This post examines the virtues of forgiveness, mercy, clemency, and epieikeia. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about these virtues, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about them, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about these virtues and how to nurture them.
Forgiveness in particular has become kind of Oprahfied as a self-help cure-all in recent years — it is not just good for your soul but “can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress.”✴ This trend has gone so far that a backlash began and now there is also a self-help cure-all centered on cultivating and nurturing your grudges.
Different people mean very different things by “forgiveness” so for that virtue I want to spend some time exploring why that is, what the different facets of forgiveness are, and how some people emphasize some over others.
What are these virtues?
“Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.” ―Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra Ⅱ (“On the Tarantulas”)
You exercise mercy when you have the power and inclination to harm or punish someone else, and you refrain from doing so. Sometimes mercy is a way of tempering justice (I would be in my rights to have you arrested, but I won’t), but sometimes it has nothing to do with justice or can even temper injustice (kill all the men, but spare the women & children). Mercy isn’t necessarily even all that nice. For example, it might be called an act of mercy to warn people in a village to evacuate before you bombard it, even though by bombarding it you are harming it. Or, it might be called an act of mercy to give a condemned prisoner a last cigarette or to offer them a blindfold, even though you ultimately mean them harm.
Clemency typically applies only to judgement or punishment (not, in other words, to more arbitrary harm). You offer clemency to someone when you cut them slack over their wrongdoing: judging them less severely and inflicting less severe consequences, letting it slide. This term is used in a legal context to describe reduced legal punishments or the executive pardon power. Sometimes “leniency” and “indulgence” are also used in this sense. A pardon of many people, or of unknown/anonymous offenders is sometimes called an “amnesty.”
Epieikeia is something like clemency, but it can go in a more-severe direction as well as a less-severe one. It is a way of wisely adhering to the spirit of the law when the letter of the law doesn’t quite match the nuances of a particular case. Aristotle described epieikeia in his Nicomachean Ethics this way: “Epieikeia is to pardon human failings, and to look to the [intentions of the] lawgiver and not to the law; to the spirit and not to the letter; to the intention and not to the action; to the whole and not to the part; to the character of the actor in the long run and not in the present moment; to remember the good rather than evil, and good that one has received, rather than good that one has done; to bear being injured; to wish to settle a matter by words rather than by deeds; lastly, to prefer arbitration to judgment, for the arbitrator sees what is equitable, but the judge only the law, and for this an arbitrator was first appointed, in order that epieikeia might flourish.”
Epieikeia respects justice. It looks at some naively-just outcome, notices that it is actually unjust when you look at the big picture, and corrects that outcome to be more thoroughly just. Clemency or pardon, on the other hand, can (and often do) operate by bypassing justice: They look at some just outcome and decide to evade it in the interests of mercy, or as a favor.
The virtue of forgiveness is much trickier to define, so I’ll postpone that definition for now.
Related virtues and concepts
Some other virtues in the same ballpark include good temper, flexibility, pity, placability, and reconciliation.
If you squint your eyes and look at “tolerance” just right, it can look like a sort of preemptive forgiveness. For example, if you tolerate people who are noisy about the way they eat their popcorn at the movie theater now, you don’t have to bother about forgiving them for it later.
The flip-side of these virtues includes what you can do if you are the wrongdoer, in order to make amends: things like accepting fault, atonement, apology, restitution, reform, shame, remorse. I hope to cover some of those things in a later post.
There is some tension between these virtues and things like justice, impartiality, and righteous anger — in some views they work at cross-purposes; in others they are complementary. (Epieikeia, for example, is said to “crown” justice, although to people without a sense of epieikeia, it can seem to violate justice.)
The vices of deficiency associated with these virtues go by names like legalism, ruthlessness, grudge-holding, vengefulness, vindictiveness, harshness, mercilessness, implacability, and resentment. The vices of excess are sometimes called leniency, indulgence, being a pushover or schnook, letting people walk all over you (being a doormat), and things of that sort. If you are too apt to let your children evade judgement and punishment you will be said to be spoiling them.
