Forgiveness Deserved, not Demanded

05 May 2005

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.   

Comments (4)

Guest's picture


Saturday, May 7, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

I remember an old idea that in order for person A

I remember an old idea that in order for person A to bestow an honor on person B, person A must first have something to bestow. The honors are given by people in higher positions of power to those of lower positions. A king bestows honor to his subjects, a subject cannot bestow an honor to a king.
In you problem you are the person wronged cannot forgive because they are not in a position to give. If the person wronged gives forgiveness, then they will only be wronged again. In order for a person to give forgiveness, they must be in a position where they may not easily be wronged again, in a higher position. Take the example of an abusive husband asking for forgiveness from his wife. The wife should not give forgiveness until she is in a position where she will not be wronged again by her husband. If her position has not changed since the time she was abused (protected from future abuse) her forgiveness will mean nothing. Bestowing forgiveness is like an honor, giving forgiveness is like love. You cannot demand love. Forgiveness like love cannot be deserved.
A person cannot say, I have done this, this, this, and this-I deserve love. Forgiveness is not justice. Nature does not forgive, it distributes justice according to what each deserves-sometimes humans disagree with natural justice.. Nature justice is not human justice.
Ken you have it backwards. The wrongdoer is not offering a gift; all gifts come from the forgiver. The forgiver even receives a gift themselves, through the act of forgiving in their mind.

Guest's picture


Sunday, May 8, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

Ken's illuminating follow-up to our discussion abo

Ken's illuminating follow-up to our discussion about forgiveness makes three points on which I'd like to comment.
First, Ken is arguing that forgiveness "can be deserved but nonetheless not be the kind of thing that can be demanded." Why can it not be demanded? Because "we recognize that letting go is a psychologically complex undertaking, possibly involving a very wrenching journey." This seems basically right to me, but I'd like to offer a different formulation of the point. Let me suggest that if the offender's injury does not (by virtue of the sheer scope of the injury) fall into the category of the unforgivable (or, that which it is humanly impossible to forgive), and if the offender has met all the criteria for forgiveness, then the victim should *commit* to forgiving in the sense of making an honest effort to let go of lingering resentment (I'm assuming that the victim has also taken other steps, such as forswearing revenge). At the same time, depending on the scope of the injury, we cannot say that the victim should simply let go of that resentment on the spot, for the reason that an emotion like resentment is not entirely under the purview of rational will. It is *in part* a bodily affect that can, with time and effort, be changed; but not completely changed at will. So the distinction between commiting to forgive (all the conditions having otherwise been met by offender and victim), and letting go of lingering resentment (which would make this perfect or accomplished forgiveness), is useful. I'd put here Ken's point that for the offender to refuse to see this--by demanding immediate forgiveness rather than asking--is to show a "lack of sympathy" with the victim. That itself would amount to a lack of respect, to another discounting of the victim's standpoint.
Second, Ken makes the intriguing point that by "asking or begging rather than demanding," the appropriately qualified offender "respects and represents himself as respecting the freedom and autonomy of the victim." For "that is a way of repudiating his past wrong-doing." Yes, and it gets to the moral heart of the wrongdoing, viz. the offender's denial that the victim has moral standing and is not to be treated in certain ways. A precondition for membership in the moral community is that each person take responsibility for him or herself, and treat others as capable of the same. The above mentioned steps are constitutive of that ideal.
Finally, Ken writes that the "wrong-doer always has tbe burden of proof"; I'd say that is true until the wrong-doer has met the necessary conditions; at which point--assuming again that the injury was not simply unforgivable or humanly impossible to forgive--the burden shifts to the victim.

Guest's picture


Monday, May 9, 2005 -- 5:00 PM

I'd say that is true until the wrong-doer has m

I'd say that is true until the wrong-doer has met the necessary conditions
I'd append "and a suitable amount of time has passed", the particular amount depending on the offense. If I were to say something mildly insulting to my wife (purely hypothetically speaking, of course), I wouldn't expect her to accept my apology immediately, but if she were still fuming after, say, a week, I think I'd be entitled to think that she was simply nursing a grievance (assuming, of course, that I'd met all the forgiveness conditions). OTOH if I were to be unfaithful, I'd expect to have to wait much longer for absolution.
I must confess that I haven't managed to listen to the show yet (please forgive me!), but I wonder if the question came up of whether the victim's prior "offenses" can change the expectations for his/her grant of forgiveness. It seems to me that the person withholding forgiveness is implicitly putting him/herself in a position of moral superiority in regard to the offender. So if the victim him/herself has committed a similar offense previously (and been forgiven), one would tend to expect him/her to be more lenient, because that sense of superiority would seem not to be justified. For example, if we take the case of infidelity, is it reasonable to expect a victim of this offense who had him/herself been unfaithful in the past to be more ready to forgive it than one who had never lapsed in that way?

AJMansfield's picture


Friday, November 18, 2022 -- 11:10 AM

The way I see it, the fact

The way I see it, the fact that a wrongdoer demands forgiveness is itself *evidence* that they fail to meet a key condition for forgiveness -- while it may be fair to pose a situation where the wrongdoer meets the requirements for forgiveness despite his demand, it's an error to require that the victim make that assumption.

First, a victim withholds forgiveness as a means to reduce the wrongdoer's influence and capacity to cause them further harm; this lack of forgiveness stems, at some level, from a belief they hold: they predict that, were they to interact with the wrongdoer in the way that their lack of forgiveness leads them to chose not to, they are likely to be harmed. This belief may or may not be true at the point where a wrongdoer apologizes and either requests or demands forgiveness, but the victim has an absolute right to believe their prediction to be fact, and to use that belief to make further predictions about and impute motives to the wrongdoer's actions that are consistent with it. And they do not have an obligation to make themselves available to be convinced of it's falsity by the wrongdoer in any way that would expose them to that harm.

Second, demands of all types are inherently coercive. A demand for forgiveness is an attempt by the wrongdoer to coerce the victim to interact with them in a way that the victim's current beliefs about the wrongdoer leads them to choose not to. And the attempt at coercion reveals important information to the victim about the wrongdoer's own beliefs. At its most innocent, the wrongdoer believes that the benefit they hope to derive from interacting with the victim is most easily achieved by that demand: that to convince the victim to allow them that benefit willingly would require more time, effort, or other expenditure. Perhaps they feel there is an opportunity that will not be available later, or that circumstances will forever prevent them from being able to present sufficient evidence to convince the victim their belief is false.

One can comfortably posit the situation that this most innocent explanation is in fact the case for some particular instance. However, the victim is not privy to our thought experiment's ground truth; they can only estimate the wrongdoer's intentions based on what is presented to them and their own existing beliefs about them.
Presented with either a request or a demand, a victim reasonably makes the initial assumption that the benefit the wrongdoer seeks to gain is the same benefit they achieved when they wronged them initially, achieved in the same way by wronging them again. The wrongdoer may present arguments that, when evaluated together, may be enough to overcome this assumption, or may not. The demand, however, also provides the victim with another piece of information: the wrongdoer does not believe the victim will forgive them willingly based on the other information given.

The victim makes no error then, when they give more weight to this admission than to any other arguments. It's entirely reasonable for them to conclude that the reason the wrongdoer doesn't believe they'll be convinced their belief is wrong, is because the victim's belief is still correct.

When you demand forgiveness, you prove to your victim that you are still a danger.

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