Should Forgiveness Be Unconditionally Offered or Should We Wait for an Apology?

Over at the Maverick Philosopher blog there is a post on March 13 which states two points worthy of further discussion:

  1. “It is morally objectionable to forgive those who will not admit wrongdoing, show no remorse, make no amends, do not pay restitution, etc.”
  2. “Only conditional forgiveness is genuine forgiveness.”

Are these statements true?

Let us look at point 1 and first ask, “What is this thing we call forgiveness? Is it a skill of some kind or a coping strategy or perhaps a moral virtue?” Given Yves Simon’s (The Definition of Moral Virtue, 1986) definition, it seems that forgiveness can be classified as a moral virtue because it possesses all of the qualities of such a thing. The moral virtues possess the following characteristics as does forgiveness: Forgiveness is concerned with the good of human welfare; the one who forgives has motivation to effect the moral good (it does not just happen by chance or by mistake); at least to a limited degree, the one who forgives knows that the expression of forgiveness is good even if he or she does not articulate a precise moral principle underlying the forgiving act; forgiveness as moral virtue is practiced by the person (although forgiveness can be a one-time act, it usually is repeated when other injustices occur); the forgiver need not be perfect in the expression of forgiveness toward the other; different people demonstrate different degrees of the virtue; and the one who is practicing the moral virtue tries to do so as consistently as he or she can.

True Forgiveness vs False ForgivenessIf, then, forgiveness in its essence is a moral virtue, we must ask what kind of virtue it is. For example, is it more concerned with justice (what is right and wrong) or is it more concerned with mercy (going beyond what is fair, going the extra mile, suffering for others)? It seems that forgiveness is not an act of justice because those who forgive do not give proportionately or equally relative to what a wrongdoer has given. One who insults is forgiven when the offended one is patient and kind in the face of the insult. Forgiveness is an act of mercy. Thus, regarding point 1 above, is it truly offensive if the wronged offers that mercy prior to an apology? We think not because it is always a good thing to offer patience and kindness even prior to another’s remorse or repentance. If we frame forgiveness instead as a moral virtue centered in justice and if the other is not just by apologizing, then, yes, it is morally offensive to forgive in this context. Yet, forgiveness is not an act of justice and so point 1 appears to be false.

As a further challenge to point 1, what other moral virtue requires a prior response from another before one can exercise that virtue? We know of no other. The one who wishes to exercise the virtue would be trapped if this were the case. He or she could not be a moral agent until someone else decided to do something.

We can now see that the statement in point 2, “Only conditional forgiveness is genuine forgiveness” cannot be true. In fact, if we made mercy contingent on others’ prior responses of some kind (not prior needs, but prior responses directly to the one offering mercy), then mercy as we know it would be distorted beyond recognition. It would no longer possess the qualities we have come to recognize in the merciful.

To answer our question: Waiting for an apology is not unwarranted, but it is not necessary if one is to be a genuine forgiver and if we are to understand properly the moral virtue of forgiveness. Forgiveness as an unconditional response of mercy seems to more readily preserve what moral virtues are and what forgiveness is in particular.

For more on unconditional forgiveness, see our January 7 blog, “Must the Other Apologize Prior to My Forgiving?”


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Categories: Misconceptions, Our Forgiveness Blog, What Forgiveness is


  1. Chris says:

    But, if we wait for an apology, then we are holding the wrongdoer to a high standard. It seems to me that we are caring more about the wrongdoer if we hold off forgiving until there is an apology.

  2. Jasmine says:

    Chris, isn’t it possible to forgive unconditionally and hold the other person to a high standard? Just because we have offered mercy does not mean that we now have to stop the moral virtue of justice, as the blog post seems to imply. Forgiveness is not justice and so one can offer both.

  3. Jonah says:

    Wouldn’t it actually be morally offensive to refrain from offering forgiveness unconditionally? When one deliberately refrains all the time from offering mercy, he could be seen as someone who is acting curmudgeonly. And it is possible that a person, who refuses to be merciful until the other comes to him with an apology, will never show mercy through forgiving. Thus, he might never show mercy, show forgiveness. This to me is morally offensive.