Mercy/clemency and forgiveness are distinct from justification, excuse, condoning, or pardon, with which they are sometimes confused. When mercy/clemency are applied to the way justice is meted out to a wrongdoer, or a wrongdoer is forgiven, this does not imply that the wrongdoer’s action has been excused, justified, or condoned. The mercy/clemency/forgiveness is in spite of the blameworthiness of the wrongdoer, not a way of erasing it.
The “restorative justice” movement is attempting to formalize something like a forgiveness/atonement/reconciliation stage into the way society handles criminal justice.
In some interpretations of satyagraha, this form of nonviolent resistance to injustice operates in part through a sort of preemptive forgiveness in which the satyagrahi provokes injustice towards herself or himself, absorbs it, and forgives it as a method of trying to end it.
Taking a closer look at forgiveness
Forgiveness turns out to be difficult to define, and various philosophers and researchers have come at it from different angles and have come up with very different ideas of what it consists of and accomplishes. There is, for example, fundamental disagreement about whether forgiveness is a sort of transaction between people or an internal change-of-heart within a single person. Some people say it’s one, some the other; some say it’s primarily one but sometimes also includes the other; some say both things are important, and they often come together, but that they are distinct and it’s unfortunate that we use the same word for both; some say forgiveness always includes both in tandem.
In this section, I’ll describe some of the possibilities and open questions involved in defining forgiveness.
Forgiveness applies when you have been wronged by someone, and you resent that person having done that wrong. The forgiveness somehow acts on that resentment: removing it, tempering it, or changing its effects in some way. Forgiveness may (or in some versions must) also change the relationship between the victim and the wrongdoer: reconciling them to some extent. Forgiveness may (or must) also change what counts as a just outcome: for example, perhaps the wrongdoer no longer needs to make restitution or do penance if they have been forgiven. Forgiveness may (or must) also change the forgiver’s attitude toward the wrongdoing (e.g. from intolerable to tolerated, from something that must be addressed to something that can be left alone, from something that demands reparations to something that does not).
Clemency, epieikeia, and mercy typically assume that the person practicing them has some power or authority over someone else that they can exercise in a more or less severe way. Forgiveness is different in that regard: it can be exercised by someone with or without such power or authority.
Usually forgiveness is applied to a specific act or series of acts (“I forgive you for this, that, and the other”). Every once in a while you see something that looks like blanket forgiveness (“I forgive you for being such an asshole”). On close inspection, some of those things look more like excusing than forgiving (“I see now that you are that way because you were raised by wolves”).
Forgiveness is prototypically represented as a discrete action: the forgiver decides to forgive someone for something, and may mark that decision by making a declaration or resolution like “I forgive so-and-so for such-and-such.” But forgiveness might also be the result of a more-or-less conscious long-term process, or even just the slow, gentle erosion of a grudge by the sands of time. Maybe you just realize one day that you have forgiven someone, without ever having formally decided to do so.
Occasionally you see forgiveness defined as merely the moderation of resentment into reasonable bounds. If, when you are wronged, you are tempted to go beyond the bounds of justice and to attempt for a more sadistic catharsis — e.g. pounding your hurt out of the hide of the wrongdoer — then that sort of vengefulness can be a vice, and “forgiveness” of a sort can be a way of avoiding falling into that vice.
Forgiveness might be considered a “pink” (gendered feminine) virtue in American culture. One forgiveness study I looked at noted in passing that it had used “[a]lternative framing” in order to recruit more male participants — calling its forgiveness training intervention “grudge-management training” in outreach material in the hopes that this would seem more inviting to men.✴
Forgiveness has been analyzed in a game-theory context. In a prisoner’s dilemma game, for example, in which something like tit-for-tat is a good strategy, it can be easy for players to get locked into a repeating mutual-defect mode that is suboptimal for both parties. If somebody is able to reset the protocol by “forgiving” their partner/adversary, they can both benefit. On the other hand, if you forgive too readily or too often, you can end up losing to your adversary’s benefit.
