Forgive and Forget

Sunday, February 23, 2014
First Aired: 
Sunday, December 11, 2011

What Is It

At least forgive OR forget.  Get things behind you.  All good advice for those who don't want their life dominated by the bad things that have happened to them at the hands of others. This advice has also been applied to aggrieved populations following liberating reforms and revolutions, as in South Africa.  But what is forgiveness?  What are its limits?  Does it make sense to forgive those who attempt genocide, for example?  Does forgiveness entail a sacrifice of pride and dignity?  John and Ken let bygones be bygones with their guest, Paul Hughes from the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Listening Notes


Is forgiveness always the right thing? John and Ken kick off the conversation by asking this question and discussing why people choose to forgive. Is forgiveness sometimes morally right, as Ken would suggest, or is forgiveness something that’s only done for the forgiver’s own peace of mind as John alleges? Ken and John call on guest Paul Hughes, a philosophy professor who has written extensively on forgiveness, to shed some light on these questions.

According to Paul, forgiveness can take a variety of different forms, but, at the core, is the aim of overcoming some wrong that has been committed, an act that has positive consequences for the forgiver and the person receiving forgiveness. But, Ken wonders, do some people deserve forgiveness? If a wrong-doer does everything in her power to make up for an action, on what grounds could someone withhold forgiveness? Paul argues that actually, forgiveness is not a matter of justice or deservedness, it is a gift that is freely given, and it depends completely on a person’s ability to emotionally overcome some wrong. John, Ken, and Paul also bring up the question of forgiveness and punishment. Is it consistent with true forgiveness to punish someone after the person has been forgiven, or does punishment detract from the restorative act of forgiving?

They then invite callers for input and take a call from Alex, who has vowed never to forgive or forget, and John reads an email from Joanne, who questions whether someone can forgive in the face of a complete lack of remorse. Ken and Paul continue to debate whether forgiveness is ever about what a person morally deserves. John points out that it is often when you understand someone’s motivations that you begin to forgive, even if the person has done nothing to deserve it. But Ken wonders if this “understanding” is just reinterpreting the significance of a person’s action—is that really forgiveness?

John and Ken also ask Paul about the limits of forgiveness—is it ever impossible to forgive? Paul reiterates that forgiveness happens on an individual basis; it depends on the strength of the individual to forgive so it is always possible, even in the case of the most horrific transgressions. They continue to discuss whether forgiveness is possible or useful once the perpetrator of a wrong or the victim of that wrong has died, the meaning of self-forgiveness, and the on-going process that forgiveness often is.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (5:47): Caitlin Esch sets out to figure out what true forgiveness is. Are there some acts that make it impossible to forgive? She speaks with psychology professor Everett Worthington, who has studied forgiveness for decades, about a horrible crime from his past and his difficult decision on whether to forgive.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (46:30): Ian Scholes rapidly discusses the health benefits of forgiveness, the forgiveness of God, self-forgiveness, and forgiveness in his own, mundane life.