I have read in the psychological literature that forgiveness primarily is a motivation to offer goodness to those who hurt us. Is forgiveness primarily a motivation toward the good?
No, this idea that forgiveness primarily is a motivation is philosophical reductionism in which the writer takes one important part of forgiveness and blows it up so large that it takes over the entire spectrum of forgiveness. Here is why motivation is only one part of forgiveness: Suppose someone hurts you and you now are convinced that you should and will forgive. After that, you sit in your hammock, read your on-line messages, listen to music, and turn off all thoughts and actions regarding forgiveness, never to return to this. Have you forgiven? Of course not because you have not engaged in the difficult thoughts, feelings, and actions that make the forgiveness response more full, more accurate.
I once heard an academic say that forgiveness hurts relationships because it is good to sometimes vent and express anger. What do you think?
I think we need to make important distinctions in answering this question. To express anger is not incompatible with forgiving. We have to distinguish short-term anger, in which the offended person shows self-respect, and long-term and deep anger in which the person harbors a grudge and keeps the offense in front of the one who behaved badly. The short-term anger is meant to alter the injustice and correct the other person’s injustice. A person can show such anger, correct the other person, and then forgive. The long-term variety of anger, in contrast, can be a tool for punishing the other, with no end in sight. The important message here is to avoid sweeping generalities about anger and about forgiveness. To presume that one cannot be angry and forgive is reductionism which then distorts what forgiveness is and how it can be used productively in a relationship.
I have heard some say that “forgiveness is a decision.” By that they mean a person decides to be good to the one who was unfair. Is this what forgiving another person is?
Actually, no, forgiveness is not only a decision to be good to the one who was unfair. Forgiveness is a moral virtue and as Aristotle tells us, all moral virtues are more complex than only the cognitive process of making a decision. All moral virtues also include the motivation to do good, the feelings of goodness, and behaviors that express that goodness. To call forgiveness only a decision is to engage in the logical fallacy of reductionism, making forgiveness less than what it actually is.
The entrance of the idea of forgiveness into the social sciences is quite recent. The first publication within psychology that centered specifically on people forgiving other people was published in the late 20th century (Enright, Santos, and Al-Mabuk, 1989). That article examined children’s, adolescents’, and adults’ thoughts about what forgiving is. In other words, the study took one slice of forgiveness, in this case people’s thoughts, and examined those thoughts from a scientific perspective. Such an investigation, of course, does not then imply that forgiving is all about thoughts and thoughts alone just because that was the focus of the scientific investigation.
People forgiving other people is an ancient idea, first explicated thousands of years ago in the story within the Jewish tradition of Joseph forgiving his 10 half-brothers who sold him into slavery. The portrait of forgiveness in that ancient report includes Joseph’s entire being, not just his thinking, as he shows anger, a sense at first of revenge, which slowly transforms into tenderness toward his half-brothers in the form of weeping, hugs, generosity, and an outpouring of love. His entire being was involved in the forgiving.
Philosophers, such as Aristotle and Aquinas, have developed what is known as the virtue-ethics tradition to explain morality. To be virtuous is, like Joseph, to produce a moral response with one’s entire being: thoughts, feelings, behaviors, motivations toward goodness, and relationships that reflect that goodness.
Psychologists, in contrast, and especially if they do not rely on this wisdom-of-the-ages, tend to compartmentalize forgiveness. For example, they may borrow from personality psychology and conclude that there is a trait of forgiving and a state of forgiving and these are somehow different. A trait forgiver, it is assumed, already has a personality geared to forgiving. In other words, expertise in forgiving is not forged by practice, practice, and more practice as we all have this opportunity toward developing expertise in forgiving.
Other psychologists, when they do not take the virtue-ethics position, tend to think of forgiving as mostly emotional as the forgiver substitutes more pleasant feelings for the existing resentment toward an offending person. Substitution of feelings, as seen in the Joseph story, is only one part, and not even the most important part of forgiveness. Offering love in a broad sense is the most important part.
The bottom line is this: Taking only a psychological perspective on the concept of forgiving tends toward reductionism, breaking up of forgiveness into smaller and more exclusive parts than should be the case. This tends to distort the concept of forgiveness. If a distorted view of forgiveness is presented to clients in therapy, are we helping those clients reach their highest potential as forgivers?
Enright, R. D., Santos, M., & Al-Mabuk, R. (1989). The adolescent as forgiver. Journal of Adolescence, 12, 95-110.