Forgiveness: How does it work?

Posted on June 12, 2012 by

My current philosophical interests are centered around the metaphysics of moral responsibility. This forces me to deal with the assumed underlying epistemic and control conditions. It also forces me to consider blame; when one is worthy of it (blameworthiness), how we normally ascribe it (active blame), and how we move from blame and holding one accountable to forgiveness. The focus of this post will be on forgiveness and some questions that arise when thinking about it.

I’ve been lucky enough to work at a University that allows for and encourages interdisciplinary research. Over the past few months I’ve attended the ‘Social Psychology Research Group’ meetings where I have had the opportunity to engage with fellow grad students and faculty regarding their research. Not surprisingly, the research I’m engaged in is directly related to some of the research being done in the Psychology Department. Specifically, one of the grad students in the Psych dept. is questioning if it’s harder for a 3rd party to forgive someone who has harmed a friend than it is for the person who was harmed directly? Interestingly, she offered two kinds of forgiveness but didn’t talk much about which type is more meaningful or if both types are needed in order for someone to be “truly” or “fully” forgiven. I’ll now consider both and pose a couple of questions. Please feel free to chime in on a different sort of conception that may be missing.

The two types of forgiveness are ‘cognitive forgiveness’ and ’emotional forgiveness’.

Cognitive forgiveness deals with understanding the act that was done to you. So, let’s say your good friend punched you in the face when you walked into his house. After the incident and after talking about it with him you realized that he thought you were the thief that tried to break into his house the week before. You now “understand” why he did what he did and you may forgive him for it after he has apologized and told you why he decided to throw the punch. You may offer some advice for how he should have handled the situation better, but, in the end it seems that you have cognitively forgave him by understanding why he did what he did by rationalizing that it may have been acceptable, or at least, understandable. Failing to realize this rationally just means that you cannot understand why he acted the way that he did and that you haven’t cognitively forgave him.

Emotional forgiveness seems to be a more difficult form of forgiveness that is much less attainable. Let’s take the same case into consideration. Following the punch in the face you get angry. Even after you’ve come to a rational understanding of why he did it you may still carry the anger or disappointment in his inability to see the difference between you and the thief. This may permanently harm your relationship to him, and, if it does it can be said that you have not emotionally forgave him.

To see this a bit more clearly, think about a cheating spouse. Many might be able to cognitively forgive (depending on the circumstances), but you may not be able to emotionally forgive. Some may not be able to do either, and in most instances I can understand why they wouldn’t, however, it does seem possible to rationally forgive but still be emotionally hurt, in turn, not forgiving. So this leads me to a couple of questions.

(1) Can you forgive in one sense and not the other? Or, are these two forms of forgiveness necessarily linked in a way that doesn’t allow us to forgive in one sense but not the other?

(2) Are we in control of forgiving someone?

(3) Is one form of forgiving more important to the other?

(4)Can a relationship between lovers, friends, or colleagues continue in the same way if forgiveness has not been attained?

(5) What does it mean to fully forgive someone? Does it mean that the relationship goes back to the way things were? And, if so, do any of us really forgive anyone?

I won’t attempt to answer these here, but feel free to take a stab at any of them. I’d love to here what you all think.