What Moral Virtue Underlies Forgiving?
Some say the underlying moral virtue of forgiveness is respect as we see the worth in others. I make the claim in the book, The Forgiving Life, that the deepest moral virtue underlying forgiveness is love, particularly agape. Here is an excerpt on agape from The Forgiving Life (2012):
Love, properly understood, reaches higher and goes farther in explaining who we are compared with rationality, free will, and even good will. According to Aristotle, there are four different kinds of love: the natural love that exists, for example, between a mother and her child (storge in Greek), the love that develops strongly among friends (philia), the love that is forged between romantic partners (eros), and a fourth love (agape) based on service to others (developed more fully in medieval times by Thomas Aquinas). The first three kinds of love (storge, philia, and eros) depend for their proper expression on agape or service love (loving even when you do not feel like it, loving when you are tired, loving when the other seems unlovable). C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, makes this point of the philosophical centrality of agape. Agape, according to Lewis, is the highest form of love precisely because it nobly and courageously perseveres when the other kinds of love say, “Ouch! I’m outta here! Run!” With agape love, a person chooses to love, even when it hurts. In other words, it comes from a free will (we choose it) and from both a good will (we choose it to help others even if we are uncomfortable) and a strong will (we do not run away from and carry on despite the difficulty), and it makes sense (coming from a position of rationality). Agape love has an inherent goodness within it that is missing from rationality and free will.
Further, without a sense of love which is deliberately in service to others, all of the other loves can be distorted and not be inherently good in themselves. Take eros as an example. Is it the best kind of romantic relationship when the partner degenerates into a “What’s in it for me?” pattern? Agape balances the tendency in eros to seek one’s own pleasure primarily and says, instead, “How may I serve you?” Agape is a kind of love that has dignity, quiet, and strength as it seeks to build up and even restore others. Agape helps us to see others as possessing inherent worth, a quality that is not earned. The paradox of agape in the context of forgiveness is that as a person reaches out to others who have been unjust, he experiences considerable emotional healing.
I used the word “balance” in the paragraph above. Balance was an important idea for Aristotle, who called it temperance. Each expression of love, whether it is storge, agape or another variety, itself needs balance unless it becomes distorted by overdoing or under-doing it. For example, if people distort agape by begrudgingly overdoing it, they could perform supposed acts of love with deep resentment, deplete their own reserves, or burn out, without being able to love well at all. If people under-do agape, their efforts may be half-hearted, even indifferent as they preform this lazy distortion of agape. The point is to strive for a good, solid expression of service love without overdoing or under-doing it. Wisdom helps us to know how much is enough.
Love then, in the form of agape, may be the most fundamental and the most important aspect of our being for this one reason: It is inherently good in that, by its definition, we seek meaningful and healthy relationships with others, and therefore it is good for others and for us. All other virtues, by themselves, do not necessarily fulfill any lasting connection between and among people. Justice, by itself, can be a rather cold virtue as, say, a magistrate almost indifferently sentences a person as a rightful punishment for a crime. Courage, by itself, can be a grim duty as, say, a soldier goes to battle because he is ordered to do so. If the need for meaningful connections is part of our religious, ethical, psychological, and biological essence, then agape love is central to that essence. If the fulfillment of meaningful connections is part of our end-point as human beings, then the mature understanding and expression of agape love is a major part of that end point or what philosophers call our summum bonum or greatest good to which we strive.
 Lewis, C.S. (1960). The four loves. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World. I can almost hear Kant say something like this: Love is an end-point of morality (what we are striving for) whereas a good will is what we need fundamentally at the beginning to make any moral response possible. I would argue, instead, that love is both a fundamental issue (existing at first in us as a capacity and as an actuality developing slowly in small ways) and as an end-point. It is our essence (our fundamental building block of morality, along with rationality, and a free, good, and strong will) and its perfection is our goal (as we grow stronger in it with practice and reflection).