On December 16 this year, I had an interview with Justin Ballis, writer for the London-based magazine, What the Doctors Don’t Tell You, that aims to provide evidence-based holistic solutions to illness. Mr. Ballis was one of the most informed interviewers on the topic of forgiveness whom I have ever encountered. The interview covered an impressively wide range of topics on forgiveness, one of which centered on criticisms leveled against the practice of forgiving those who hurt us. In his researching the skeptical views, Mr. Ballis came across a journal article on “the dark side of forgiveness” by Dr. James K. McNulty:
McNulty, J.K. (2011). The dark side of forgiveness: The tendency to forgive predicts continued psychological and physical aggression in marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 770-783.
This discussion with Mr. Ballis got me thinking: If well-informed journalists are aware of Dr. McNulty’s article, then it is important to have a thoroughgoing critique of that work, which is flawed in many ways. So, with this in mind, here is an excerpt (chapter 14) from my book with Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, Forgiveness Therapy (American Psychological Association, 2015), in which we examine the science behind this work:
McNulty (2011) claimed to have found scientific support for the view that forgiving within marriage perpetuates injustice. Seventy-two first-married couples took part in a survey in which they responded to hypothetical situations regarding forgiveness. For example, one of the partners asks the other to mail a very important package which the other partner then forgets to do. On a 1-to-7 scale, the respondent reports the degree of forgiveness that he or she would offer to the forgetful spouse. We have four criticisms of the study’s conclusions: a) The questionnaire was very short (five items); b) the questions were all hypothetical and not actual situations in the marriage; c) only one of the hypothetical scenarios is actually serious (an alleged affair), and d) the questionnaire simply asks the participant if he/she would forgive without ever defining the term. The forgetful spouse who failed to mail the package did not act with intent to harm. The one choosing to have an affair did. In other words, some respondents may be confusing genuine forgiveness with excusing or “letting go.” This is a serious flaw to the work (failing to distinguish related but quite different terms) that could have been overcome by asking people what they mean when they use the word forgiveness. The findings could reflect this: Those who score high on this scale are doing the most excusing or condoning, which could make them vulnerable to further abuse. In other words, those who excuse may not seek a proper justice solution upon “forgiving.”
So, there is our critique. My conclusion? It is this: If there is a “dark side” to forgiveness, the above study is not the one to show it.
I recently heard a speech in which the speaker equated forgiving with seeing the humanity in the one who offended. The one who was victimized sent a letter to the offender stating that the offending person owes the victim nothing. The speaker said that the letter was sent to set the self free. While these aspects of forgiving (seeing the other as more than the offense and writing the letter for one’s own sake) are both laudable and part of forgiveness, they do not, in themselves, constitute what forgiving is in its essence.
Had the speaker said something such as the following to the audience, it would be reasonable because the speaker would be instructing the audience that this is not the sum total of forgiveness: “I have worked at seeing the offending person as much more than his actions against me. I sent a letter to him to set myself free. These are part of forgiveness, perhaps the best I can do for now, but there is much more to what forgiveness is than this.” Otherwise, the messenger is engaging in the logical fallacy of reductionism, or reducing what forgiveness is to less than what it actually is.
Such a clarification is important for this reason: Because forgiveness is a moral virtue, it is about goodness directed deliberately toward the other person for that offending person’s sake. A letter sent for one’s own benefit is quite different from sending it to aid the one who offended. Again, the motive of self-healing is good, but there is more. The benefits toward the self are consequences of forgiving; these benefits for the self are not what forgiveness is in its essence.
Forgiveness is a response of mercy toward the one who offends. It also includes the cultivation of compassion toward that person, the bearing of pain for the other, and the giving of a gift because that is what mercy does. Forgiveness, then, is centered not only on insight about the other person but also on a deliberate gift-giving toward that person. This does not mean that all who forgive reach this fuller level of forgiving, but it does mean that this is the goal.
When people are asked to speak to an audience, this implicitly sets up the expectation that the speaker has a certain wisdom about the topic so that the audience will get as clear an understanding of the topic as possible. When the speaker then engages, without realizing it, in the logical fallacy of reductionism, this does not advance deep knowledge of that topic.
The take-away message of this blog post is this: When you hear a scheduled talk by someone who is considered an authority on the subject of forgiveness, be very careful not to conclude that what the speaker is saying must be the truth and nothing but the truth because the person was asked to speak. Sometimes, there is reductionism or patently false information given on the complex topic of forgiveness. Let the listener beware.
I recently read an article in which the author started the essay by defining forgiving as the release of deep anger.
In fact, there is a consensus building that forgiveness amounts to getting rid of a negative emotion such as anger and resentment. I did a Google search using only the word “forgiveness.” On the first two pages, I found the following definitions of what the authors reported forgiveness to be:
Forgiveness (supposedly) is:
- letting go of resentment and thoughts of revenge;
- the release of resentment or anger;
- a conscious and deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person who acted unjustly;
- letting go of anger;
- letting go of negative feelings such as vengefulness.
