Is forgiveness always appropriate when there is a deep unfairness? First, let’s examine the response a little more. When we ask this question, are we inquiring about a specific person or about the virtue of forgiveness itself? Here is where there is a crucial difference.
Since forgiveness is a moral virtue, we should ask our question of all virtues if our attention is on the virtue itself. As we broaden our view to focus on all moral virtues, we can consider the question’s opposite: For example, when is a quest for justice, one of the moral virtues, not appropriate? Put another way, can you picture a situation in which you might be arrested for intentionally acting in a just way? Would people condemn themselves for acting fairly? If not, then it appears to be the case that justice is always fitting in every situation. Is there ever a time when patience is inappropriate? How about showing kindness? I can hear someone say something like, “Well, I won’t be kind if someone is hitting me over the head with a frying pan.” I agree that your leaving the abuse is good because it is a protection for you. As a second possible response, you certainly are entitled to attempt removing the frying pan from the person’s grasp. You can act in either situation with kindness. Kindness is appropriate even in this instance. If kindness is used with other virtues (justice, courage, temperance) to help save the individual from doing the head-banging, then that is acceptable in the sense of being morally good.
My argument is that since all virtues are centered on the morally beneficial aspects of human interaction, then acting morally is always appropriate, and practicing forgiveness is one of these moral virtues.
The second aspect of the question (Is forgiveness always appropriate?) asks about the psychological suitability of practicing the virtue for any given individual. Does forgiveness make sense for any particular person all the time? This time, the answer is no, it is not always appropriate for the following reasons: a) the offended person may be too shocked by what happened to be ready to offer forgiveness at this time; b) the offended person may need to learn more about forgiveness to exercise forgiveness properly rather than some false form of it; and c) forgiveness is a supererogatory virtue that is not demanded of any one person at a particular time because it is not a virtue that society demands. It is the person’s decision to extend forgiveness or not on any particular occasion.
Is forgiveness always appropriate?
Yes, if we are talking about the quality of this term, specifically its quality of being a moral virtue.
Must, then, all people turn immediately to forgiveness when treated unjustly?
No, if we are discussing the psychological makeup of a certain individual, including both this person’s degree of hurt and understanding of forgiveness, as well as the specifics of the injustice, such as its gravity, duration, and time since it happened. Some people need time to be angry, to sort out what forgiveness is, and then move forward with it when the person is ready.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, sent this communiqué today while overseeing forgiveness education projects in western Europe.
It was time to go from Edinburgh, Scotland to Rome, Italy to continue the forgiveness work. While going to the Edinburgh airport, Kenny, the driver, engaged me in conversation.
“Were you here to see the sights of this beautiful city?” he asked me.
“I do admire the beauty of the city, but I was not here for sightseeing,” I replied.
As he inquired further, I explained that I had been doing research with people who are homeless. It is our hope to be able to research whether forgiveness interventions can help with this population. I explained that we have found that about two-thirds of people without homes, who take our surveys, show the following pattern:
a) They have been deeply hurt by others’ injustices against them prior to their becoming homeless;
b) they have not yet forgiven, but have significant resentment toward those who treated them unfairly; and
c) they have psychological compromise in the form of anger, anxiety, and depression.
If we can help the people to forgive, perhaps they will have sufficient energy and psychological health to change their life circumstance.
Kenny had wise insights for me regarding the situation of homelessness in Edinburgh.
As we continued the conversation, I told him how, while in Edinburgh, I had visited men in what is called, in the United States, a maximum security prison because one of the professionals in the prison invited me to discuss Forgiveness Therapy. The talk was well-received and so he now is planning to implement a forgiveness intervention soon in that facility.
Again, Kenny seemed to have uncommon insights for me about how to proceed with forgiveness interventions in the prison of Edinburgh.
By then, we were at the airport. After Kenny lifted my suitcase from the boot (trunk in USA talk), I handed him the 55 Great Britain Pounds Sterling as payment. He refused to take it. As I did not want him to work for me for nothing, I again handed the money to him and he said, “You have come a long way to enter my city to help the homeless and the imprisoned. I cannot take money from you. I want you to give that money to the poor when you are in Rome this coming week.” I was almost speechless, but I did manage a heart-felt thank you.
In Rome, there are many people who hold out paper or plastic cups in the hope of help. I met Andrea, a woman with a kind smile. She walks daily through the streets of Rome. She uses crutches because she has one leg. She manages, as she walks on crutches, to hold a white plastic cup in her right hand as she maneuvers the crutches. Much of the funds, meant for Kenny, went to Andrea over the coming days. We got to know one another, as I spoke a little Italian and she spoke a little English. Her eyes brighten each time we come toward one another and she expresses a genuine gratitude, meant, of course, for Kenny, whom she likely will never meet. She, though, has met Kenny’s kindness through me.
Kindness went from Edinburgh to Rome, 1549.7 miles away from each other. Forgiveness work followed the same route. Kindness and forgiveness can spread across hearts and across countries. Long live kindness and forgiveness.
Plato reminds us in The Republic that justice is giving people what is deserved. This can include both rewards and punishments. If Person A offers $100 to Person B for building a table, the receipt of the $100 by Person B upon the successful completion of the table is fair or just. If Person C is guilty of a traffic violation and the rules of the city require any violator of this kind to be fined $100, then it is fair or just if Person C gives up $100.
Social justice, while not always defined in the same way by all advocates of this approach, basically centers on equality of outcome. For example, suppose a pizza establishment will not deliver in a neighborhood in which there is high crime and two of their delivery people were killed trying to make deliveries there in the past year.
