Forgiveness and Christian Ethics Chapter 1 - Tech Projects/Documentations

Forgiveness and Christian Ethics Chapter 1

Forgiveness and wrongdoing

Author: Eze-Odikwa Tochukwu Jed

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This book is about one kind of response to evil and wrongdoing – the response called ‘forgiveness’. The aim of this book is to explore why, how and when a victim may forgive a wrongdoer for wrongdoing – in other words, what it means to forgive.

I stand within the Christian tradition. In writing this book, I have sought to engage with modern secular insights about forgiveness and to be in critical dialogue with those insights. I have also sought to look critically at the Christian traditions about forgiveness and restate some of them in the light of modern discourse.

In the following pages, I refer to someone who has been wronged as ‘the victim’ or less often (and only for stylistic reasons) as ‘the wronged person’ or words to that effect. The person who does the wrong I usually refer to as ‘the wrongdoer’. The wrong that the wrongdoer does to the victim I call ‘wrongdoing’. When I refer to ‘wrongdoing’ or use a similar word, I mean ‘a morally wrong act or omission’ in contrast to an act or omission that is wrong but not also morally wrong. Where there could be ambiguity, I make the meaning plain.

I appreciate that words such as ‘victim’ and ‘wrongdoer’ may be read as words with emotive connotations. I do not intend them to be understood that way. I have been unable to find words that convey a more neutral sense. I have, in addition, sought to use gender-neutral language whenever possible to avoid, for example, suggesting that typically victims are women, wrongdoers men or that God is male.

Popular Understanding

Ask anyone in the street if to forgive is good and worthwhile and the answer, almost certainly, would be ‘yes’.

On a day-to-day basis, with the minor difficulties of life, it is not very difficult to forgive. If Jack lends Jill a book and Jill is careless and loses it, Jill may irritate Jack by her carelessness but, as they are siblings and as Jack wishes to retain a good relationship with Jill, Jack may well accept Jill’s apology and then forget about the matter. Similarly, one friend may unwittingly say some hurtful things to another, but for the sake of friendship the offended friend will forgive and not allow the hurt to stand in the way of the friendship.

Most people would also affirm – at least in principle, if not by their own practice – that not to forgive is both foolish and misguided. Popular understanding is that bitterness often comes from being unforgiving. It is also that being unforgiving can be emotionally corrosive and harmful to health. It does not take an astute observer of human behavior to see that the effect of not forgiving or of being unforgiven can be dehumanizing and personally diminishing. Both wrongdoer and victim may also become trapped in a pattern of behavior that is personally and communally destructive. This can be expressed in terms of the thought of Levinas: to forgive is to ´ recognize that we are part of a matrix of social relationships, that we have responsibilities towards others because we are part of that matrix and that our wholeness and freedom are best expressed in the context of relationships with others.

Of course, when it comes to forgiveness, most people fail to live up to their own standards, and (if they were to think about it) they know that they do not live up to God’s standards. Whatever the nature of an act of wrongdoing, there will be some who find they are unable to forgive, who will feel guilty about this, and who will also feel guilty about having disagreeable – or even brutish – feelings towards those who have mistreated them. For Christians in particular, this can present additional problems, because Christianity emphasizes the ethical ideal to forgive. If truth be told, forgiving the way people believe that Jesus forgave (unconditionally, unilaterally and lavishly) is immensely difficult and few seem able to do it. For some, revenge is an attractive alternative to forgiveness and they would rather retaliate than forgive.

Even if people fail to forgive, they still tend to hope that God will forgive them, either because God is merciful or because, if they try hard and intend to do well, God will show a sense of ‘fair play’ and forgive them. Alexander Pope expressed the relation between the human and divine conditions in this way: ‘To err is human, to forgive divine.’ To put it unkindly, people think that God will forgive (because that is God’s role) but they often will not (because that, sadly, is the human condition).

In this book, we will examine views such as these, so that we can think both ethically and Christianly about what it means to forgive. We begin with some initial thoughts about what forgiveness is, although it will not be until chapter 9 that we draw together the discussion in this book and reach a firm conclusion – as best we can – about what forgiveness is.

Revisiting Forgiveness in the 21st Century

A straightforward, popular dictionary definition of forgiveness is that it is an action or process that results in a person ceasing to be angry or resentful towards someone for an offence, flaw or mistake.

That forgiveness is an action or process is self-evident. In almost every other respect, I take issue with the definition or wish to qualify it. For example, one implication of the definition is that one may ‘forgive’ another person if one forgets about, denies or even blames oneself for the offence, flaw or mistake. I shall argue that doing these is not to forgive. Similarly, if by mistake I bought you red roses thinking that you liked them, when I should have remembered that it was yellow roses that you preferred, you may, as a result, be angry – perhaps even resentful – that I had forgotten what you liked, but that does not mean that I have done something for which you should forgive me or for which I should seek your forgiveness.

