Forgiving vs. Forgetting

Do you forgive but never forget, or forget but never forgive?  Remember that question from silly surveys we’d fill out in junior high when we didn’t feel like doing our homework?  Well, this question just came up in an email exchange with a friend of mine, and it actually holds much relevance to an important ethical issue i’ve been grappling with.

But before i get to my personal story, let’s look at what Charles L. Griswold, author of Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration and recent contributor to The Stone, had to say about forgiveness.

First of all, Griswold introduces the idea of forgiveness as something that stems from religion, and coming from a non-religious background, i have difficulty understanding that perspective.  For instance, what does forgiveness have to do with revenge?  I was quite surprised to see revenge and vengeance included in the discussion, because those are completely separate issues for me when it comes to forgiveness.  Maybe it’s just because i’m not a vengeful person (i honestly can’t think of a single instance when i got revenge on anyone), but when i think about forgiveness, i think only about what you might think about what someone did to you, not what you might do afterwards.

However, if giving up revenge and resentment were sufficient to yield forgiveness, then one could forgive simply by forgetting, or through counseling, or by taking the latest version of the nepenthe pill.  But none of those really seems to qualify as forgiveness properly speaking, however valuable they may be in their own right as a means of getting over anger.  The reason is that forgiveness is neither just a therapeutic technique nor simply self-regarding in its motivation; it is fundamentally a moral relation between self and other.

Agreed.  Forgiveness is an interpersonal transaction, which puts it under ethics.

Moreover, it is not so much the action that is forgiven, but its author.

Here is where i might diverge from Griswold.  Griswold believes that bilateral forgiveness (when both the offender and the victim take steps to declare the offender forgiven), as opposed to unilateral forgiveness (when one forgives the wrongdoer independently of any steps he or she takes) is ideal.  I agree that it’s ideal in that forgiveness is a moral relation, but i can think of one type of wrongdoing that could be unconditionally unforgivable, and that is corporal misdeeds.  Griswold says “there is no such thing as the unconditionally unforgivable,” because he’s only looking at forgiveness as an interpersonal transaction, which can always be evaluated intellectually.  He says that the thesis of “whether a wrongdoer can rightly be judged not-to-be-forgiven no matter what offender and victim say or do” will never be proven.  But what about rape?  Even if offender and victim willingly and jointly declare the offender forgiven, can that act (not the author, or the offender) be forgiven, too?  I can see all intellectual or emotional wrongs being possible to forgive, but i don’t see how all offenses to human bodies could be forgivable, since our relation to our bodies seems impossible (to me, at least) to wholly cognize intellectually or emotionally.  I don’t think “you disrespected me” could be evaluated with the same ethical paradigm as “you wronged my body.”  It would make sense to handle the former through bilateral forgiveness and the latter through unilateral forgiveness, because no one has the right to decide anything that has anything to do with your body.

But let’s leave that topic for another time.  Assuming that in forgiveness, it is the author that is forgiven and not the action (so now we’re back to bilateral forgiveness), let us consider the difference between forgiving and forgetting.  Could one forgive “simply by forgetting?” Griswold asks.  I refuse to conflate the two, as he does, because they are two separate and independent processes for me when it comes to evaluating a wrongdoing.  A while ago, i felt i was wronged by someone.  Let’s call this someone Person A.

Person A is pretty important to me.  Person A is a good friend, and i usually want things to stay that way.  Person A did what i thought at the time was unconditionally unforgivable, and i told Person A so.  (I think my thoughts about the forgivability of Person A’s action might change after this post, but i’d have to dwell on it; i might have been approaching it unilaterally when i should’ve approached it bilaterally with Person A.)  The friend i was emailing (let’s call this friend Friend Z) didn’t understand why i couldn’t forgive Person A.  I told Friend Z that i could forgive the person, but not the act.  Friend Z forgives but doesn’t forget.  Friend Z forgives because Friend Z likes moving on.  Friend Z does not like the burden of resentment.  As for me, i forget but don’t forgive.  I couldn’t forgive Person A’s wrongdoing, but i think i’m coming close to forgiving the person.  And i’m starting to forget about the act.