I think you get the idea. The consensus is that forgiveness focuses on getting rid of persistent and deep anger. Synonyms for this are resentment and vengefulness. Readers not deeply familiar with the philosophy of forgiveness may simply accept this as true. Yet, this attempted and consensual definition cannot possibly be true for the following reasons:
- A person can reduce resentment and still dismiss the other person as not worth one’s time;
- Reducing resentment itself is not a moral virtue. This might happen because the “forgiver” wants to be happy and so there is no goodness toward the other, which is part of the definition of a moral virtue;
- There is no specific difference between forgiveness and tolerance. I can get rid of resentment by trying to tolerate the other. My putting up with the other as a person is not a moral virtue;
- Forgiveness, if we take these definitions seriously, is devoid of love. It is not that one has to resist love. Yet, one can be completely unaware of love as the essence of forgiveness while holding to the consensual definition.
- A central goal of forgiveness is lost. Off the radar by the consensual definition is the motivation to assist the other to grow as a person. After all, why even bother with the other if I can finally rid myself of annoying resentment.
The statement “forgiveness is ridding the self of resentment or vengefulness” is reductionistic and therefore potentially dangerous. It is dangerous in a philosophical and a psychological sense. The philosophical danger is in never going deeply enough to understand the beauty of forgiveness in its essence as a moral virtue of at least trying to offer love to those who did not love you. The psychological danger is that Forgiveness Therapy will be incomplete as the client keeps the focus on the self, trying to rid the self of negatives. Yet, the paradox of Forgiveness Therapy is the stepping outside of the self, to reach out to the other, and in this giving is psychological healing for the client. It is time to challenge the consensus.
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.
The question posed in this essay centers on my goal in forgiving. Is the goal of forgiving to help me or is it to aid the one I am forgiving and others? The answer can get very confusing because as we muse on this idea of the goal, at least two possibilities emerge. (Actually, there are more than two, but for the sake of clarity, we will focus only on two here).
Let us make a distinction between a primary goal and a secondary goal. As an analogy, I may have as my goal the winning of a tennis match and so I am motivated to become physically fit. The physical fitness is not the primary goal, but instead is a secondary goal that could lead to the primary one of winning.
It is the same in forgiving. Sometimes forgiving is the primary goal and sometimes forgiving is the secondary goal. When a primary goal, forgiving is offered by people for the sake of the other person who acted unjustly. I want good for that person, even though I have been hurt by that person’s actions. I, thus, am motivated, not by self-interested goals, but by the altruistic goal of betterment for the other. This is a primary goal because this is what forgiving actually **is.** It is the offer of goodness, as an end in and of itself, toward others who acted unjustly.
“When forgiveness is a primary goal, it is the offer of goodness toward others who acted unjustly.”
Dr. Robert Enright
When forgiveness is a secondary goal, then we have a different endpoint, at least for now, than the other’s betterment. In most cases of forgiveness as a secondary goal, we desire to use the process of forgiveness to feel better. We are hurting, possibly feeling unrest or anxiety or even depression. We want to be rid of these and forgiveness offers a scientifically-supported path to this healing. Thus, we forgive for ourselves and not for the other. This is a secondary goal because it does not focus on the essence of forgiveness, on what forgiveness is, but instead focuses on forgiveness as a vehicle for advancing the goal of one’s own health.
As an analogy, suppose a person gets into a car to go to work. Driving the car is not the primary goal. It is a vehicle that gets one to the primary goal of going to work. Forgiving is the vehicle for health in this case. This usually is not a selfish goal, but instead a self-interested goal. To use another analogy, if a person has a throbbing knee and she goes to the doctor for relief, this is not selfish but instead is a sound self-interested goal. Going to the physician is secondary to the primary goal of walking pain-free again.
When forgiving others is the primary goal, it is showing an understanding of what forgiving is by definition. To forgive is to reach out to the other for the other’s sake. When forgiving is the secondary goal, there may or may not be a deep understanding of the essence of forgiveness. We would have to probe the person’s understanding: Is the self-interest the primary goal so that the person defines forgiveness as a vehicle for self-betterment?
We have to be careful not to conflate using forgiveness as a vehicle to promote health and the actual essence of what forgiveness **is.** If we mistakenly conflate the two, equating forgiving with emotional relief, then our definition of what forgiveness is becomes only a self-serving activity, which then moves forgiveness away from the fact that it is a moral virtue, something good for others as well as the self. Forgiveness, then, is only a psychological self-help technique, not a virtue. Virtues when practiced well become part of the person’s life, part of who the person actually is. A self-help technique never goes that far but instead is used for a while and then is discarded. We need to distinguish forgiving as a secondary goal and as a primary goal to keep its definition—what it **is**—as accurate as possible.
In summary, if we want to forgive for our own emotional relief, this is being motivated to achieve a secondary goal, and a good one. If we want to forgive for the sake of the other, this is being motivated to achieve a primary goal, and preserves the accurate definition of what forgiving **is.**