People cease hostilities for all kinds of reasons that don’t involve forgiveness. You might just cease it momentarily to gain the advantage or to avoid disadvantage; or you’re fed up with war, and some kind of modus vivendi is preferable. None of that involves forgiveness. 

If by reconciliation you mean something more like the resumption of the previous relationship in an interpersonal context, then the tie-in is much closer. I would certainly say that the goal of forgiveness is reconciliation and that accomplished forgiveness does reconcile, but I wouldn’t say that every kind of reconciliation is dependent on forgiveness. 

DH It comes back to the precursor being some form of repentance and what we were talking about earlier—something coming from the heart. If you get yourself to the point that you’re willing to take on a forgiving approach with the nuances you’ve suggested, it seems that would lead to other changes in behavior—the ancient Hebrew concept of shub: turning around and going the other way. So we’re back to the connection between religious concepts and secular virtues, because we are dealing with the values part of our life. 

CG Yes, I agree entirely with that. It would be very interesting to do a cross-cultural analysis of forgiveness in different religious contexts. For example, I don’t think there’s much room for forgiveness in ancient Greek thought, which was heavily religious (except among the philosophers, and even then moral reflection was often religious in some sense). There exists a very rich mine of research on this issue of religions and forgiveness, yet to be explored systematically and philosophically.