The first phase of a multi-million-dollar, multi-year forgiveness research project in three culturally distinct regions of the world is providing clarity to an ancient concept that researchers say could bring psychological health to individuals as well as peace and unity to families, communities, and countries.
“Agape love is an under-researched concept that has significant implications for harmonious relationships and good mental health,” according to forgiveness pioneer Dr. Robert Enright, an educational psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI). “The goal of this project is to define what agape love is and is not, and to develop accurate measures of agape so we can assess the degree to which a person understands and practices it.”
That 3-year research project is focused on incorporating agape love fundamentals with Dr. Enright’s Forgiveness Education Curriculum materials for grade school students. Working with 60 teachers and up to 1,200 elementary students in Northern Ireland, Israel (both Arabic- and Hebrew-speaking schools), and Taiwan, the research is being funded by the John Templeton Foundation which has been supporting research on forgiveness for more than 20 years.
Agape love is a concept found in at least eight world religions and dates back to the work of three Greek philosophers:
- Socrates (470 BC – 399 BC), who was among the first moral philosophers to espouse the theory of virtue ethics;
- Plato (428 BC – 347 BC), a student of Socrates who is the namesake of Platonic love; and,
- Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), a student of Plato, who is called “the father of psychology.”
The influence of those three philosophers continued well into the 19th century, helped shape much of Western moral philosophy, and gained renewed interest with the modern advent of virtue ethics in the late 1950s. This “Aristotelian philosophical view of virtue ethics” was used by Dr. Enright’s initial research team (composed of UW-Madison and IFI researchers) to develop its definition of agape love:
“Agape love is a moral virtue in which a person willingly and unconditionally offers goodness, at a cost to the giver, to another or others in need.”
To further explain, the team added:
“There is a giving of the self to the other(s) that is: a) understood, b) motivated c) willed, and d) acted upon toward other people in such a way that the actions cost the one expressing that love. Because so much is given in agape, it follows that something is taken away from the one who engages in this form of love and such taking away might be needed energy, needed material possessions, needed comfort, and/or even needed safety. Yet, there is a paradox to agape: In the giving, there is psychological gain for the giver, including a sense of joy in the giving.”
That definition was the key element in the research team’s initial report called “The Philosophy and Social Science of Agape Love.” It was published this month in the latest issue of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, a quarterly publication of the American Psychological Association (APA).
In addition to examining the true meaning of agape love, the research report explores the characteristics of a moral virtue and delineates both the commonalities and significant differences between agape and other forms of love. It also provides an in-depth critique of existing social scientific love scales in preparation for a phase-two activity that will result in the development of a specific psychological agape love scale that is statistically reliable and valid and that has cross-cultural validity.
“Agape love is worth studying because, as a moral virtue, it challenges people to strive for betterment in their humanity,” the report concludes. “Agape requires heroic commitment to the betterment of others. As such, agape may aid humanity in reaching its highest level when people begin to deliberately, consciously, and willingly cultivate this moral virtue.”
The content of the agape and forgiveness curriculum across the three world zones will be described by the teachers themselves during the International Educational Conference on Agape Love and Forgiveness being held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus on July 19-20, 2022. Additional information about agape love and the conference is available at the Agape Love and Forgiveness website.
As I forgive, I am finding that my anger comes and goes. I find this frustrating as I expected a straight line from anger to no anger. Can you provide some perspective for me?
The philosopher from ancient Greece, Aristotle, reminds us that we are all imperfect when it comes to the expression of any of the moral virtues. Therefore, please try to be gentle with yourself and to humbly accept that you will not have a perfect straight line from anger to no anger. You certainly are not alone in this as the vast majority of us can experience a resurgence of anger. At that point, it is good to go back a few steps in the forgiveness process and begin again to see the inherent worth in the one who hurt you, try to cultivate some empathy, bear the pain of this anger, and when you are ready consider a gift to the other (such as a smile or a kind word about the person to others).
Is it possible for someone to actually improve in forgiveness? If so, what do you suggest as some keys for me to do that?
Forgiveness is not a superficial action (such as saying, “It’s ok” when someone is unfair to you). Instead, it is a moral virtue, as is justice and kindness and love. Aristotle told us thousands of years ago that one challenge in life is to become more perfected in the virtues. In other words, we do grow more proficient in our understanding and expression of the virtues, but only if we practice them. It is a struggle to grow in any virtue, including forgiveness. So, first be aware that you can grow in this virtue. Then be willing to practice it, with the goal of maturing in love, which is what forgiveness is (loving those who are unkind to us). You need a strong will to keep persevering in the struggle to grow in forgiveness. In sum, you need: understanding of what forgiveness is, practice, a strong will, and keeping your eye fixed on the goal of improving in love a little more each day.
The essence of forgiveness is to love those who have not loved us. Yet, I cannot at this point feel love for the one who hurt me. Does this mean that I am not forgiving?
From the Aristotelian philosophical perspective, there is a difference between what forgiveness is at its core (in its Essence) and how we as imperfect people actually practice forgiving (what Aristotle calls the Existence of forgiving). We do not have to reach perfection in our Existence of forgiving. In fact, Aristotle comforts us by saying that is it is very difficult to reach the exact Essence of the moral virtues because we are constantly growing in these virtues as we practice them. So, if you do not feel love for the one who hurt you, this does not mean that you are not forgiving as long as you are motivated to reduce your resentment toward the person and to offer goodness of some kind (such as civility) to the other. As you practice forgiving, over and over, you may grow in the moral virtue of agape love (which is love in the service of the other even when it is difficult and painful to do) toward the person.
I read on social media that there are different kinds of forgiveness, like state forgiveness and trait forgiveness. Are there really different kinds of forgiveness?
Some psychologists use exclusive psychological language and concepts to try to understand what forgiveness is. I disagree with this approach because psychology generally does not examine moral virtues to the depth that philosophers do. Thus, I prefer the philosophical approach to first understanding what forgiveness is prior to doing psychological research with forgiveness. From Aristotle’s viewpoint, forgiveness has an objective, absolute, and universal character to it, which means that it is unchanging across time and cultures. This core meaning to forgiveness is what Aristotle calls its Essence. There are large difference in how forgiveness is expressed in different cultures and this is what Aristotle calls the Existence of forgiveness. So, Essence remains constant (across time and cultures) and Existence changes according to traditions, norms, and circumstances without altering its Essence. So, state and trait forgiving for Aristotle are the same, but on a continuum from how you forgive at the moment (state forgiveness) and how you tend to forgive in general (trait). This, then, should not imply that there are different kinds of forgiveness, but instead the same forgiveness at the moment and how we develop to generally offer forgiveness to others.