What does forgiveness do?
Forgiveness usually does not mean that the forgiver changes their mind about whether they were wronged. The wrong still happened, and it was still wrong: it’s just a forgiven wrong now. If you do change your mind about whether you were wronged, what you’re doing is not forgiving so much as reassessing. Forgiveness also usually does not mean that the forgiver changes their mind about whether the wrongdoer was blameworthy. If you change your mind in that way, you’re probably excusing, condoning, or justifying rather than forgiving.
Forgiveness is often represented in such a way as to imply that it is a clean break with the way things were before: once you have forgiven, there’s no going back — the hatchet is buried for good. But there is difference of opinion about this, too. Maybe just as you changed your mind to forgive someone, you can change it back again to deforgive them. If you know you can always deforgive someone later if forgiving turns out to have been a bad idea, that might make it easier to practice forgiveness, which could be a good thing. On the other hand, maybe a retractable-forgiveness isn’t the real deal, and doesn’t provide the same benefits as a final-forgiveness would.
In some definitions of forgiveness, in order to forgive someone you must renounce certain things. You may have felt that your anger justifies hostility, unkindness, contempt, or scorn towards the wrongdoer, and maybe in order to forgive you have to lose that justification. You may have felt the need to take revenge, to adopt a stance of righteous indignation, or to demand satisfaction or recompense, and maybe in order to forgive you have to drop some or all of that. When you “forgive a debt,” for example, you resolve to leave it uncollected, and you no longer hold it against the debtor: you wipe it off the books. But there is a lot of difference of opinion as to what things (if anything) you necessarily renounce as a condition of forgiving someone. The VIA Institute’s page on forgiveness says that “[i]t means to let go,” for example of “frustration, disappointment, resentment, or other painful feelings associated with an offense.” But do you have to (or should you) disavow your feelings or merely your sense that you are justified in acting on those feelings in certain ways?
Those who focus on forgiveness as an internal thing represent forgiveness as the successful culmination of the process of coping with being wronged: If you get interrupted or frustrated and cannot reach a state of forgiveness, in this telling, something has gone wrong, and the result will be that you churn uselessly in painful resentment of your own making. Those who focus on forgiveness as a transactional thing, on the other hand, are more apt to see forgiveness as something conditional that may (or ought) to be withheld — indefinitely if need be — from a wrongdoer who does not make an effort to earn it.
One possible way of looking at forgiveness is that it seals off a past wrongdoing and makes it fully-past.✴ Until you forgive some wrongdoing, that wrongdoing continues to be a source of injury in the present. When you forgive it, it’s a way of declaring that the harms done by that wrongdoing were done but are no longer being done. Because of this, you can still blame the wrongdoer for the harm they did, but you no longer have to adopt a defensive stance against the wrongdoer for the harm they continue to do.
People who focus on the internal aspect of forgiveness describe it as laying down a burden. If you don’t forgive, you have unfinished business with the wrongdoer that nags at you. Forgiveness allows you to check it off the list and finally be done with it. You release your grip on the hatchet so you can bury it.
There are many sorts of negative feelings that may come from being wronged; the ones that form your resentment to the wrongdoer are only a subset of them. Forgiveness focuses on that subset, and sometimes is criticized for prioritizing those negative feelings that target the wrongdoer over the others. But one way people may keep their resentment toward a wrongdoer hot is by blowing on the coals of their other hurts; so if you give up on the resentment this may help you let the other hurts cool off as well.
