On the Nature of Forgiveness

Posted on September 26, 2017 by

Many moons ago I wrote a very brief blog post on the nature of forgiveness. Since then I’ve presented some work on forgiveness, I’ve edited a collection where forgiveness was one of the chapters discussed in the volume, and I’ve read tons on the subject. I’m sad to report that forgiveness still evades me. Though I am not certain on where I settle on many of the debates surrounding this concept, I am willing to defend a few claims regarding forgiveness: (1) that there are different types of forgiveness and (2) that what may make one kind of forgiveness appropriate in a certain context may not justify it in another. Fairly recently my friend and fellow philosopher Samir Chopra commented on my post and pressed me a bit about a distinction I made between rational and emotional forgiveness. In this post I’d like to respond to Samir.

In my initial post I wrote:

“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…cognitively forgave him by understanding why he did what he did…Emotional forgiveness seems to be a more difficult form of forgiveness that is much less attainable….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….it does seem possible to rationally forgive but still be emotionally hurt, in turn, not forgiving.”

I followed this by asking a few questions:

“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? Is one form of forgiving more important [than] the other? 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?”

In response Samir said:

“Caouette is right to surmise that “these two forms of forgiveness necessarily linked in a way that doesn’t allow us to forgive in one sense but not the other.” To ‘understand’ and make comprehensible the rationale behind an insult–physical or otherwise–directed at one self is to undergo an emotional experience as well. The phenomenology of forgiveness involves a kind of ‘lifting’ of a burden of sorts which is colored with an emotional response.  To consider Caouette’s example again, he assumes too quickly that the subject in question has attained a ‘rational understanding’ of why he suffered the punch. Rather, I would suggest that if he is still carrying the anger and disappointment of the injury around as a kind of emotional baggage, then he has not come to the supposed rational understanding either. That rational understanding, that fitting of your assailant’s actions into cognitive space of reasons so that it is made comprehensible, less malevolent, will only proceed if facilitated by the right kind of emotional scaffolding. Or, the space of reasons is not purely cognitive; it is emotional too. When we tell our friend that we ‘understand,’ that it’s ‘OK,’ we are not merely signaling a cognitive response, we are indicating we have felt emotional relief too and that we are now, unburdened, ready to move on.”


I really liked this response by Samir but I disagree that the two (emotional forgiveness and rational forgiveness) are necessarily connected *such that* you can’t rationally forgive without emotionally forgiving.

I agree that often times there is no separation in the moral subject and that full fledged forgiveness may require that both be in harmony. However it doesn’t follow that they cannot be parsed or that often times they are not. And if it’s true that often times both aspects are not in harmony, then what can we say about such situations (I think it’s worth mentioning that this is MOST of our life and not a small subset of cases)? If we consider the two distinct features of full fledged forgiveness on their own and parse them out as I suggest, then we have a framework to make sense of the cases where we are ready (emotionally speaking) to continue on in our relationship, but we refuse to do so because we rationalize that this certain individual puts us in harm’s way far too often. So, all the cases where we have no further negative emotional attachment (anger, disdain, etc.) to the individual that caused us harm, cases where we have emotionally forgiven them, but yet we decide to let the event that caused us to be angry substantially change our future relationship with the individual in question, we can say that we have forgiven them (in a meaningful sense) but we can now make sense of the proceeding action by appealing to the other side of forgiveness, the rational side. This is not to say the two are not interacting and affecting one another, but only that in cases where they seem to come apart it seems to help us make sense of our decisions by parsing them in this way.

Now, nothing I have said suggests that Samir’s proposal is not tenable, only that this way of looking at things at least allows us to make sense of the interpersonal practices we are often engaged in when we are slighted by another. I find the approach that says “you just didn’t forgive the individual” to be unsatisfying because in a deep sense I did forgive. No, it wasn’t full-fledged forgiveness but emotionally I am there, even though I may not be willing to continue on in the relationship. Further, deciding to end a relationship looks much different when charged with the negative emotions associated with the act in question and discussing cases like this within the forgiveness framework shows sensitivity to that. I think the same can be said for the rational forgiver who is still distraught about a particular event.

As always I am very grateful that Samir took the time to engage with what I had to say, I find engagement from those who are already established in the profession to be flattering given that I haven’t fully earned my stripes just yet. I hope to defend my dissertation soon.

Samir is always writing something interesting! You can follow him over at his blog where he is quite active.

Justin’s contact information can be found on his website and can be found on twitter @justincaouette