The Logic of Forgiveness

22 Jun 2020

The first of the 2020 Holy Land Dialogues explores forgiveness from a philosophical angle. The following is an edited and abridged version of Professor Mariano Crespo's contribution.

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Two years after the 1985 assassination of retired General Juan Atarés, his murderers were arrested, tried and sent to prison without demonstrating any apparent regret. His widow said she forgave the terrorists.

In the face of an evil act like murder and the suffering it causes, all words are, in a way, impertinent. But it is not just evil that leaves us speechless. The same happens when we are witness to the goodness inherent in an act like the forgiveness General Atarés’ widow expressed. What can we say in the face of the heroic act of forgiving someone who has inflicted an objective evil of such magnitude?

Despite the limitations of all language surrounding forgiveness, attempts to approach this phenomenon still abound. We can speak of "psychological models of forgiveness" and even forgiveness as therapy. A sociological analysis of it is also possible. In this order of things, research also touches on how different cultures and eras have understood this phenomenon. This "sociology of forgiveness" also includes issues such as the influence of certain historical and social events on its current understanding. Forgiveness can also be considered from the theological or religious point of view.

As interesting as the psychological, sociological and theological-religious approaches to the problem may be, the analysis I offer is purely philosophical – not incompatible with the aforementioned perspectives, but rather simply different.

Let us return to the initial example. Many questions emerge in light of the forgiveness that took place moments after this terrible act.

1. How is it possible to forgive someone for such a heinous crime so immediately? Isn't it necessary to let some time pass so that the negative feelings that the “wrong act” engendered can be “attenuated” and, in this way, the ground is prepared for truly mature forgiveness? To what extent is forgiveness granted so quickly truly forgiveness?

2. Does quickly rendered forgiveness that renounces any kind of revenge denote an attitude of disrespect for oneself and, ultimately, the moral order? To what extent was General Atarés’ widow fully aware of the evil involved in her husband's murder and the objective evil inflicted upon her? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to respond to the evil of this murder with some kind of “vindictive passion?” Some contemporary authors have argued that, “at least some vindictive passions (particularly resentment) are tied to self-respect and self-defense and since, self-respect and self-defense are good things, a reasonable degree of resentment is a good thing to the degree that it is so tied.”[i] Thus, these “vindictive passions” as initial responses to being wronged stand “in defense of important values – values that might be compromised by immediate and uncritical forgiveness of wrongs.”[ii]

3. To what extent is it possible to forgive my wrongdoer without him showing any regret? Can General Atarés’ widow forgive her husband’s murderers without even knowing if they have repented? If forgiveness is, to a large extent, the "cancellation of an account of guilt" between the wrongdoer and the offended person, is the wrongdoer’s cooperation not necessary through repentance?

4. To what extent is the offended person’s sincere forgiveness compatible with the demands of justice? Can the widow forgive her husband's murderers and, at the same time, demand that human justice punish the guilty? Is there not something of an incompatibility between what we might call the "logic of forgiveness" and the "logic of justice?" It is not uncommon to oppose these logics, that is, a logic of love, with the so-called “logic of justice,” understood as a logic of equity, of “rendering to every man his due” (suum cuique tribuere). It would seem as though the logic of forgiveness goes beyond the limits of justice since forgiveness exceeds what is rendered to the wrongdoer as his due, what is rendered to him, as we say, “in justice.” Some have even claimed that forgiving the wrongdoer means giving up the demands of justice in order to reconcile with the wrongdoer.

Many questions arise around forgiveness, none of which are easy. I have mentioned only some of them. Addressing all of them would require much more time than we have. I will only refer to two that encompass the others, namely: What is forgiveness? And what is its “logic?”

What, then, is forgiveness? Firstly, forgiveness is an experience that occupies a central place in people's moral life. Forgiving someone reveals a special depth to moral life. It seems impossible to sincerely forgive a wrongdoer and, at the same time, harbor wishes of revenge against another. The latter reveals a kind of disharmony that could put in doubt the sincerity of the forgiveness granted. A genuine act of forgiveness is such that it somehow "colors" our entire moral life.

Secondly, it is important to emphasize that the center of genuine forgiveness is not, in fact, the person who forgives, but rather the person who is forgiven. We could think that General Atarés’ widow forgave her husband's murderers because, ultimately, forgiving is the best strategy for recovering the inner peace she lost. Forgiveness would, then, be a therapeutic tool that would contribute to better psychic health, to a deeper sense of self-worth and security in the world, to a greater feeling of freedom, etc.

One might also think that the widow's forgiveness is nothing but the cessation of negative feelings such as indignation, contempt, resentment, etc. One might even think that these kinds of negative feelings are the right answer to the objective evil inflicted on her. The eighteenth-century English philosopher and theologian, Joseph Butler, defended a similar position.

