Justice is a virtue and so, many claim, is forgiveness. But they seem inconsistent. Is forgiveness really a virtue?
First I want to thank Charles Griswold for being our guest. It was, I thought, a very thought-provoking conversation about a philosophically under-explored, but interesting and rich topic. I look forward to what I gather will be a two volume set - one about forgiveness and sympathy and the other about imperfection -- from Charles. I know that I personally exemplify the latter and that I need a lot of the former.
I admit to still being puzzled by the question why, when forgiveness is deserved, one can only request forgiveness and aren't really in a position to demand it. I thought I'd ponder that question just a little bit more in this post. My hunch is that what's wrong with demanding forgiveness, even when it's morally deserved, has to do with what I'll call the dialectical character of the relation between the forgiver and the to be forgiven.
It seems to me that the wrong-doer always has the burden of proof, that the "weight" of the burden carried by the wrong-doer is determined by the victim alone, and that it's the victim that gets to determine whether the burden has been adequately discharged. For the wrong-doer to "demand" rather than "request" forgiveness would misrepresent the "dialectical situation" between victim and wrong-doer. In demanding, rather than requesting, forgiveness, the wrong-doer would thereby represent himself as usurping one or more of the perogatives that are morally reserved for the victim alone.
To see this, we need to suppose at least for the sake of argument that Griswold is right and that Perry is wrong. We need to suppose, that is, that forgiveness is never an entirely one-sided affair, lying solely on the side of the victim, at least in the central or paradigmatic cases. Though I think John was right to point to, for example, a grown child finally forgiving his/her parents for perceived wrongs done in childhood, without there being any contrition or reform on the part of the parents, I do think that we might follow Charles in thinking of this as a non-paradigmatic case. Indeed, even if we allow that there are such one-sided instances of forgiveness, still when it comes to a demand or request for forgiveness we are back with Griswold's relational notion of forgiveness in any case.
So let's grant, for the sake of argument, that forgiveness is morally appropriate only if the wrong-doer meets certain conditions. Griswold thinks there are six such conditions, as I recall. I don't remember them all at the moment. The ones that stick in my mind right now are that the wrong-doer needs to decisively repudiate the wrong done, that he needs to sympathetically enter into the victim's perspective, and that he needs to commit to becoming a different person.
Imagine a scenario in which the wrong-doer has done everything necessary to make forgiveness morally appropriate and consider a conversation between a reformed, committed, contrite and sympathetic wrong-doer and his still resentful victim. W = the wrong-doer. V = the victim
W: Please forgive me!
V: I can't forgive you! You hurt me, betrayed me! You are a wicked, wicked man!
W: But I'm not the same man I was then. I've changed. I promise.
V: I don't trust you! If I forgive you, you'll eventually go back to your old ways.
W: I understand your feelings. What I did to you was awful. I know I hurt you. I know I was being selfish. I understand your resentment and I can understand your reluctance to trust me. But it's been [years, months, weeks, days, hours]. I've changed. I've grown a lot. Can't you see that?
V: I do see that you have changed. I really do. And it helps that you now appreciate how badly you hurt me. I hope you do reform your ways, for your own sake, if not for mine. But, sorry, I just can't let go, not yet, maybe not ever.
W: Don't do it just for my sake. Do it for your own sake as well. We can start over.
V: No we can't start over, not yet anyway. I can't yet bring myself to forgive you.
In this imagined conversation, it seems to me that the victim grants everything argued by the wrong-doer, yet ends by withholding forgiveness. Perhaps partly out of a lack of complete confidence that the wrong-doer has really and truly reformed, but also partly out of a present inability to completely let go of anger and resentment. Is that inability a "moral failing" for which the victim could rightly be criticized in light of the wrong-doer's having fully met his side of the forgiveness bargain?
I am pulled both ways. On the one hand, if she could let go then given that the wrong-doer does fully merit forgiveness, her letting go would, it seems, be morally good and appropriate. Moreover, it seems that letting go would be morally preferable to not letting go if she in fact has the ability to let go. So how can we not criticize her for her inability to let go?
The answer, I think, is that we recognize that letting go is a psychologically complex undertaking, possibly involving a very wrenching journey. None of us, but especially not even the fully contrite and sympathetic wrong-doer -- precisely because he is the cause of the very need for that wrenching journey, -- has standing to "demand" that the victim have already completed the journey at any given point. That, I think, is why we cannot morally criticize an inability to grant even morally deserved forgiveness.
Similarly, I now think that I was wrong to be tempted by the conclusion that forgiveness must therefore be a freely given gift on the part of the victim, never fully deserved by the victim. I do still believe the part about it being a freely given gift. But I'm no longer tempted to the conclusion that forgiveness consequently cannot be deserved. It can be deserved but nonetheless not be the kind of thing that can be demanded. "Demanding" forgiveness is a certain kind of "dialectical move" a move in a "language game" as Wittgensteinians would say. And certain conditions have to obtain before such a move counts as dialectically permissible. It is not obvious that mere desert is enough to make a demand a dialectically appropriate move between victim and wrong-doer. Indeed, it seems obvious now that desert is insufficient to make a demand rather than a request dialectically appropriate.
Here's what I mean by that. In requesting forgiveness, the truly reformed wrong-doer is, I think, offering a gift of his own to the victim. By explicitly requesting forgiveness, the reformed, contrite, and sympathetic wrong-doer issues to the victim an invitation, an invitation to closure and renewal. But by asking or begging rather than demanding, he represents this invitation as a mere invitation, not as a command or imperative, not as something that must be accepted. He leaves it entirely to the discretion of the victim to accept or reject and represents himself as so doing. He thereby respects and represents himself as respecting the freedom and autonomy of the victim. That is a way of repudiating his past wrong-doing. On the other hand a demand for forgiveness would convey none of this respect and sympathy. Indeed, it would express a kind of impatience and lack of sympathy for the possibly wrenching journey still needed by the victim.