Forgiveness is sometimes said to operate on meaning. It changes the frame or story that the forgiving person uses when describing the events of the past, so as to give those events a different interpretation or to refit them into the evolving context of the forgiving person’s life. For instance, event X might go from being “X is why I do not trust Y” to “X is something I had to forgive in order to again trust Y.” Forgiveness can be a variety of the alchemy that turns misfortunes in our past from calamities-that-afflicted-me into challenges-I-overcame and helps us envision ourselves as more empowered, active agents.
A possible stumbling block to forgiveness-as-meaning-transformation is if you believe that by admitting that forgiveness is the right thing to do now you are also admitting that resenting the injury was the wrong thing to do before now. It may be easier to forgive if you can tell a story in which you were right to feel hurt, right to feel resentful, but then also right to eventually forgive — you don’t have to renounce your former feelings to adopt new ones.
Forgiveness can be an attempt by the victim to reconcile with the wrongdoer — to repair the rupture in the relationship that was caused by the wrongdoing or by the victim’s reaction to it. But this isn’t always the case. You might forgive a person who has died, or forgive a stranger you’ll never meet again, for instance. But you might also (maybe?) forgive someone without any desire to be reconciled with them. Or you might forgive some things a person did without forgiving others, and so still be on the outs with them for that reason. Sometimes forgiveness implies that you will give the forgiven person another chance, sometimes not.
Another way forgiveness might operate on my relationship with the wrongdoer is just to change the priority of the wrongdoing in how I evaluate them. Instead of them being the Wrongdoer, they become somebody who, among other things, did me wrong. It demotes the wrongdoing from being the most salient fact about that person, and the overriding consideration in my evaluations of them, to just being another fact about that person. This can allow me to see them more clearly and in less of a caricature.
Just as you might forgive someone internally (by no longer dwelling on their wrong) without forgiving them externally/socially (by reconciling with them or by telling them they are forgiven), you might also do the reverse. This is sometimes called an insincere or “hollow” act of forgiveness, and is meant to reap the social benefits of forgiveness without having to renounce the grudge.
Who can be forgiven, and by whom?
“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.” —MLK, Jr.
It’s almost always inappropriate, or inapplicable, to forgive someone for something blameworthy they did to hurt someone else; only the direct victim can do the forgiving. As a third party you can offer mercy or pardon — you might say “well, I won’t hold that against you” but to say “I forgive you” is usurping authority you don’t have. Vicarious, third-party forgiveness doesn’t work except maybe in some unusual edge cases (or arguably in certain religious contexts).
People who emphasize the internal-transformation aspect of forgiveness note that you can forgive someone even if they have passed out of your life and you will never see them again. People who emphasize the transactional aspect of forgiveness have a harder time explaining such cases (they may suggest that this is only a quasi-forgiveness that might be better termed “letting go” or something like that).
Does it make sense to talk about forgiving an institution (“I don’t know if I can forgive the Army for what they did to my boy”)?
Can you forgive yourself? Is there a sense in which you can be resentful of yourself? It seems like this is more metaphorical. But to the extent that it makes sense to say things like “I let myself down” / “how could I have let myself do that” / “I was disappointed in myself” I suppose you might also say “I forgive myself for that.” Sometimes people feel a lot of guilt for things that only they are privy to — secret feelings or fantasies or things they have done in private — and maybe something akin to forgiveness is a way to relieve that.
Offering someone forgiveness for something can be a backhanded way of reminding them that you find them blameworthy. It can be insulting (maybe intentionally so) to offer forgiveness to someone who does not believe they have done anything blameworthy. In this way explicitly offering forgiveness can sometimes backfire as a method of prompting reconciliation.
Sometimes people will forgive in a way that implies that they are acknowledging that they are just as flawed as the offender (“I’ve probably unthinkingly cut someone off in traffic myself at some point”). And occasionally forgiveness is described as though this were an important key to it: we’re all sinners, we all have our good and bad sides. But sometimes you resent an act of wrongdoing precisely because it’s something you consider completely beyond the pale, the sort of thing you would never do — something that cannot be explained by carelessness or ordinary human foibles. For example, I would be astonished to hear someone forgive someone who raped them by noting “after all, if things had gone a little differently, I might have raped you.”
