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).
Editor’s Note: Exactly 10-years ago this week, in this very same website section, Dr. Robert Enright urged his blog followers to consider adopting a New Year’s resolution to “have a strong will as a forgiver.” Given the unprecedented hyperawareness of forgiveness and forgiveness interventions that has developed since then, his 2012 essay “A Reflection on Resolutions” merits an encore. Here is part of what he wrote:
“This New Year’s Day, my challenge to you is: resolve to have a strong will as a forgiver. . . By that I mean your inner determination and behavioral manifestation of staying the course, finishing the race. . . We talk in society about free will and good will, but rarely about the strong will that helps us stay the course.
“To forgive requires a free will to say yes to the path of mercy and love, a good will to embrace mercy in the face of unfair treatment, and a strong will so that you do not stop persevering in forgiveness. To persevere in forgiveness is one of the most important things you can do for your family, your community, and for yourself.
“Without the strong will, you could easily be like the rowboat, once tethered to the dock, now loosened from the moorings as it slowly drifts out to sea. As the cares of the world envelope you, the opportunity to cling to the forgiving life may slowly fade until you are unaware that the motivation to keep forgiving is gone.
“Having a strong will means that you will remember what you resolved; you will follow through with the resolution. You have the opportunity to make a merciful difference in a world that seems not to have a strong enough collective will to keep forgiveness alive in the heart. The choice is yours. The benefits may surprise you.”
Dr. Robert Enright, Ph.D., who pioneered the social scientific study of forgiveness, is co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. He is also a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a licensed psychologist. The various titles and labels that have been bestowed on him during his 37-year career devoted to forgiveness include:
- Dr. Forgiveness. . .
- Dr. Bob. . .
- The forgiveness trailblazer. . .
- The father of forgiveness research. . .
- The man who pioneered the social scientific study of forgiveness. . .
- Creator of a Pathway to Forgiveness. . . (the Enright Process Model of Forgiveness)
- The guru of what many are calling a new science of forgiveness. . .
- Aristotelian Professorship in Forgiveness Science. . .
Editor’s Note: Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Anglican cleric who helped end apartheid in his native South Africa, died Sunday at the age of 90. Called the “Man of Forgiveness” by The New York Times, Archbishop Tutu worked closely for many years with Roy Lloyd, President of the International Forgiveness Institute’s Board of Directors. Here are Dr. Lloyd’s reflections on his years with the incomparable Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a person of immense generosity, joy and courage and I was privileged to call him a friend. Desmond and I knew each other, over many years, through anti-apartheid work including sanctions against South Africa, divestment efforts and protests. I also was privileged to spend a considerable amount of time with him when he was in New York City at General Theological Seminary as a scholar in residence. Later on, when he was speaking and teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, he and I produced TV and radio spots enlisting aid for those suffering so horrifically in the Kosovo conflict. This was entirely in character. For him, caring meant acting, not just talking about it.
This was a man who stood on principle, calling out oppression of every kind, albeit with a generosity of spirit, decency and respect. Desmond believed that when people can come face-to-face with each other to speak the truth with sincerity, then it is possible to achieve closure and a more equitable outcome.
That was certainly at the heart of his leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa that brought together perpetrators of violence facing people who had been persecuted. An open atmosphere was created in which participants could confess what they had done or be candid about what they had endured. The desired result of mutual responsibility for moving forward in a more positive way was achieved by facing reality, while not denying justice. Those responsible for their actions received whatever penalty was necessary. Yet, that wasn’t the end of the story. Those who were sincere in their confession were forgiven and welcomed into a higher level of meaning in interracial relationships.
It was through a commitment to these kinds of meaningful endeavors that Desmond and I became involved in the initial days of the International Forgiveness Institute. Desmond declared, at our first national conference, the message that drove his lifelong ministry: “Without forgiveness there is no future.”
This is the central message of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI).
Forgiveness is an opportunity to accept that gift for ourselves, liberating us from whatever harm we have experienced and the freedom to offer it to others. Desmond knew well that this doesn’t necessarily lead to reconciliation or to the denial of justice. Those who commit harm deserve a just penalty. However, through forgiveness the equation is vastly changed. A never-ending problem of harm that challenges us can become an opportunity for growth, renewal and regeneration of life.
The Archbishop was someone who was effervescent in personality, continually joyous and always with a twinkle in his eye. This was a hero who was continually committed to walking the hard road to achieve the common good. I always found him to be looking forward rather than backward. As the saying goes, he always had his eye on the prize.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
I firmly believe that Desmond Tutu provided a template for how all of us can lead a meaningful existence—one that celebrates the bonds of our humanity and grants to each we meet our thoughtfulness, consideration and esteem.
