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:
- “It is morally objectionable to forgive those who will not admit wrongdoing, show no remorse, make no amends, do not pay restitution, etc.”
- “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.
If, 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?”