On a Freedom Requirement for Forgiveness

Posted on January 10, 2015 by

My 3rd post over at Flickers of Freedom is up. You can find it here. I’ve copied and pasted it for those of you not interested in seeing how the conversation develops over at Flickers.

We have all forgiven someone before.  In fact, forgiveness can often serve as a key ingredient in our most cherished interpersonal relationships. Many of us who work on free will related topics have thought long and hard about questions concerning blame. Questions like: When is it appropriate to blame? Who should we blame? And, how much overt blame would be justified in any given scenario (among others)? What many have rarely analyzed are questions that arise after we move on from the blame game. For instance, when should we give up the attitudes that constitute blame (resentment, anger, etc.) for more favorable sentiments toward those who have wronged us? When should we forgive?

Forgiveness is confusing. How are we to understand the nature of forgiveness and how do we distinguish it from other related concepts? Peter Strawson once said, referring to forgiveness, that it was “a rather unfashionable subject in moral philosophy at present” (1962/2003 pp. 75). Whether or not this statement was true at that time is unclear. However, the statement, if written today would be false. Over the past 10 or 15 years the literature on the subject has been expanding. A quick glance at the bibliography of the SEP entry on forgiveness suggests that it is a topic at the head of much philosophical debate[1]. Given that there is so much controversy surrounding what the nature of forgiveness is I’ll try not to make sweeping claims about all understandings of the concept.  In this post I’d like to talk a bit about what forgiveness is and what many accounts seem to assume. My goal in discussing forgiveness here is to think about how we can differentiate it from similar concepts without invoking some sort of free will requirement. This may be harder than you think, but first a bit of background.

I started thinking about forgiveness a few years back while attending a ‘Social Psychology Research Group’ at the University of Calgary (2012). One of the graduate students in the Psych dept. was discussing her research about 3rd party forgiveness. 3rd party forgiveness comes about when someone wrongs someone you care about. So, let’s say your best friend is in a monogamous relationship and he gets cheated on by his spouse. 3rd party forgiveness in this case would be when *you* cease to hold the transgression of your friends spouse against them. 2nd person forgiveness would be when your friend forgives his spouse for the cheating, and first person forgiveness is when your friend’s spouse forgives themselves for their wrongdoing. Notice though that just discussing forgiveness in this way already assumes a lot. First, consider how I describe 3rd party forgiveness: “3rd party forgiveness in this case would be when you cease to hold the transgression of your friends spouse against them”.  This is very contentious! Why? Well, if I was to simply forget about the cheating, then I would cease to hold the transgression against my friend’s spouse.  But forgetting is not proper forgiving . Forgiveness seems to require more than just forgetting. So, to distinguish forgetting from forgiving is crucial and this has been recognized in the literature.[2]

So let’s think about some of the  best attempts to separate forgetting from forgiving and see if there is an underlying freedom requirement  that appropriates forgiveness(in one form or another).  Hopefully some of you will see the relevance to your own work on blame and moral responsibility. Let me summarize a couple of views and show how they may connect to free will. I’ll be following Nelkin here in her summary of some general positions.

Forgiveness seems to come about when a person thinks that another has done them wrong[3]. This seems to be a good starting place. So, if one fails to do what they should have, like stay faithful, it seems that we have a negative reaction to the wrongdoing.  Now that the wrong has been done we are left to figure out when we should forgive if ever. Here are 2 ways of thinking about it.

1.  The Overcoming of Resentment on Moral Grounds (see Bishop Butler and Jeffrie Murphy)

After we acknowledge the wrong that was done to us this account suggests that you appropriately forgive when you do so for moral reasons. Jeffry Murphy has suggested a couple: (i) When the offender has apologized; (ii) when the offender has suffered enough for their transgression;. So, and as Dana Nelkin has noted, the essential feature for this account boils down to “forgiveness is the forswearing of resentment for moral reasons”. Notice that a moral reason to forgive would help us distinguish it from simply forgetting. One of the ideas behind this view is to separate the act the agent performed from the current state of agent. Thus, if the agent sincerely apologizes for what they did it may be appropriate to forgive. I can think of a bunch of counterexamples to this view but I don’t want to focus on problems with these different views. Remember, my goal is to analyze these conceptions of forgiveness to see if there as underlying freedom requirement.


