Tagged: “Why Forgive?”

Is Forgiveness Overrated? A NY Times Reporter Seems to Think So

This month’s blog comes directly from our post at Psychology Today (July 5, 2024), which was in response to a critical article on forgiveness in the New York Times newspaper.  Click on this link to read the post on the Psychology Today website, or scroll down to read the entire text of the article below!

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Is Forgiveness Overrated? A NY Reporter Seems to Think So

When forgiveness is seen as inappropriate, philosophy is needed to avoid error.

KEY POINTS

  • Forgiveness is accused of being “overrated” in a recent New York Times article.
  • We use a philosophical lens to examine this indictment against forgiveness when a person is treated unjustly.
  • Reasons are given for why the accusations against forgiveness are false.
  • In the final analysis, forgiveness is innocent of all charges against it.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, something is overrated when it is considered to be better than it really is.” The dictionary gives an example of a person who sees an award-winning movie and decides that it is not so great. In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to be overrated is to be valued too highly. Two synonyms for overrated at thesaurus.com are exaggerated” and overpriced.” Recently, the New York Times (Caron, 2024) published an article with the intriguing title, Sometimes, Forgiveness Is Overrated.” The purpose of this post is to philosophically examine the content of that essay in the New York Times to see if the accusation of overrated” is accurate or…..well….overrated.

Let us examine four points in the essay.

Point 1. What is the difference between forgiveness being overrated and the advice to forgive being so?

Nowhere in the essay is a clear distinction made between forgiveness as overrated and the advice given as overrated. The author states that an encouraging new movement is underway in which writers are “erasing the pressure” to forgive. Let us take an analogy of playing the sport of basketball. If an overbearing coach pressures middle school children to practice and practice to the point of wearing themselves out, is this the fault of basketball itself or the coachs intemperate advice?

It seems that basketball itself is innocent of all charges because the sport remains what it is regardless of how seriously or nonchalantly the adult leaders take it. This lack of distinction is a crucial point within forgiveness. Is it the fault of forgiveness itself if some people put pressure on others to forgive? It seems that the answer is no because the people so pressuring and forgiveness itself are very different from one another.

Point 2. What is the difference between what forgiveness is in its essence and the degree to which a person can practice it?

In the essay, a mental health professional is confronted by my definition of forgiveness, which, in its very simple form, is to be good to those who are not good to the forgiver. Forgiveness, in its essence, as pointed out in the essay, includes compassion, generosity, and even love toward the offending persons.

Soon after this definition is introduced, we read this from the mental health professional: Imagine saying that to a trauma survivor.” The statement obviously is a pejorative against the definition. Yet, the philosophical error is this: Neither the writer of the piece nor the mental health commentator is making the vital distinction between what forgiveness is in its essence and what a person can offer at the moment.

Consider the basketball analogy again. The essence of free-throw shooting is to put the ball in the basket. On its highest level, basketball would involve sinking 10 free throws on 10 tries because that is what the sport involves.

Yet, we have to make a distinction between basketball on its highest level and how it is actually performed by middle school students just learning the game. A middle school adolescent might be able to make four out of 10 shots, and that is fine in terms of ones current actions in basketball.

It would be disingenuous to present to the young person that this is all there is to basketball, the sinking of four out of 10. To be truthful to the adolescent, we can say that the point is to make the shot (all shots) and then be realistic that very few people who play the game reach such perfection. We are showing the student the difference between the essence of the game and the realistic existence (the actual performance) in the game.

It is the same with forgiveness. We do a disservice to those who want to practice forgiveness if we lower the bar of what the essence is, saying that all you have to do is reduce a little anger and, presto, you have forgiven.

Point 3. There is the claim that forgiveness could even be harmful.”

The point in the essay is that people need time to heal and to feel their emotions. It is as if forgiveness short-circuits a time for anger and mourning. This just is not the case. A part of the forgiveness process that has been in place for about a quarter of a century (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000) is that the first step in that forgiveness process is to allow a time of catharsis, a time of grieving, a time of confusion and the expression of negative emotions. To cut out that process of examining anger and then to label forgiveness as potentially harmful is to miss an important point that forgiveness is not reductionistic. It does not ignore this initial aspect of exploring emotions and taking the time to do so.

Point 4. Forgiveness is the choice of the one offended.

There is scientific evidence that forgiveness offers both psychological and physical benefits to the forgiver, which the essay admirably references. This does not imply that people must listen to the advice of the scientists. Forgiveness is always the choice of the one treated unfairly. The timeline of forgiving is the choice of the one injured.

Philosophers refer to certain moral virtues as supererogatory. This means that such virtues are not required in societies. Forgiveness is one of these supererogatory virtues (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2024). It does not have to be offered at all by those who choose not to forgive.

Thus, when one author is cited as stating that there is a “blanket forgiveness industry” insisting that everybody should forgive everything, this is a misunderstanding of the supererogatory nature of forgiveness. The accusation needs to be directed against those who misunderstand the philosophical quality of forgiveness. It is not the fault of forgiveness itself.

In Conclusion

As we examine the four issues above, it becomes rather obvious that it is not forgiveness itself that is overrated but instead is peoples misunderstanding of what forgiveness is and how to go about it for oneself or when thinking that forgiveness may be good for others. The essence of forgiveness is different from what people are usually able to achieve, especially if they have not practiced forgiveness very often. This is fine and should not be a judgement on the one forgiving. People need to be gentle in their advice toward others, as importantly implied in the NY Times essay. Forgiveness as supererogatory is the choice of the forgiver which contradicts a “blanket forgiveness industry” insisting on it. The value of the essay is to raise red flags. The philosophical lesson in this rebuttal is to be sure we raise the right red flags so that we do not falsely accuse forgiveness of being overrated.

