Suppose someone makes a mistake without deliberately trying to be unfair. Can I forgive this person or does there have to be deliberate intention on that person’s part to act with malice?
You can discern an unjust action, according to the Medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas, by examining three things: the act itself, the intention, and the circumstance. If a person, for example, disrespects you (the action), decided to disrespect you (the intention), and did so in front of others, which embarrassed you (the circumstance), then it is obvious that this person tried to hurt you and you can forgive this person. Now suppose that someone had no intention of hurting you, such as failing to show up for an important meeting (the action). Suppose further that the circumstance was such that this person became quite ill right before the meeting. Only the action was challenging for you, but the intention was to attend the meeting and the circumstance was sudden illness. This seems to me to be a case of accepting what happened, not a case of forgiveness for most people. Now suppose as another example that a driver was texting on a cell phone (the act), did not at all mean to hit your car (the intention), but indeed did hit your car (the circumstance). Even though there was no intention to harm you, the action itself of inattentive driving can sometimes have a bad outcome, as happened in this case. The action is so serious that even without intent to harm, this is an unjust offense and so your going ahead with forgiving is appropriate. In other words, you can forgive a person who had no intention of harming you.
Can a person “fake himself out” into thinking that there was an injustice when there was no injustice?
To help you ascertain whether or not a person acted unfairly toward you, consider asking yourself these questions:
- What was the action? Do you usually consider this action to be wrong? For example, murder in any culture is wrong.
- What is the person’s intention? Did the person mean to do wrong? Even if the person had no intention to do wrong, might the action itself lead to bad consequences at times? An example is texting on one’s cellphone while driving a car. The one who is texting is not intending to hurt others, but the action itself of inattention could lead to dire consequences. Therefore, the action without intention to harm still is wrong.
- What are the circumstances for the other whom you are considering? For example, was the person sick that day and so was impatient, which typically is not the case for this person? Were there pressures on the person that you did not see? Again, as with our point 2 above, having a good excuse still does not exonerate the person from the conclusion that there was an injustice that did occur.
As you take into account the action, the intention, and the circumstance of the other person’s behavior, this may help you in determining whether or not there was a genuine injustice.