Maybe there is a sort of forgivableness-ladder: On the lowest rung are inconsiderate but common things; they can be forgiven easily and without a lot of fuss because they’re considered ordinary human failings. Above that are things that are exceptionally unkind or maybe even monstrous, but where the offender has recognized this and has corrected for it (e.g. by vowing to become better, by making amends); these things are perhaps forgivable-with-effort. And above that are exceptionally awful things for which the offender has shown no remorse; such things might remain unforgivable.
There are also “micro-forgivenesses” that are part of day-to-day courtesy: “Pardon me”; “no problem” / “de nada.”
Is forgiveness conditional?
There is a difference of opinion also about the extent to which forgiveness is entirely up to the discretion of the person who was wronged. Does that person need to have reasons to forgive, or can they just decide to forgive without needing to justify that decision? If forgiveness is all about laying down the burden of unpleasant internal thoughts and feelings, that may at first make it seem entirely up to you whether that’s worth doing. But even in such a case, you might be criticized for being unwise in forgiving someone prematurely, or forgiving someone who is unrepentant, or if forgiving someone leads you to drop your guard against future harm caused by them. If you are too eager and willing to forgive you might be criticized for being a doormat — letting people walk all over you. Such a thing might be a symptom of a poor sense of self-worth or a lack of dignity.
If forgiveness is transactional and more social, some argue that you have an obligation not to forgive someone until they have repented, atoned, made reparations, or some-such: that it is one of the unfortunate burdens of being victimized that you must continue to stand as an accusing witness against your victimizer, perhaps for the benefit of others in the community. If this is true, you might be behaving in a socially irresponsible way if you forgive someone from the selfish motive of getting the burden of resentment off of your shoulders. It might be unfair that if someone does you wrong they also burden you with the obligation to hold it against them, but so it goes. Punishment of wrongdoers has multiple purposes — such as to discourage other wrongdoers, to prevent them from doing further harm, for restitution, to chastise or provoke penance, and for the satisfaction of their victims. Maybe the victim can renounce only the last of these in the course of their forgiveness, while society remains on the hook for enforcing the remainder.
If you refuse to forgive a wrongdoer until the wrongdoer meets some condition (apologizes, repents, makes amends, does penance), this seems to give the wrongdoer power over you: they can force you to hold onto your resentment by withholding these things. If forgiveness is mostly about laying down a burden, then this seems unwise. But if forgiveness is more like an offer (the “give” in “forgive”), then it makes more sense to make it conditional. That can lead to a stalemate, though, in which the wrongdoer sees no value in the victim’s offer, and so no value in meeting the conditions, and so forgiveness never comes to pass. Depending on your perspective, that can be considered an additional and partially self-inflicted harm to the victim of the wrongdoing. On the other hand, offering conditional forgiveness can be a way of testing the waters to see if forgiveness would be wise; if your offer is rejected because the wrongdoer doesn’t give a fig about healing the breach between you, that might be a good sign that you should take forgiveness off the table for now.
Forgiveness can be a way to signal that an apology has been accepted, that amends have been made, that atonement is complete. This can be a way of encouraging apology and so forth by holding out the promise of some sort of token that finally lets the wrongdoer off the hook. A public declaration of forgiveness can also relieve others of any obligation they have taken on in sympathy to the victim to be vengeful to the wrongdoer on behalf of the victim.
Even if forgiveness is mostly at the discretion of the person forgiving, that person can still exercise that discretion in a vicious way (e.g. “I can forgive just about anyone except a damn dirty Jew”), and so can be blameworthy for some ways in which they exercise that discretion. If, as in that example, you forgive people or don’t forgive people based on irrational/irrelevant considerations, you can inadvertently (or maybe not so inadvertently) cement irrational/irrelevant prejudices (“why are all the people I have grudges against Jewish… there must be something about them!”)