  4. Chris says:

    Isn’t there something disingenuous about passively waiting with forgiveness as if all is well? The other guy was just let off the hook and still has not changed when you forgive unconditionally. That seems wrong to me.

  5. Beth says:

    Chris, no one is letting the other off the hook when forgiving. That would be condonation. And I would like to challenge the assumption that unconditional forgiveness is passive. It is hardly passive to reach out in love to someone while you as the one treated badly still have pain inside. It takes strength to be loving in this context.

  6. Chris says:

    Wouldn’t you agree that conditional forgiveness is more complete than unconditional forgiveness? Here is what I mean. If you hold off on forgiving until the other person repents, then you have just opened the door to reconciliation. When you are unconditionally forgiving, where is the incentive for the other to change and so to make reconciliation possible? I think that conditional forgiveness therefore is deeper than the other kind.

  7. Josh says:

    I do not see why reconciliation is more likely if one forgives conditionally because reconciliation is not only about forgiveness. it is about justice. One can forgive unconditionally and then strive for a fair response and encourage the other to change. Therefore, I do not see that there is an advantage in this regard for conditional forgiveness. If this is the case and if unconditional forgiveness better preserves the meaning of what forgiveness is as a moral virtue, then it remains superior to the conditional variety. I agree with Robert’s ideas in the post that conditional forgiveness is not a bad thing as long as it is not considered a necessary thing.

  8. Chris says:

    One more try here, if I may. If we hold off and wait for the other to apologize, we are delaying our own healing, right? This seems to me to be an altruistic sacrifice for the one who needs to change. This self giving is highly moral. Therefore it follows that conditional forgiveness as self-sacrifice is a moral good. We need more conditional forgiveness to help change those who act poorly.

  9. Samantha says:

    I don’t think anyone here is condemning conditional forgiveness, Chris. The main point is whether it is the only right way to forgive and even your most recent comment does not suggest this. Isn’t a person self-sacrificial when she forgives unconditionally? She is loving someone who was not good to her. This takes work, struggle, pain, and, yes, self-sacrifice.

  10. Chris says:

    Thank you for arguing this with me. Your points are well taken…..I will still have to think about all of this.

  11. Helen says:

    Conditional forgiveness does not ask enough of forgiveness itself. By waiting until the heart is less wounded, conditional forgiveness is less heroic than is unconditional forgiveness, which loves despite great pain.

  12. Samantha says:

    Helen, this is a beautiful thought. Could you please expand on your idea that conditional forgiveness waits “until the heart is less wounded”?

  13. Helen says:

    Hello, Samantha. It is nice to meet you. When we receive an apology it seems to reduce our resentment and thus makes it easier to say, “I forgive you.” When the other refuses to apologize or to even admit wrong, we have more pain and so our forgiving emerges out of that pain. It is harder to do that than when our pain is lessened by our offender’s efforts.

  14. Brendan says:

    I am looking at forgiving someone for an offense that hurt me deeply. I believe this person thinks they were doing the right thing but to my morals in was done as a selfish act. But because I love this person I am willing to unconditionally forgive them because I dont think I would ever receive an appology. I also believe that if i should grant forgiveness then I can release the anger that I have for the offence and I would not be out for justice because I have now turned it over to someone who is more qualified to judge morals than me. I also believe that forgiveness must be done out of love/respect for a fellow person

  15. Penelope says:

    Brendan, yours is a strong example of why unconditional forgiveness trumps conditional forgiveness. If you wait for an apology, which likely is not coming, you are letting that person be the judge of what was right or wrong for you. You were born with and developed a conscience and so you know when you have been treated with unfairness. Unconditional forgiveness gives you the freedom to make this judgment and to go ahead with forgiveness with the resultant release of anger. Nice post.


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