  1. Nelkin’s Debt-Release Model

On this very intriguing model, Nelkin says “forgiveness is constituted (at least in part) by a special kind of release from a special kind obligation the offender has to the victim.  In typical cases, the obligation might be fulfilled by apology, sincere remorse, penance or related phenomena.  In forgiving, one ceases to hold the offense against the offender, and this in turn means releasing them from a special kind of personal obligation incurred as the result of committing the wrong against one.” (2013; pg. 175)

  1. Hieronymi’s Uncompromising Model

Pamela Hieronymi has forwarded a rich account of forgiveness (2001). First, like Murphy, Hieronymi claims that resentment must fade away. And, like Murphy, this fading must be due to a change in judgment due to reasons stemming from an understanding of the forgiver. Thus, forgiveness is the overcoming of resentment. Second, unlike Murphy, Hieronymi claims that the forgiveness must be “uncompromising” in acknowledging that one should not be treated in the way one was. She posits this condition  Hieronymi’s view is different in that  she understands resentment as “a protest against a past action that persists as a present threat” (ibid, p. 546). For Hieronymi, the past action poses a  present threat if forgiven without this uncompromising feature because a past action that wronged you in a significant way that has not been atoned for, apologized for, or repudiated in some way makes a continuing claim that you can be treated in this way again and/or that such treatment is acceptable. This is why Hieronymi understands resentment as such. But, when a genuine apology has been given and one forgives the transgressor then and only then can the forgiveness be uncompromising. Now, she admits that there are cases where one who has not repent can be forgiven but such cases are not the norm. Thus, a genuine apology by the transgressor seems central to Hieronymi’s view.

Freedom and Forgivness

Admittedly, I have gone very, very fast here, but I assume this is okay in a blog format. So, let’s discuss why I think these accounts require freedom. I’ll discuss three separate but related worries:

First,  on Nelkin’s account, obligations play a key role. But, if we were to understand these obligations as agent-specific or related to OIC then we already have a worry. If one believes that OIC and also that determinism is true it seems that skeptics would have a hard time adopting this account. Tying forgiveness to obligations to others seems to implicitly tie forgiveness to a species of control that might be rejected by FW skeptics. Put differently, people are forgiven only if they either have done wrong, or, have done something that one thinks is wrong. But as I have suggested in earlier posts, there would be no basic-desert blameworthiness nor could there be wrongdoing (in the relevant sense) in a world void of free will. It would follow then that forgiveness would also be imperiled since forgiveness presupposes basic-desert blameworthiness and wrongdoing. That point aside, a related point arises concerning apologies, a central notion in accounts 1 and 3.

Even if forgiveness proper must go there may be features of forgiveness that remain, for instance a genuine apology (Pereboom mentions this as well, see his 2014). If  we believed that the agent who wronged us[4] couldn’t refrain from wronging us, then it would be hard to take his apology seriously, the apology could not be authentic. An apology consists in recognizing what one *should have done* but if one was determined to do the act, then it will not be true that one should not have done it. So, a genuine apology, an apology that results from the recognition of what one morally ought to have done, would not be tenable in a deterministic universe. Now, we could suppose that one might still see an act as bad regardless of the control that one had. And, one could apologize for this. However, it is not clear that such an apology would have the same meaning as a genuine apology, an apology that stems from the recognition that one should have done something else and one believed that one was capable of doing that other thing. This is so because the meaning behind a genuine apology is derived from the relation between the two parties involved. However, if one is forced to adopt the objective stance, then this reciprocal relationship might not be sustained.[5] Also, from the point of view of the person forgiving, since all that remains would be these non-genuine or generic apologies, it would follow that such an apology would lose its force to hold relationships together. Consider what it would mean to receive a generic apology when compared to a genuine apology.

It seems reasonable to understand an apology as entailing a belief or acknowledgement by the transgressor that one should not have done what one did, then we would have no reason to accept the apology. If one believes in hard incompatibilism and one is rational, then one cannot also have a true belief that what one did was wrong, or that one was obligated to refrain from performing the action. I don’t see how generic apologies could influence one to hold onto a relationship.
So there are 2 important questions to consider: 1st,  what is forgivness? And, 2nd when is it appropriate to forgive? The free will requirement might be implied in either question so thinking about forgiveness and it’s connection to freedom is complicated. A further wrinkle: are there different kinds of forgiveness? In a post a few years back I suggested two distinct kinds of forgiveness. Maybe one kind requires some implicit freedom requirement and the other does not?

Anyway, I’d like to hear what you all think.

[1] For an excellent (!) resource I suggest Brandon Warmke’s chornological bibliography on forgiveness. Here.

[2] In “Freedom and Forgiveness” (2013) Dana Nelkin points out a few flaws with some well-respected views on forgiveness, she also puts begins to lay the groundwork for her own view as well. She also discusses the importance of distinguishing forgetting from forgiving. Anyone interested in forgiveness should give her essay a read. Disclaimer: this piece is in the volume I edited in late 2013.

[3] It’s worth mentioning here that those of us who think that one cannot do morally wrong (or have a moral obligation given OIC) in a determined world (as I suggested that in the post and comment thread here) the concept of forgiveness already seems doomed.

[4] Again, I’m not sure we could hold this initial belief in the first place since we could not take ourselves to be “wronged” as this evaluation could not be true given hard incompatibilism.

[5] A discussion of Stephen Darwall’s second-personal reasons and how they are given up when the objective stance is adopted would be beneficial to help my case here (Darwall 2003).