What Is Forgiveness?: When Psychologists Disagree

Last week in my doctoral seminar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of the students was making a presentation to the class. As part of that presentation he discussed a published work by a neuroscientist-psychologist who made the following claim: Forgiveness is not about getting rid of resentment and offering goodness to another person (or other persons). Instead, it is only about getting rid of resentment. The author of the article referenced one of our works, in which we unequivocally state that the essence of forgiveness also includes the offering of goodness. The journal article’s author asserted, without defending the point, that we are incorrect.

So, we have a contradiction. Either “to forgive” as a term includes the offering of goodness toward others or it does not. Who is correct? How do we determine who is correct here?

I would like to suggest the following as a way to resolve the contradiction. If we can show that either of our definitions could also be the definition of another term (unrelated to or at least substantially different from the term “to forgive”), then that definer needs to refine the definition to a greater extent than currently is the case.

So, with that ground-rule in place, let the games begin, as they say in the Olympics. First, let us turn to our neuroscientist colleague’s definition of “to forgive.” which is the reduction in or elimination of negative emotions (resentment) following a transgression from another (or others). Can we think of other terms that would fit this definition? Yes: indifference. I can be indifferent toward another to such an extent that I become emotionally neutral toward him or her. Indifference is not an act of goodness. It cannot possibly be equated with forgiveness, but by the neuroscientist’s definition, forgiveness and indifference share the same definition. Therefore, the neuroscientist must change his definition of the term “to forgive” or be faced with an ambiguous term.

Now, to our definition. “To forgive” is in the context of another’s transgression (the neuroscientist and I agree). “To forgive” includes the cessation of resentment toward the offending person (the neuroscientist and I agree). “To forgive” must–must–include in its essence the offer of goodness toward the offender for two important reasons:

1) If forgiveness is a moral virtue (as are justice, patience, kindness, and love), then it has to include an element of goodness, as all moral virtues do.

2) Without adding this element of goodness to the definition of “to forgive,” we are left with a host of undifferentiated terms (indifference, mild annoyance, moving on, “writing someone off”, forgiveness).

As a final point, just because, in its essence, the term “to forgive” includes elements of offered goodness toward an offender, this does not imply that all who forgive show this or even understand it. There is a difference between how one both understands and expresses forgiveness and what it is in its essence.

Dr. Bob

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  1. Jenny says:

    Can we suppose that forgiveness is not a moral virtue? Can we suppose that it is a psychological technique to feel better? Then, if we use the neuroscientist’s definition, we still have a problem because indifference would not seem to get the job done of making me feel better. I suppose he/she could argue that getting rid of resentment helps me to feel better than being upset all the time with the resentment, but then I am left with neutrality replacing angry feelings. I would think that positive feelings would make me feel even better. Therefore, forgiveness even as a psychological technique (not a moral virtue) still requires positive affect and perhaps even positive thoughts regarding the transgressor or the transgression.

  2. Beth says:

    Thank you for this important clarification. The field of psychology needs very careful thought on this issue. The way out of not reflecting carefully is to say, “There are many different views on this.” This is a cop out. It relativizes a concept, forgiveness, that is not relative in its basic meaning, or what you call its essence.


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