What’s good about forgiveness (and mercy and such)?
A virtue is a trait that characterizes someone who is living a flourishing human life. How do forgiveness/mercy/clemency help you to flourish? Here are some of the ways:
- Forgiveness can be a relief; it can feel good directly. It has been compared to laying down a burden.
- The Stoics would argue that it is irrational to continue to experience torment about something that is in the past and that you cannot change. You should save your emotional and intellectual labor to expend on things that are in your power to change, if you want to live the most flourishing life. Forgiveness is a way to stop this unproductive emotional churning.
- Simmering anger about the past can sometimes make you behave poorly in the present. For example, you might lash out impatiently at some innocent person because your temper is frayed.
- Mercy/clemency can put another person in your debt, which may be a resource you can call on when you need it. “If I am even with my enemy, the debt is paid; but if I forgive it, I oblige him for ever.” ―William Penn
- Forgiveness/mercy/clemency can contribute to social harmony and reconciliation, which can make your path through life easier.
- Forgiveness can help you to maintain and restore personal relationships, which can be important parts of a flourishing life.
- Forgiveness can encourage other people to be forgiving towards you, which you’re bound to need eventually.
- Forgiveness/mercy/clemency can be a mechanism to practice certain other virtues, like generosity, charity, tolerance, or magnificence.
- Forgiveness/mercy/clemency/epikieia are themselves admirable characteristics, aside from their instrumental value.
- Forgiveness/mercy/clemency can be a way of signalling your strength and power. If you shrug off wrongs committed against you, this can demonstrate confidence. Shakespeare wrote, “Thinkst thou it honourable for a noble man / still to remember wrongs?” [Volumnia, in Coriolanus], and, of mercy:
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
[Portia, in Merchant of Venice]
The Christian perspective
“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.” ―Jesus
Christianity strongly emphasizes forgiveness. The short prayer Jesus taught his followers to recite begs God for three things, the second of which is: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” When Peter asked Jesus when enough is enough when it comes to forgiving someone, Jesus said “not seven times, but seventy-seven times” and he warned that if you ask God for forgiveness and yet you have not practiced forgiveness towards others, you’ll be out of luck. The whole story of Jesus is in part the story of humans becoming reconciled with God through forgiveness of sins, as mediated through Jesus’s sacrifice. In one of the gospels, Jesus during his crucifixion asks God to forgive those who have crucified him.
A big selling point of Christianity is its promise that once you’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb, your sins are forgiven and you get to start with a clean slate. This suggests that there is a lot of hunger for forgiveness that Christianity helps to satisfy.
Critics of the modern self-help cult of forgiveness sometimes accuse it of being essentially old Christian assumptions dressed up in new psychological trappings.✴
What’s good about holding a grudge, though?
It’s easy to find reasons why holding a grudge is bad. The very word “grudge” sounds like a name you’d give to something bad-to-hold. In my post on the virtue of good temper I compared holding a grudge to “dragg[ing] around the rotting carcass of a grievance.” Yet hold them we do. Maybe there’s a good reason. Do we get anything valuable in compensation for the trouble we take to hold a grudge?
A couple of years back, the self-help pendulum began to swing back the other way, and the New York Times declared “Grudges can be good!”, highlighting the work of Sophie Hannah and her book How to Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment — The Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life. (The pendulum swung back a few months later and the Times reminded us: “Let Go of Your Grudges. They’re Doing You No Good.”) Hannah’s theory, in a nutshell:
- A grudge is essentially a story, one that helps us remember how something went wrong and warns us when we see a similar pattern again. Nursing a grievance may be worth the sacrifice in present comfort if it fortifies us against future wrongs. It’s a variety of mnemonic or heuristic (e.g. “this person doesn’t play fair”) that helps us make good decisions.