We at the International Forgiveness Institute pay homage to this marvelous man and are honored by his years of commitment to forgiveness and as an honorary IFI board member.
President, Board of Directors
International Forgiveness Institute
- Before his death, Archbishop Tutu had served as an Honorary Member of the International Forgiveness Institute Board of Directors for more than 25 years.
- In 1995, Archbishop Tutu provided the opening remarks (by recorded audio) at the historic international forgiveness conference hosted by the IFI and held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison–the first academic forgiveness conference ever held at any university in the world.
- Archbishop Tutu wrote the “Foreword” to the 1998 book Exploring Forgiveness, a collection of forgiveness essays edited by IFI-founder Dr. Robert Enright and philosopher Joanna North. That Foreword is titled “Without Forgiveness There Is No Future.”
- In 2014, Dr. Enright announced to IFI website followers the Tutu Global Forgiveness Challenge–a free 30-day program developed by Archbishop Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu, designed to teach the world how to forgive. In that article, Dr. Enright said of Archbishop Tutu: “He has lived forgiveness. He has embodied it.”
- Read “Quotations on Forgiveness from Desmond Tutu.”
- Read “Desmond Tutu Wins 2013 Templeton Prize for Forgiveness Work.”
- Called the “Man of Forgiveness” by The New York Times, Archbishop Tutu is the author of several books including: No Future without Forgiveness and The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World.
- Read a biographical account of Archbishop Tutu’s life and global activities in The New York Times or watch a biographical video at CNN News. Archbishop Tutu is survived by his wife of 66 years, Leah, and their four children.
About Roy Lloyd:
In addition to being the long-term President of the IFI Board of Directors, Roy Lloyd is an IFI founding director and contributing writer. He is a retired communications executive with graduate degrees in education, communications and theology. Before retiring to Springfield, MO, Dr. Lloyd was a regular commentator on all-news radio station 1010 WINS in New York City and he appeared with Desmond Tutu on Good Morning America, CNN, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, Live with Regis and Kelly, and other programs. His high-profile career activities included his service as media officer for the Jesse Jackson trip to Belgrade in 1999 that gained the release of three American soldiers held by the Milošević regime. He has also served as executive producer of numerous network television programs and as producer and host of Public Television’s “Perspectives” series. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
A soaringly insightful essay entitled, “The Fading of Forgiveness,” by the Presbyterian pastor, Rev. Timothy Keller, appeared in the May, 2021 issue of Comment magazine. Rev. Keller uses a series of quotations to make his point that the moral virtue of forgiving is fading in modern Western culture. The quotations can be summarized this way: Forgiving allows oppressors to dominate you. So, do not forgive. Otherwise, you will stay oppressed.
In other words, the call to forgive is seen as a trick by oppressors to keep the oppressed forgiving and therefore more continually oppressed. If the oppressed are convinced that they must forgive, with no choice in the matter, and if they are taught to think in either/or ways (they must either forgive or seek justice, but never both), then the critics of forgiveness have a good point. Yet, they are wrong in their understanding of what forgiveness actually is. The harsh critics of forgiveness need good forgiveness education to realize that forgiving is a choice, not a commanded law that must be done, and that the moral virtues of forgiving and justice can and should occur together.
Another wise article, this one by Dr. Kari Konkola, appeared in Humanitas magazine in 2019, “What Psychology Might Learn from Traditional Christianity.” As with Rev. Keller, who is seeing the demise of forgiveness, Dr. Konkola sees the demise of humility in modern Western culture. This is the case because of similar themes echoed by Rev. Keller. There is a rise in emphasis on justice apart from mercy which leads to excessive cries of injustice, excessive accusations of oppression with concomitant increases in anger and rage, divisions and acrimony, and a decided lack of an appreciation of reconciliation, harmony, and a working toward a genuine common good.
The cause, he argues, is a rise in pridefulness which may have origins in our genes, with the evolutionary tendency toward dominating others through the genetic mechanism of the survival of the fittest. For Dr. Konkola, and many Christian thinkers in the 15th through the 17th centuries, the antidote for this oppressing and self-interested activity is the now-faded moral virtue of humility. Humility restores the practice and the valuing of forgiving and inspires the reawakening of the call to the common good, now being lost as people strive to be better than others, to dominate others.
When we put these two articles together, we see a common theme discussed by both authors: Christian teaching in its ancient form was a call to forgiveness and humility, not to be dominated or to dominate, but instead to spread love to others, for the common good, for harmony among people so that we all work together to end oppression, to end others’ sorrow.