According to Bishop Joseph Butler, forgiveness requires “tempering resentment and forswearing revenge.”  Griswold seems to want to add more conditions to this, but he says that this is a good bare minimum to begin with, so i am going to start from there.  I’m removing the revenge part of the equation because only thoughts, not actions, play a part in my paradigm of forgiveness.  Can the act be isolated from the author of the act?  Is it possible to forgive the author but not the act?  I think so.  Whether to forgive an act is an ethical question, a problem you can solve with a fixed ethical code, and whether to forgive the author is an emotional question, a question that involves subjective judgment of follow-up actions on the part of the offender that might include “admission of responsibility, contrition, a resolve to mend his or her ways and recognition of what the wrong-doing felt like from your perspective.”

I wish it weren’t so subjective.  I wish people could be forgiven according to an objective ethics.

I leave you now with one last question:  can the act be isolated from the overall judgment of the author’s character?  (Let’s assume that the author was culpable, i.e. not excused or pardoned for any rightful reason such as ignorance or youth, to use Griswold’s examples.)


Filed under ethics, philosophy, the body

4 responses to “Forgiving vs. Forgetting

  1. Strigiformes

    “I wish it weren’t so subjective. I wish people could be forgiven according to an objective ethics.”

    Do you feel this way because it would make law-making or policy-making easy, or just making the philosophical thinking easier? To me forgiving is a very personal thing that although for everyone to “be forgiven according to an objective ethics” would be convenient, I don’t think people’s minds work like that.

    As for forgiving the offender vs the act, I feel that if you forgive the person all acts performed by the person would automatically be forgiven as well since they are part of the person, the person’s behavior. But if one just forgives the act but not the person, then the reverse inclusion does not work, since the prejudice that the person would act the same way again would exist. There’s always the wishy-washy intermediate of forgiving parts about the person related to the act (and to believe that the person would not intentionally perform a similar act again) but not other parts about the person (some other bad things the person might do unrelated to the act you forgive).

    • n

      I just feel that way because it would be easier for me to forgive the people in my life. When ethics and relationships cross, things get really difficult for me. Because for some people and some situations, i’d like to make exceptions, but when it comes to ethics, i like everything to be black and white, at least for myself.

      But what if you factor in the fact that people change? Then even if you can’t forgive the act, you can forgive the person if they either change or give you reason enough to believe that they will change, right?

      • Strigiformes

        If you forgive a person after that person changes, the unforgivable act would then be forgotten, right? If you hold on to that act forever you can’t really truly forgive the person. They are still associated.

        To me the whole point of ethics is that there are so much gray area that you really have to make a decision about whether to forgive someone or something. I’m not thinking specifically on forgiving here, but the only time I had to think about ethics is in my ethics class for scientific research. And the rules that everyone should follow are really just common sense for the most part, plus some particulars evolved from the field after time. What we spent most of our time taking about were the exceptions, situations where it’s really unclear of who’s right and who’s wrong, and how should those simple common-sense ideal rule would apply to these situations. And I’m not sure making a list of detailed things for people to follow would resolve all these situations. It can be difficult, and I don’t honestly know how often they occur in relation to the easy to solve problems, but I think these situations require case-by-case decisions.

        • n

          Yeah, you have a point, except “rule of thumb” ethics is outdated. Philosophical ethics has come so far since Aristotle that we have no excuse to rely on common sense anymore. There have been many efforts to formulate an objective ethics, many of which have impressed me enough for me to believe that it must be possible to come up with a bulletproof one. Or maybe there already is one and i just don’t know about it. Or maybe many of them are bulletproof, and it’s just a matter of finding one you like enough to live by. I have yet to find such a one, which means i still have to make case-by-case decisions from time to time.

          About the forgetting: that’s exactly what i mean. The act may remain unforgiven even after the person is forgiven, but it will be forgotten with time and/or the person’s changes.

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