Too Much Forgiveness?
In my recently published book, The Forgiving Life, I make the point that it is healthy to clear the slate of resentment by forgiving all people who have made you resentful. This has led to a question: “But, might there be such a thing as too much forgiveness” Might such constant forgiving be seen as weakness from the perspective of those who are unjust?
Forgiveness is a virtue, as justice is, so let us ask the same question of justice: Can a person practice fairness too much? It should be obvious that the answer is “no” because whenever the situation calls for justice it is best to respond with this virtue.
Yet, there is a difference. Justice is required of us whereas forgiveness is not. Forgiveness, as a part of mercy, shares features with such virtues as altruism. Surely it is the case, one might argue, that a person can overdo altruism. For example, suppose a kind-hearted person works 18 hours a day at the local soup-kitchen, ignoring his family. Is this not an example of overdoing a virtue? Yes, it is, but an important lesson follows from the example. Aristotle told us over 3,000 years ago that it is a distortion of a virtue if we practice it in isolation from all the other virtues. Altruism needs wisdom and temperance to balance it against excess and, in essence, from being an unjust act because of the excess. After all, if someone neglects family and other responsibilities for the sake of the soup-kitchen, the virtue in its excess becomes a vice of self-indulgence.
Could forgiveness degenerate into something like this? I think there are two answers. First, forgiveness is an action that begins in the heart, deep inside the emotions of the forgiver as he or she practices love and compassion. One can do that without taking the time to go to offenders and sitting down with them for long periods of time, thus depriving the family of one’s presence. Forgiveness, of course, can be expressed in a behavioral way, but it can be delivered with a smile or some other small gesture rather than hours and hours as in the case of our altruistic person.
Second, I think that forgiveness could become excessive if the forgiver dwells on offenders and forgives at the expense of other virtues such as responsibility and justice. One can forgive from the arm chair rather than from the soup-kitchen and so the same Aristotelian warning holds here as well: Never practice forgiveness in isolation from such other virtues as wisdom and temperance. Otherwise, an inordinate focus on forgiveness can degenerate into self-indulgence, just as the altruistic service to the poor can.
We should realize, however, that when forgiveness or altruism degenerate into self-indulgence, they cease to be the true virtues that they were meant to be. It is no longer forgiveness per se that is being practiced any more than our soup-kitchen friend is practicing pure altruism.
Can there be too much forgiveness? Only if there is too little of the other important virtues which balance it. Otherwise, no, there cannot be too much forgiveness any more than there can be too much justice.