References

Caron, C. (2024, June 27). Sometimes, forgiveness is overrated. New York Times.

Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping clients forgive. APA Books.

Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2024). Forgiveness therapy. APA Books.

 

Is Forgiveness Something Tied to Western Philosophies/Religions and Therefore Is Not a Worldwide Idea?

I came across the above question, which suggests that forgiveness does not have a universal essence to it.  Yet, some years ago, we at the International Forgiveness Institute did a study of forgiveness words in 26 different world cultures.  As you will see below, forgiveness is not confined to Western thought.

Here is a list of various cultures and their words for to forgive” or I forgive you”:

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Albanian prt falur
Catalan a perdonar
Castilian Para perdonar
Czech Odpoutm
Danish At tilgive
Dutch Te vergeven
English to forgive
Filipino upang patawarin
Finnish Annettakoon se teille anteeksi
French pardonner
German Ich verzeihe Dir
Hungarian n megbocs tok neked
Icelandic afyrirgefa
Irish a logh
Italian A perdonare
Maltese li nahfru
Norwegian Til  forlate
Polish Odpuszcza
Portuguese A perdoar
Romanian Pentru a ierta
Spanish Para perdonar
Swahili kusamehe
Swedish Frlta
Turkish BEN size bala
Vietnamese Ti tha th cho bn
Welsh i faddau

26 languages, 26 similar ways to communicate. This, of course, is no proof of the universality of to forgive” or I forgive you.” Yet, we put this term and this expression to the test and they were not defeated. At the very least we can conclude that forgiveness has a place in many cultures.

For each term or expression, we translated it from English into the other language. We then back-translated into English and retained the term/expression only if both forms of translation were consistent.  The important implication is this: We can be motivated to talk with others about forgiveness and can be quite confident that the other person, from a different culture, has words that mean forgiveness, the same word that we are using.

 

When people forgive extreme injustices, do others condemn this?

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Some people have made the claim that when a person forgives others for extreme injustices, then the forgiver is open to discrimination and heavy criticism.  Yet, a study published in 2022 suggests otherwise.  Eaton, Olenewa, and Norton (2022) asked over 100 college students in each of two studies to react to two stories, one in which a woman forgives the murderer of her child and the other in which a person forgives the drunk driver who killed the spouse and child.  In both studies, even though the participants tended to disagree with the decision to forgive, most did not criticize the forgivers.  At least in this study, those who are what the authors called “extreme forgivers” were not held up to extreme criticism.  Even if they were, it is the forgivers’ choice whether or not to offer this surprising goodness if they choose to do so.

Eaton, J., Olenewa, J., & Norton, C. (2022). Judging extreme forgivers: How victims are perceived when they forgive the unforgivable. International Review of Victimology, 28, 33-51.  https://doi.org/10.1177/02697580211028021

Should we use different words for “student loan forgiveness”?

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In perusing the Internet recently, I frequently read the term “student loan forgiveness”…….again and again…….and again.  Setting aside the differences of opinion of whether or not this is a good idea, my point here is to suggest that the term should change.  There is a large difference between legal pardon and forgiveness.  Legal pardon is not a moral virtue.  The one who pardons the loans is not the one who was offended by the loaner.  Forgiveness, as a moral virtue, in contrast, is concerned with reaching out to those who have been unfair and hurtful toward the forgiver.  Given these distinctions, let us make a turn and refer to the loan issue as “student loan pardon.”  Why?  It is for this reason: Forgiveness already is misunderstood by many.  For example, forgiveness can be erroneously associated with “just giving in” or “letting the hurt go.”  If we now equate forgiveness with third-party people taking debt away, we are continuing to move away from the true meanings of the word forgiveness.  Let us correct this.  Student loan pardon needs to be the new term.

‘Racialized’ Forgiveness?

An author, Myisha Cherry, in the journal, Hypatia in 2021, made the claim that under certain circumstances, forgiveness becomes “racialized.”  In her words in that article:

“Cases that exemplify certain conditions that I take as paradigmatic of the problem of racialized forgiveness includes instances in which: A. Who is forgiven or not is (overtly or tacitly) determined by the race of the offender. B. Praise and criticisms of forgiveness are determined by the race of the victim. C. Praise and criticisms of forgiveness are, at least implicitly, racially self-serving.”

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Yet, we would have preferred that the two words, “racialized” and “forgiveness” were not put together because there are no such aspects of true forgiveness.  A more appropriate pairing of words would be “racialized pseudo-forgiveness” or “racialized false forgiveness” because that is what is happening.  Aristotle reminded us that any moral virtue is bounded by two vices, one which is an under-representation (for example, in the case of forgiveness the person exhibits moral weakness in which others dominate the one who is trying to forgive) and one that is an excess of the virtue (in the case of forgiving, the one who supposedly forgives is actually using forgiveness as a weapon to dominate others).  “Racialized false forgiveness” actually is a vice, not a moral virtue, in which the person uses forgiveness to dominate others.  This, of course, is not forgiveness at all and it should be recognized as such.  To equate “racialized forgiveness” with the true form of forgiveness is philosophically incorrect.  Dr. Cherry has a book-length work (Failures of Forgiveness, 2023) in which she continues with these ideas.  It is good that she is pointing out this excess of forgiveness, but in the future, this needs to be classified not as the moral virtue of forgiveness but as a distortion of it.