I take as the starting point for discussion that forgiveness (whatever else it may also be) is a moral response to wrongdoing.  There are two elements to this starting point that need to be held in place: the first is that forgiveness is a moral response, and the second is that the response is to a morally wrong act.

As for the first element (that forgiveness is a moral response), two observations may be made. First, not all moral responses to wrongdoing amount to forgiveness. For example, a victim who renews relations with a repentant wrongdoer in response to a moral principle (for example, that it is right to have relations with those who repudiate immoral behaviour) will not necessarily also have forgiven the wrongdoer (Hampton in Murphy and Hampton 1988: 41). Second, it does not necessarily follow that to forgive is always the right moral response to wrongdoing. This is what Murphy in Murphy and Hampton (1988) argues: he suggests, for example, that one should not forgive if to forgive would not necessarily serve the public good or would result in an undesirable outcome.

That forgiveness is a moral response also has an important corollary. It is this: if the response to wrongdoing is not moral, the response cannot be forgiveness. Thus, if a victim implicitly or explicitly denies that the act in question is wrong, the response of the victim will not – and cannot – be forgiveness. It may be ‘condonation’ (Kolnai 1973–4: 96), excusing, pardoning, exonerating and so on – but it will not be (according to Kolnai 1973–4 and most other commentators – see Worthington 2005: 557) forgiveness.

We turn now to the second element of our starting point that forgiveness is a moral response to wrongdoing, namely, that forgiveness is a response to a morally wrong act.

Morally Wrong Acts

Morally wrong acts range from what one might regard as relatively trivial (such as telling a lie to avoid embarrassment or breaking a promise) to acts – often referred to as ‘evil’ rather than ‘moral wrongs’ – of execrable horror, cruelty and depravity, sometimes called ‘dehumanizing evil’ (e.g., Wolfendale 2005).

If an act is not morally wrong it is not forgivable (that is, ‘able-to-be-forgiven’) and forgiveness is not an appropriate response to such an act. Three scenarios may arise. First, an act of which I may not approve but which is not morally wrong is not forgivable. (For example, if I do not like to see men wear ear studs, I cannot forgive my friend if he chooses to wear an ear stud. To wear an ear stud is not morally wrong, and no right-thinking moral philosopher would hold that it was. In such a case, it is I – and my social tolerance – that need to change.) Also not forgivable are morally innocent acts that have unintended but harmful consequences for a ‘victim’, as in the case of a mistake or misfortune. Lastly, if the victim is not aware of the wrong, the ‘victim’ will have nothing to forgive. If Jack steals from Jill’s purse but Jill does not know, there will be nothing for her to forgive, even though Jack has done wrong. (Jack may consider that there is something to forgive, even though Jill does not know it, because, both in Jack’s mind and objectively, he has done wrong.) If Jack later admits what he has done, there will then be something for Jill to forgive.

To establish whether an act is right or wrong from a moral viewpoint, the act has to be critically evaluated in the context of an overarching moral framework. The framework may be derived from principles (whether from a supra-human moral being or power or from universally recognized social norms and laws) that underlie particular expressions of moral imperatives. Even when we make appeal to an overarching moral framework, legitimate disagreement may remain about whether a particular action is morally wrong: the discussion in 1 Corinthians 8:1–13 and 10:23–11:1 about eating meat that has been used in idol worship is a case in point. Well-known also are views that the cultural climate of a former time affirms and even sustains but which a later generation recognizes to be wrong. It is hard to attribute blame when people act strictly according to their consciences. Scarre (2003: 108,110) gives the example of Aztec human sacrifice: it may today be ‘morally repugnant, but it [is] hard to see it as wrong from [Aztec] viewpoint’. He also describes the persecution and murder of supposed witches in Europe in the middle ages. We may believe those who persecuted the witches to be wrong but they acted according to their understanding and with integrity of conscience for the supposed good of all. Those who adhered to and carried out Nazi political philosophy are, in my view, less excusable (pace Scarre 2003). As Milbank (2003: 2f.) says, many believed they were ‘fulfilling the goods of order, obedience, political stability and peace’ and ‘articulated their defective desires . . . in terms of the promotion of racial health and excellence of humanity’. Even the aim to liquidate the Jews was expressed in terms that could be described as ‘rational’ (though perverse and flawed) and not out of ‘the pursuit of evil for its own sake’. Even so, the moral and intellectual criteria of the time could have led people to condemn Nazi philosophy as odious and repugnant (as it did some) and there was a degree of culpable and willful blindness by many who upheld Nazi philosophy.