- Having a grudge is a way of asserting that the wrongdoing towards you mattered. In this way, it is one way the virtues of justice and dignity can play out in your life.
- Grudges can make us more aware of our values (in this case, what we detest) such that we are less apt to do contemptible things.
Hannah recommends that you try to make your grudges more conscious and deliberate. Write down your grudge stories — make them explicit — as this will help you analyze them more rationally. This is also cathartic: writing down our grudge stories gets them “out of ourselves so we’re not stuck in a feeling.” Once you have done this, go through your story step by step and ask “what could I have done differently?” This changes the focus from what was done to you in the past to how you can defend yourself in the future. This helps restore your agency and also makes your grudge more useful to you as a source of advice for how to go through life better-fortified.
Other criticisms of forgiveness
Other forgiveness-skeptics note that if we praise forgiveness, and express our admiration for people who forgive those who have wronged them, this can act as an implicit judgement against people who do not forgive for whatever reason. This can have the effect of revictimizing those people — unfairly punishing them for continuing to resent their injuries. Praising forgiveness can also be a way of prolonging continuous victimization in, for example, domestic violence situations, or when a politician trots out a variation on the old familiar “mistakes were made; let’s not focus on the past” gambit in order to avoid accountability.
People who make decisive declarations of forgiveness may also be claiming to have more conscious control over their emotions than they really do. If forgiveness is supposed to mean that you no longer have hard feelings about some past injustice, maybe this is something you can notice but not something you can force by diktat.
To the extent that forgiveness is supposed to erase blame, it has been criticized for being false. Philosopher John Kekes wrote, “when blaming wrongdoers is reasonable, there is no reason to forgive them; and when blaming them is unreasonable, there is nothing to forgive.”✴
The victim “forgiveness” anti-pattern
There is an anti-pattern of thought and behavior seen in some chronic victims, in which when they are victimized their first inclination is to wonder what they did to deserve it. Because of this, rather than feeling righteous anger towards those who victimize them, they instead may feel ironically apologetic and as though it is they who ought to make amends or attempt to mend fences. These efforts may appear superficially like a form of forgiveness (and observers may interpret them that way).
Forgiveness and status
There is some trickiness in negotiating forgiveness between people of different social status.
If a person of low status forgives a person of high status, this may be interpreted more as a display of submission than of forgiveness. (I’m reminded of the anti-hero Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, who, as a schoolboy, on being accidentally smacked in the face with a banana by a higher-status boy, forgave instantly, in a way that his fellows explicitly interpreted as “slavish” and repulsive.)
When a high-status person forgives a low-status person, it can be viewed as condescending: sending a message of either “you are so insignificant that I can’t be expected to be overly concerned with any harm you’ve done me” or “your inconsiderate action is about par for the course of what I expected from the likes of you.”
In such circumstances of status difference, forgiveness may require nuanced attention to technique in order to avoid such undesirable side effects.
How does one forgive?
There have been some attempts to break down the process of forgiveness into parts that can be addressed individually. I was tempted to try to write up a sort of RFC (“Human Resentment/Forgiveness Protocol”) with a UML state diagram and everything, but decided that would probably be more cute than helpful.
- Take a close look at the wrong you suffered, who caused it, and the context in which it happened.
- Examine the anger you feel about it, any shame or guilt associated with it, and how the wrong and your reaction to it have affected you since.
- Decide whether you want to move past how you are currently dealing with the wrong and into an attitude of forgiveness instead. If so…
- Work on understanding, compassion, and acceptance, and make a gesture of reconciliation to the offender.
- Reformulate the way you remember your experience of being wronged and working toward forgiveness in various healthy and forward-looking ways.
Everett Worthington (director of the “A Campaign for Forgiveness Research” project) developed another pathway, roughly:
- Acknowledge the wrong, but in a way that leaves the way open for forgiveness and affirms the worth of the offender.
- Express your grievance to the offender in absentia; then turn this around and imagine yourself as the offender and try to see their perspective.
