Forgiveness, Mercy, Revenge Blog Post 5: (Finally) Forgiveness

When I started this project, I intended to spend an equal amount of time studying forgiveness and revenge. (I thought that mercy would naturally arise as a part of that same discussion.) Despite my original designs, revenge has dominated both my reading and my writing. I’ve almost completed three essays about revenge, and yet, with one day remaining in this project, I still feel that I need to do more reading before taking a hard stance on forgiveness. This post will resemble my first blog post, “Reading About Revenge,” in that I will go through a few of the sources I’ve read, and speculate about how they might inform my later writing. I am excited to keep learning about this subject, and to use what I’ve read in this project to do more substantial work later. For now, however, I will only document my responses to a few sources relating to forgiveness.

In “On Forgiveness,” Derrida argues that true forgiveness entails a contradiction, and is thus impossible. In his view, “forgiveness” definitionally responds to an act which needs forgiveness, or an act which is unforgivable. However, if a person is able to forgive an action, then the act must have been forgivable already, and thus does not need forgiveness, and thus is not an appropriate target for forgiveness. Given all of this, no act of forgiveness could ever actually occur.

Although I reject Derrida’s argument on the most literal reading, I think that he captured something important. There is a social and psychological phenomenon which people understand to be forgiveness, and so, as far as I am concerned, forgiveness exists. Although Derrida’s paradoxical concept does not map onto the real phenomenon, the concept of this form of forgiveness is present in culture. Self-help books promise radical, even miraculous forgiveness; we are moved by narratives of breathtaking forgiveness in the face of horrific evil. In the shadow of real acts of forgiveness, we see a hint of something impossible, and the more closely the real act approximates the paradox, the more delight we feel.

Joram Haber’s Forgiveness is a powerful introduction to the subject, summarizing several competing theories while also making a strong case for his own. Haber argues that we should only forgive when the person who harms us has repented; to do otherwise, he argues, betrays a lack of self-respect. Since we have a moral obligation to protect our self-respect, it is not only bad, but immoral to forgive someone who has not made right.

I am sympathetic to Haber’s argument, and I strongly agree with his claim that, in many cases, we have an imperative to protect our own self-respect. Although I still need to do more work to clarify my own views, I might go so far as to say that his theory is correct for most people, most of the time. (Even then, I would probably take the more gentle position that it is unreasonable, rather than immoral, to forgive the unrepentant person.) Where I differ from Haber is that I think his theory fails to account for the diversity of human minds. Most people, I think, could not realistically forgive someone who 1. seriously harmed them and 2. refuses to repent without jeopardizing some part of their own dignity. These people should abstain from forgiveness unless circumstances change, so that they are able to forgive without placing themselves at risk. Still, it seems that a minority of people are able to forgive their abusers without suffering harm to their self-respect. Desmond Tutu, for example, who suffered horrible abuse under Apartheid, claims to have forgiven his oppressors, and still seems to have a healthy appreciation for his own moral rights. If I accepted Haber’s argument, it seems that I would have to believe that Tutu has not really forgiven his oppressors, or else that he is secretly suffering constant indignity. To assume that either of these is true only because Tutu is as victim would be not only unreasonable, but unjust. Rather, I think we should believe that Desmond Tutu is the rare person who is able to retain his dignity even as he forgives those who refuse to repent of treating him cruelly.

I truly enjoyed Harriet Lerner’s Why Won’t You Apologize? This popular psychology book encourages people who have been wronged to consider many of the options which are available to them, and discusses the hazards and benefits of each. Unlike much of the philosophy I have read, Lerner’s arguments are grounded in observations about the psychological realities of forgiveness, rather than abstracted concepts which sometimes stray too far from reality. I think her book will be invaluable for me as I advance my work on forgiveness.