Must the Other Apologize Prior to My Forgiving?

A person wrote to us recently to ask: Should I wait for the other person’s apology (repentance) before I forgive? Some philosophers such as Haber and Griswold argue that forgiveness is only legitimate if there first is an apology. And isn’t there a Bible verse saying that if your brother repents then you forgive him?

We are addressing the question here in the Blog (rather than in our Ask Dr. Forgiveness section) because of the lengthy reply and because we wish to give as many people as possible the chance to see and respond to the answer.

Some people reason that it is in the best interest of an unjustly-treated person to wait for an apology. Some reason that this is best even for forgiveness itself because it preserves the moral quality of forgiveness, by demanding something of the other, by trying to bring out the best in the offender.

While this latter point, waiting for the good of the other, is noble because the focus is on the betterment of that other person, I do not think that reason allows us to insist that this occur prior to our forgiving our offenders. I make three points in defense of unconditional forgiveness:

1. Forgiveness is a moral virtue and there is no other moral virtue in existence that requires a prior response from another person before one can exercise that virtue. For example, if you wish to be kind, does someone first have to do something before you engage in kindness? Does someone have to do something before you can exercise justice? No. So, why are we changing the rules of the moral virtues for this one virtue of forgiveness?

2. If our forgiving others is contingent on an apology (a prior response from another before we can act), then we are trapped in unforgiveness until the other acts. This would seem to violate the principle of justice: We cannot exercise a particular virtue, in this case forgiveness, even if we so choose. How fair is that?

3. You fall back to a supposed Biblical mandate in your defense of the conditional nature of forgiveness (the required apology). Of course, those who reject faith will have no interest in this third point (and I hope that my first two points are sufficient to convince them of the philosophical flaws in arguing for the necessity of repentance prior to forgiving). You refer to Luke 17:3, “”Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” Yet, this is not setting up a necessary condition for a person to forgive. Instead, it is setting up a sufficient condition for the forgiveness to occur. In other words, when you see your brother has repented, this is a morally adequate act for you to go ahead and forgive. Yet, there are other ways for a person to forgive, including the unconditional approach (no repentance has occurred). The context does not imply that one must–out of necessity–refrain from offering forgiveness until the other repents. This, in logic, is a confusion of necessary and sufficient conditions.

So, waiting for an apology is a moral good in only one sense: It challenges the other to change. I would like to clarify even this by making a distinction between internal and external aspects of forgiveness. It is not morally good to refrain from the inner work of forgiveness (struggling to see the inherent worth of your offender) prior to the apology/repentance. Why? Because goodness (in this case the moral virtue of forgiveness) is thwarted and cannot occur. It is only morally good if the verbal act of forgiveness (“I forgive you”) is delayed until the other changes (and in a genuine way) and at the same time is not delayed out of necessity.

On the other hand, unconditional forgiveness is morally good in at least three ways: 1) The one offended begins to see the inherent worth of the other as soon as the forgiver is ready; 2) unconditional forgiveness does not lead to the trap of unforgiveness based on another’s actions, and 3) the offer of forgiveness even verbally prior to the other’s change of heart may lead to such a change of heart. In other words, some people will repent when they experience the forgiver’s unconditional love. And even if they do not, forgiveness does not link automatically to reconciliation with the person. In other words, an unconditional act of forgiveness does not open the forgiver to further injustice.

Dr. Bob

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  1. Chris says:

    But isn’t the call for an apology a protection for the one who is hurt? You want to know that you won’t be hurt again. The unconditional type leaves you vulnerable to the other person’s bad habits. So, even if a case can be made in philosophy that case is not made in psychology. I think psychology would tell us to protect ourselves and the call for the apology is part of that protection.

  2. Jasmine says:

    Chris, don’t you think there are better ways to protect yourself than to passively wait for an apology? As Dr. Fulmer pointed out in the comments section in her post before this one, you can take steps such as not reconciling. Suppose you protect yourself in your way and the other does not apologize ever. You emphasize psychology. How psychologically healthy is it to cling to resentment?

  3. Michael says:

    Chris, I think a primary issue is whether we are going to focus on justice or mercy or maybe both. When we ask for an apology we are on the justice road. When we ask for forgiveness we are on the mercy road. We can be on both of course. We can forgive unconditionally and still ask for an apology. The philosophy as worked out in this essay seems right to me.

  4. Josh says:

    I wonder, though. Maybe there is only one advantage to “conditional forgiveness” as we wait for an apology. Maybe there are three advantages to “unconditional forgiveness” as we forgive before an apology. What if the one advantage of waiting for an apology is so much stronger than the other three? Number of advantages should not take precedence over how strong each advantage is.

  5. Sylvia says:

    Josh, it is apparent to me that the one advantage of what you call “conditional forgiveness” is not that strong. After all we can forgive from the heart and still ask for an apology. So, I still vote for unconditional forgiveness.

  6. Beth says:

    I can understand the sensitivity of this issue because even different religions have different views on this. We surely can respect the varied religious beliefs as we continue to examine the philosophy behind the necessity of an apology or not. It seems to me, from a strict philosophical perspective and not a religious one, that unconditional forgiveness without needing to apologize makes the most sense. I say that because it protects the forgiver, protects the integrity of what forgiveness is, and still can be open to helping the person who acted unfairly.

  7. Chris says:

    Does it really matter, though, who “wins”? Why not let those who want an apology first wait and let those who want to forgive first go ahead? Why fight about it?

  8. Beth says:

    It is not a matter of fighting about this, but it is a matter of disagreeing and then finding the right answer. Your hidden assumption behind your most recent question, Chris, is that the answer is relative. Therefore, there really is no true answer at all. If that is the case, then why are you taking the time to even post about it? Do you want others to join your view on this? Why? Is it because you think your view has merit? If so, then you are not as much of a relativist as your question suggests. We seek an answer to get closer to the truth which is a laudable goal in and of itself. We seek an answer so that we can forgive as best we can.

  9. queendjh says:

    Reblogged this on And He Restoreth My Soul Project and commented:
    Hello everyone,

    A new year is approaching, and I want to wish you greatness and peace in the new year.

    My objective is to encourage myself and you to walk into 2016 with a renewed spirit and a forgiving heart.

    The below article is a reblog post from Dr. Robert Enright at The International Forgiveness Institute. I thought it would be a good note to end 2015 and start 2016.

    Thank you for your support during the year and I’m looking forward to a new year with you.


    Your servant, Darlene J Harris


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