- Forgive the offender in the form of a gift (i.e. not from selfish motives, or conditionally).
- Formalize your forgiveness by writing it down somewhere (for yourself).
- Revisit that note to remind yourself that you have forgiven, if your forgiveness lapses.
Worthington has a set of do-it-yourself workbooks on his website that claim to help people become more forgiving.
Frederic Luskin (author, Forgive for Good) has a nine-step path that, in contrast to the previous two paths, is much more focused on the internal benefits of forgiveness than on reconciliation with the offender (my paraphrase):
- Articulate your feelings about what happened to you, and tell someone you trust.
- Commit to doing what it takes to feel better. “Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.”
- Come to an understanding of what forgiveness is and what it’s for.
- Understand that your current distress isn’t being caused by what happened to you then, but how you are dealing with that now.
- Use a stress management technique when your anger becomes acute. Get some distance between the event that hurt you and the response you are going to have to it.
- Take control of what you can control; drop expectations for things and people that you cannot control.
- Look for other ways to meet the goals that you are currently trying to meet through holding your grudge.
- “[A] life well lived is your best revenge” so do that.
- Change the story you tell about your grievance to highlight your process of forgiveness.
Each of these pathways makes certain assumptions about what forgiveness is and what it is meant to accomplish, however, and those things are still very much up for debate.
In 2004 a meta-analysis of several controlled studies of forgiveness-oriented psychological interventions was published.✴ It tried to determine whether certain classes of intervention helped people to forgive, and also whether this helped their emotional health in general. It found strong support on both counts for process-based forgiveness interventions (ones that helped people go through a multi-step process like one of those described above), but no support for decision-based forgiveness interventions (ones that helped people decide to forgive). However, the process-based interventions tended to be longer in duration, so the results might be explained by the quantity instead of the quality of the two approaches.
Another meta-analysis of group-based forgiveness interventions to determine how well they work to increase self-reported forgiveness (or decrease “unforgiveness”) concluded that “The data appear to speak clearly: Forgiveness interventions are effective.”✴ That’s not too shocking — forgiveness interventions improve self-reported forgiveness — but it does mean you can headline: “Science Discovers How To Forgive.”
For what it’s worth, another meta-analysis also looked into how forgiveness interventions affected depression, anxiety, and hopelessness, and concluded “interventions designed to promote forgiveness are more effective at helping participants achieve forgiveness and hope and reduce depression and anxiety than either no treatment or alternative treatments.”✴
How does one become forgiving, merciful, etc.?
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude.” —MLK, Jr.
To rise to the level of a virtue, your forgiveness or mercy or clemency needs to be something that has become a part of your character: you need to have become a forgiving, merciful, clement person. This doesn’t mean that you are maximally forgiving, merciful, and clement (which would put you into doormat territory) but that you are skilled at practicing forgiveness, mercy, and clemency in the right amounts, in regards to the right people and actions, at the proper time, and in the best way.
Usually forming a virtue like this is a matter of practice and habit. In the cases of these virtues in particular, it may require that you give yourself a bit of a nudge. “I have an old grievance I’ve become kind of fond of chewing on. Might now be a good time to practice how to give that up?” or “I would be entirely within my rights to demand my pound of flesh from this so-and-so, but might now be a good time to practice mercy?” If you want to be a merciful, forgiving person you need to be on the lookout for opportunities, which may happen when you are least in the mood for them.
Forgiveness and mercy may largely depend on having a certain disposition, but clemency and epieikeia also require a well-tempered sense of justice and practical wisdom. A good cook can safely improvise to improve a recipe, but a bad cook had better stick with what’s printed in the book. Similarly, if you aren’t pretty sure you know what you’re doing, your attempts at clemency and epieikeia might just be indulgence and bias dressed up in fancy clothes. We may be able to learn how to practice those virtues well by carefully examining precedents or by learning from people who are especially Solomonic.