If both authors are correct, then deep Christian education needs to embrace forgiveness education, with its emphasis on love and humility as the forgivers, in suffering for their oppressor, offer the hand of potential harmony to those who misbehave. Good forgiveness education instructs students that they must not abandon the quest for justice when they exercise mercy. Good forgiveness education does not over-emphasize the “therapeutic” culture (that forgiving only is for the forgiver) but goes more deeply into the insight that forgiving in its essence is a decision to love and to engage in loving actions toward someone who was not loving toward the forgiver.
“Forgiving is a choice, not a commanded law that must be done; the moral virtues of forgiving and justice can and should occur together.”
Dr. Robert Enright
Are forgiving and humility fading in modern Western culture? Perhaps it is time for educational leaders and parents to galvanize their wisdom and energy to provide this kind of education for the children. Then let the children lead the revival of these central virtues that can thwart ideologies of power-over-others. Let the children learn through forgiveness education that the means of love and humility eventually lead to a better world than do the means of cultural revolution and destruction, which are devoid of such love and humility.
For example, the Catholic community with its worldwide schools seems particularly positioned for such forgiveness education. Implementing forgiveness in these schools on a worldwide basis just might reawaken a world which is starting to fall asleep to forgiveness and humility. Our International Forgiveness Institute already has constructed 17 forgiveness curriculum guides for students from age 4 to age 18, including an anti-bullying guide and two curriculum guides for parents.
Using those guides, Forgiveness Education has been implemented successfully in Greece, Iran, Israel, Liberia, Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Turkey, the United States and other countries. A more concentrated effort by the educational leaders and parents could be the beginning of a revolution of quiet and gentleness and love, in contrast to the tired ideologies of meeting unfairness only with anger and resistance and fire and destruction.
What will win: the genes calling for the survival of the fittest or the grace to overcome these by learning to love and forgive and then finding the path to justice for all? Once they have accurately learned about forgiveness, and if they so choose to forgive, then let the children lead us.
- Humility: What Can It Do for You?
- Forgiveness Education Curriculum Guides
- The Anti-Bullying Forgiveness Program
- Curriculum Guides for Parents
I hear so often that to forgive is for your own healing and is not for the one who hurt you. This kind of statement happens so often that it is time to address the issue: Is this true? To answer this question, we have to know what forgiving actually is. To forgive is to exercise a moral virtue (Enright, 2012; Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). What is a moral virtue? According to Aristotle, as explained by Simon (1986), all moral virtues, whether it is justice, patience, kindness, or even forgiveness, focus on what is good for others and for the community. When we are engaging in justice, we are good to the other who, for example, built a dining room table for us at the cost of $500. Being good in this case is to pay for the work done. Patience is goodness toward others at whom one is irritated, such as toward a grocery store clerk who is simply doing one’s best with a long line of customers. What then is forgiveness? It is being good to those who are not good to you by deliberately reducing resentment toward that person and by offering, to the extent possible, kindness, respect, generosity, and even love toward the other. You are not offering these directly toward the self, but to the other.
Here, then, is where the confusion comes in: A paradox of forgiving is that as we extend ourselves in kindness, respect, generosity, and even love toward the offending other person, it is we, ourselves, as forgivers who often experience emotional healing as the consequence of offering forgiveness to others. Thus, the answer is this to the question, “Is forgiveness for the self or for the other?”: Forgiving is definitely for the other and one major consequence—not the act itself, but a consequence—-is that the forgiver benefits.
As another related issue, one can forgive out of a motive of freeing oneself of resentment, but to do so entails a focus on the other with the morally virtuous qualities for the other of kindness, respect, generosity, and love.
The statement, “Forgiveness is for you, not the other”, is to confuse essence (what forgiving is at its core) with the consequence and essence with one’s motivation. The essence of forgiving is a positive response, as best one can at present, for the other. The consequence in many cases is the actual self-healing. One’s motive can be the hope of self-healing from burning anger. Of course, one need not have as the motive or intended consequence self-healing. One’s motive may be entirely for the other as a person of worth. Even so, self-healing can occur even when the motive is other-centered.
When we make the distinctions among: a) what forgiving is; b) some of the consequences for the self of forgiving; and c) one’s motives for beginning the process of forgiving, we see that the moral virtue of forgiving itself (in its essence) is for the other.
- Enright, R.D. (2012). The Forgiving Life. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness Therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Simon, Y. (1986). The Definition of Moral Virtue. New York: Fordham University Press.