The indignation raised by cruelty and injustice, and the desire of having it punished, which persons unconcerned would feel, is by no means malice. No, it is resentment against vice and wickedness: it is one of the common bonds, by which society is held together; a fellow feeling, which each individual has in behalf of the whole species, as well as of himself.[iii]  

Yet if that were the case, the center of forgiveness would be located in the person who forgives (the widow), while in true forgiveness, like hers, the center of forgiveness is instead found in the person(s) forgiven. The widow genuinely forgives her husband's murderers not for her sake, but rather for the sake of the murderers themselves. All genuine forgiveness contains, then, a kind of gift directed at the person or persons forgiven.

We must take into account two more issues. The first has to do with the object of forgiveness, that is, what we forgive. If we return to our example, we perceive two types of negative qualities: on the one hand, the moral negative value of the murder and, on the other hand, the objective evil that, through the murder, was inflicted on the widow. Although they are closely related negative qualities, they are still different. On her own, the widow can forgive the evil intentionally inflicted upon her. She is the one upon whom evil was inflicted. This "concrete" direction of the act of inflicting an evil means that we cannot, in principle, forgive an evil that has been inflicted upon a third person. If we "forgive" people who have not inflicted any wrong on us, we speak of a false kind of forgiveness that lacks objective foundation. On the other hand, forgiving the moral negative value involved in her husband's murder is something that, so to speak, exceeds her powers.

The second question refers to the type of act found in forgiveness. We can say that, basically, it consists of a rejection of the moral negative value required for the offense to be committed and the objective evil inflicted, but also of an acceptance of the person of the wrongdoer. We are thus faced with a characteristic element in forgiveness, namely a clear rejection of the offense does not necessarily imply a rejection of the person of the wrongdoer or a negative attitude towards him. Therefore, it is often said that genuine forgiveness contains a "change of heart" with respect to the person of the wrongdoer. This does not mean that this change of heart or affect with respect to the wrongdoer is something in which our will does not intervene at all. In a way, I can "mold" my heart, my affectivity.

The other large group of questions I referred to has to do with what, in a broad sense, is called the "logic of forgiveness." I will thus argue that this logic is one of overabundance.

How might we understand the special logic that operates in forgiveness? To answer this question, we must consider two fundamental aspects contained in forgiveness. On the one hand, we observe that, in all genuine forgiveness, the logic of "an eye for an eye" is broken. By this I mean that he who forgives renounces a certain claim with respect to the wrongdoer and "pays off the debt" of guilt that the wrongdoer had incurred. We can call this first element the "purification of memory."

This "purification" is a process that aims toward the release of all forms of resentment or negative feelings. It implies, then, a calm relationship with the past offense.

The "purification of memory" is founded on a new posture before the person or persons who inflicted an evil on me. Instead of responding to the evil inflicted by inflicting another evil, the one who forgives overcomes all hostile will and "conquers evil with good." To forgive the one who has wronged me is not simply to "purify the memory" or not to take into account what was done to me; it also implies a recognition that the other’s personal being is more than the offense. Obviously, this does not eliminate the demands of justice. Forgiveness does not capitulate to evil, but rather recognizes and rejects it and, in spite of it all, accepts the wrongdoer as a person.

With this new attitude, the one who offers forgiveness with respect to his wrongdoer gives the latter a "credit of trust" that looks to the future rather than to the past. Even if the wrongdoer has betrayed the person who trusts in the past, it is possible to trust him again. If I trust the one who inflicted an objective evil on me, I completely "expose myself" even though he may betray me. This exposure to the other that takes place in the trust at the base of forgiveness highlights the vulnerability involved in trusting. Trust can certainly be betrayed, but continually worrying about betrayal eliminates trust and, therefore, authentic forgiveness. In any case, in terms of genuine forgiveness, this positive and trustworthy attitude overcomes and "defeats" the wrongdoing.

In short, ascribing his offense to a wrongdoer, holding him accountable for it, and, at the same time, recognizing him as a person does not controvert the injustice of an action or its consequences. The positive attitude present in forgiveness makes it possible to see beyond the evil inflicted and instead focus on the person’s inviolable value.

These elements of forgiveness are not symmetrical. The latter, that is, the positive attitude towards the wrongdoer, not only justifies the former, i.e., the “purification of memory," but also somehow "exceeds" or "overflows" it so much so that it resides at a deeper level of moral life.

Indeed, where an objective evil is inflicted and the moral negative value of inflicting such evil occurs, the positive attitude that I have called "the affirmation of the wrongdoer as a person" abounds. Therefore, forgiving a wrongdoer is "much more" than telling him that his offense will not be taken into account. In fact, the foundation of not taking it into account is precisely this new attitude. This asymmetric relationship between the two elements of forgiveness reveals that its logic is not that of justice understood in the sense of fairness, but rather corresponds to a logic of overabundance.