Because innocent people in that neighborhood are not treated the same as people in safer neighborhoods, this may be considered unjust by social justice standards. Why? It is because the innocent need an equal outcome, successful delivery of pizzas, compared to those in safer neighborhoods. That the risk for the deliverers is not deserved is not an issue here. For the classical sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve? They deserve to be safe in terms of laws of probability for being safe. For the new social sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve? Actually, the deliverers are not the focus now. The focus is on those who have no equality of ordering pizzas. There is a decided shift to one particular group and the emphasis on equality of outcome for them.
Now we are ready to show the difference between social justice for the imprisoned and forgiveness interventions for them. In social justice and in forgiveness, we both might focus, for example, on the childhood of Person D, who was abused by his father and now Person D has abused three children, for which he is arrested. Social justice, in focusing on his childhood, might have people see that Person D is not fully to blame for his actions, but instead his unfortunate background must mitigate the length of his sentence so that he is not unequally behind bars compared to others who were not abused and are not behind bars. The quest in this particular case is to alter the sentence and thus the time served.
For our forgiveness program, as we, too, focus on Person D’s horrendously unjust childhood, we try to help Person D, if he chooses, to forgive his father for his deep injustices. This process of forgiveness might reduce Person D’s rage and thus reduce his motivation to hurt others in the future. We do not suggest that justice now be altered. We focus on inner healing and not on altering the time he is to serve in prison. Justice in its classical sense is served in the forgiveness programs, while that classical sense of justice is not served when social justice is considered, at least in the example given here.
There is a substantial difference between forgiveness as a rehabilitation strategy for those in prison and the call to alter the sentence in social justice. If there is a call to reduce sentences without the concomitant attempt to eliminate rage, one has to wonder how just this solution is. Perhaps it is time to fold forgiveness interventions into the quest for social justice so that these work together. When a reduced sentence is going to occur, then it seems wise that the rage within first is reduced.
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.**
Two recent experiences have prompted me to reflect on this: Forgiveness as an idea for all of humanity is powerful and so such an idea tends to persevere across time and not wither.
For the first example, I unexpectedly received on Facebook a message from a person who coaches people before they give Ted Talks. His name is Brendan Fox and he had this message for me in the context of forgiveness for sexual abuse victims/survivors:
“Hi, Robert! Hope all is well. I just wanted to let you know that I read your book, and I watched one of your online lectures. I think your work is so good for the world. Recently, I coached a Ted Talk featuring a sex trafficking survivor. Your work was hugely influential in inspiring the talk and message (as you’ll see). I wanted to credit you, and share it with you, because I think this represents part of your legacy, and how you are making the world a better place (in many indirect ways!). I’m rooting for you in the Game of Life!”
Here is a link to the talk to which Brendan refers. The video (10:21) is quite inspirational: Escaping the Pain of Human Trafficking – Markie Dell.
I find Brendan’s message and the video very interesting in this: Suzanne Freedman, whose blog on forgiveness education we recently posted here, and I had an idea in the mid-1990’s that a forgiveness intervention might be helpful for women who have been sexually abused. At the time, this idea was exceptionally controversial. People thought that we were saying this, “Oh, you were abused? Forgive and go back into that situation.” No. This is not what forgiveness is at all. A person can forgive, rid the self of toxic resentment and hatred, and not reconcile. Suzanne’s ground-breaking forgiveness intervention with incest survivors was important in helping the social scientific world see the importance of forgiveness interventions.
That study was published in 1996, almost a quarter of a century ago: Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.
After almost a quarter of a century later, Suzanne’s ideas live on and are helping people to heal from extreme injustices against them. If we can get this far with forgiveness in the face of grave sexual abuse, perhaps there is a place for forgiveness in other areas of woundedness, such as helping people who have no homes, who are living on the streets, to forgive those who have crushed their hearts. Will this aid their recovery? Jacqueline Song of our International Forgiveness Institute is taking the lead right now on this question.
Here is the second of our two examples regarding the staying-power and influence of forgiveness. In 2002, a team of us decided to start what we now call forgiveness education with children. We reasoned this way: If we can help children learn about forgiveness and how to forgive, then when they are adults, they will have the tool of forgiveness for combating the potentially unhealthy effects of unjust treatment against them.
We developed forgiveness education guides for grades 1 and 3 (Primary 3 and 5 in Belfast, Northern Ireland) and we brought these guides to the principal, Claire Hilman, and the teachers at Ligoniel Primary School in Belfast. Claire said yes and so we launched forgiveness education there as the first place in the world where there is a deliberate curriculum to teach forgiveness, about once a week for 12 to 15 weeks. The program has expanded to include pre-kindergarten (age 4) all the way through 12th grade (this is a designation in the United States and includes ages 17-18). These forgiveness education guides have been requested now by educators in over 30 countries.
Just recently, Belfast had its almost 2-week annual 4Corners Festival. The theme for 2019 was “Scandalous Forgiveness.” The term “scandalous” was inserted as an adjective because, even in 2019, some people consider the act of forgiving others to be outrageous and inappropriate. The point of the festival was to gently challenge that thinking and try to fold themes of forgiveness into the fabric of Belfast society.
I gave a talk on February 1, 2019 at this 4Corners Festival. When Mr. Edward Petersen of the Clonard Monastery introduced me to the audience prior to my talk, he stated that the theme for this year’s festival was inspired by our 17-year presence of supporting Belfast teachers in their forgiveness education efforts. We started in 2002 and an inspiration by community organizers blossomed in 2019, many years after we first planted the idea of forgiveness education in Belfast. The idea of forgiveness lives on and now expands city-wide because of the vision and wisdom of the 4Corners Festival organizers.
Forgiveness: it does not wither. It survives over time and grows. I think it does so because forgiveness gives life. Forgiveness unites people in families and communities where injustices could divide.
The idea of forgiveness lives on, and for good reason.