The first result of the present analysis has to do with the "irreducibility" of the phenomenon of forgiveness. In this sense, we must reject any attempt to reduce it to, for example, the cessation of a negative feeling or resentment. Certainly, forgiveness includes these phenomena, but it cannot be reduced to them. Forgiving is something else and is in fact much more.

The second result involves the discovery of two fundamental and asymmetric elements of forgiveness: the "purification of memory," and the new, positive attitude of the one who forgives. Based on the act of inflicting an objective evil, an "account of guilt" emerges, so to speak, between the wrongdoer and his victim. Forgiveness contains an element of closure, of "payment" of this account. But it goes further. The "purification of memory" is based on the subject who forgives taking on a new attitude with respect to the wrongdoer, an attitude that allows her to overcome and go beyond responses based on the evil inflicted and to "adopt a morally noble position." This positive attitude qualitatively exceeds merely not taking into account the evil inflicted, thus we can speak of an "asymmetry" of forgiveness.

Third, forgiveness is always invited to manifest itself before the person to whom it is addressed. My forgiveness "wants" to make itself known to the one who inflicted an objective evil on me. Therefore, communication and perception on the part of the recipient is proper to forgiveness. However, it is perfectly possible to forgive someone without the wrongdoer perceiving it.

Fourth, in forgiveness, by intuiting the fullness of the forgiven person's value, we give the latter a "credit for her sake alone.” This "betting" on the other person "for her sake alone" and not based on an alleged inner peace that would make the forgiven person a means to feeling better, brings forgiveness close to resembling love. As in love, the person who forgives does not seek with his forgiveness confirmation or proof of his "goodness." In fact it is quite the opposite. An arrogant forgiveness that intends to reveal the "moral superiority" of the person who offers it is not forgiveness at all. In the act of forgiveness, the person who forgives focuses completely on the addressee of this act and the "credit" he is granted is simply "for his sake." The center of forgiveness is the forgiven person and not the forgiving person.

The credit discussed here is not at all naive. It is not a kind of "cover your eyes," blindness or illusory confidence in the person who has inflicted an evil upon us. As in love, this "credit" goes hand in hand with the awareness of our own fragility and vulnerability. This awareness does not nullify the wrongdoer's responsibility. This credit may not be reciprocated; it may be thwarted when the person to whom it was freely offered offends us again. This credit goes hand in hand with trusting the wrongdoer—a trust that is different from acceptance of or complicity with the offense— with the hope that the other will adequately respond to the gift of forgiveness. It is worth reflecting on the way in which the person who receives forgiveness and people in general are presented to us. Trust is at the base of forgiveness; thus, when I trust a person, she is not given to me as an object. Objects are reliable, but not trustworthy. Therefore, the person in whom I trust is not given to me as an object, but as a mystery, as non-objectifiable. In short, the other is revealed. The same happens in the case of forgiveness. The forgiven person is revealed to us; she is presented to us with evidence that differs from that which an object would present.

In this sense, love, which also underlies the moral phenomenon of forgiveness, constitutes a dynamic orientation and movement towards another person that makes revelation possible. Unlike forgiveness, love is never "satisfied" or fulfilled. Something new can always spring up in love. Awareness of this is precisely the main condition of the possibility of forgiveness because, in short, loving a person is an openness to her as given in her unique character. Loving is the process of living in the presence of that radiance that we call "person," not an attempt to possess that which radiates from this personal form.  

I would like to conclude by quoting a text from Saint Augustine in which he poetically points to the two elements of forgiveness to which I have been referring, namely, purification of memory and a new way of viewing the recipient of forgiveness.

We do not in any way approve the faults which we wish to see corrected, nor do we wish wrong-doing to go unpunished because we take pleasure in it; we pity the man while detesting the deed or crime, and the more the vice displeases us, the less do we want the culprit to die unrepentant. It is easy and simple to hate evil men because they are evil, but uncommon and dutiful to love them because they are men; thus, in one and the same person you disapprove the guilt and approve the nature, and you thereby hate the guilt with a more just reason because by it the nature which you love is defiled.[iv]

Download the paper in its entirety with complete citations here.


[i] MURPHY, J. G., Getting Even. Forgiveness and its Limits. Oxford University Press. New York 2003, p. 18.

[ii] MURPHY, J. G., op. cit., p. 19; MURPHY, J. G., Punishment and the Moral Emotions- Essays in Law, Morality, and Religion. Oxford University Press. New York 2012, p. 11.

[iii] BUTLER, J., “Sermon VIII. Upon Resentment” (“Fifteen Sermons preached at the Rolls Chapel”), in The Works of Bishop Butler. Edited, with and Introduction and notes by D. E. White, University of Rochester Press, Rochester 2006, p. 92.

[iv] ST. AUGUSTINE, Letter 153 (to Macedonius), in The Fathers of the Church. Vol. 20. Saint Augustine. Letters, Volume III (131-164). Transl. by W. Parsons, Catholic University of America Press. Washington 1953, p. 282.