Given that there are degrees of evil in wrongdoing and (as we shall see below) even degrees of responsibility for wrongdoing, one might have expected that there would be degrees of difficulty to forgiving, and that it would be easier to forgive a peccadillo than an egregious wrong or evil. In many instances that is true, but not always. When it comes to forgiveness, it seems to be that it is not necessarily the nature of the act that determines whether people who have been wronged will find it difficult to forgive, but the nature of the response to the wrong. The initial, emotional response may be in proportion to the severity of the act, but not always. The response may be shaped by temperament, personal history, psychopathology, ethical outlook and social or cultural tradition. Wrongdoers take their victims as they find them, even if the victims have wafer-thin tolerance and are greatly wounded by the acts of wrongdoers. It would not be right – tempting though it may be – for wrongdoers to say to their victims to buck up, get on and forgive. The victims may well believe they have much to forgive and find it hard to do so. There does come a point when to continue to harbor resentment about being wronged becomes excessive, misplaced and perhaps even obsessional – but that is for the victim to address, not the wrongdoer.

Wrongdoers with sensitive consciences will quickly realize that the effects of wrongdoing are not so contained and identifiable as they had hoped. Some wrongdoing is contained in its effects and forgiveness in such a context is about relations in an interpersonal context between a known wrongdoer and a known victim. In contrast, some wrongs will have consequences for the victim that the wrongdoer did not (and perhaps even could not) foresee, or the wrongs may affect many people besides the immediate victim. In the latter case, it is often not possible to identify all who have been affected by wrongdoing or how much they may have been affected. The consequences of wrongdoing may be, for example, social, cultural and political, and may affect more than one generation and in ways that have to do with loss of contingent possibilities. As Milbank (2003: 28; and see Derrida 2001a: 29f.) puts it: ‘since an evil deed is contagious, it is impossible to know how far the consequences of even the simplest and most minor of misdemeanors extends’. Consider, for example, the consequences if Herod had succeeded in killing Jesus when he was a baby (see Matthew 2:16–23) or if Pharaoh, through the massacre of Jewish male babies, had succeeded in killing Moses when a baby (Exodus 1:15–22).

Of course, many people who are remotely and contingently affected by another’s wrongdoing may not know that they have been affected in that way; but the wrongdoer – especially if the wrongdoer becomes contrite and penitent – may be all too aware. In the hypothetical examples above, who should forgive – and who can forgive? Those killed cannot forgive because they are dead; and many people will suffer contingent losses because someone has died. In the examples, those who have been affected by the wrongdoing – albeit indirectly – have something to forgive the wrongdoers but the wrongdoers may not be able to find those who can forgive them their wrongdoing.

Benn (1996: 378) raises the important question of how people can forgive if they are not directly victims of wrongdoing but are affected by it. The question is even more pressing if the victim has not, will not or cannot forgive the wrongdoer. Benn suggests that ‘quasi-forgiveness’ may be applicable here, that is when ‘third parties, whilst not [at] all condoning what was done, overcome the indignation they feel on behalf of those directly wronged’. So the parents of a murder victim may eventually be able to express quasi-forgiveness (since the only person able to forgive is the murder victim); the relatives of a victim of a violent crime may be able to express quasi-forgiveness of the wrongdoer in the course of time. Benn rightly points out that this can only occur where to express quasi-forgiveness would not be disloyal to the victim. He also limits this to cases where the wrongdoer repents. A moving example of this concerns David Rice whose brother, Andrew, died in the attacks of 11 September 2001 in New York. David Rice tells of how he and certain other relatives of people killed were contacted by Madame al-Wafi, the mother of the surviving alleged hijacker, Zacharias Moussaoui. She wished to ask for forgiveness for her son’s actions. Mr. Rice writes of how the meeting confirmed to him that to seek retribution was not an appropriate response to his loss; instead he sought to lay aside hatred and seek reconciliation.


As for wrongdoers, there is a distinction, sometimes difficult to draw, between a person who is innately incapable of moral discernment (an obvious case is someone with a severe learning difficulty) and a person who may be hardened, naïve, self-deluded, unprincipled or morally incompetent. In the former case, the person is regarded as innocent (because not responsible for his or her moral actions) and so not culpable; in the latter case, the person is immature but culpable. Thus even when a person’s moral reasoning may be overridden or even suppressed by weakness, indifference, selfishness and self-interest, greed or the refusal to engage, their culpability is not. In this category must be included those whose background, circumstances and personal histories predispose them to moral compromise. An example might be those from deprived and abusive backgrounds. The degree of culpability attributable to them may be diminished due to their circumstances, but they remain culpable nevertheless.

What of the responsibility of those who collude with wrongdoing that others commit? Obvious examples are the mistreatment of Jewish people before and during the Second World War and the oppression of black people in South Africa during the era of apartheid. In later years, when the wrongdoing had been exposed and recognized, the perpetrators tended to be portrayed as evil and unrepresentative – despite the fact that they had lived in and been supported by communities that knew – or could or should have known – of the acts of wrongdoing. Those who get on with the ordinary daily business and routine of living engage in collective self-deception that amounts to silent complicity. Such collusion does not exculpate them from a share in the guilt for the wrong. It amounts to moral blindness, founded on self-serving weakness and the desire for self-preservation. For it is all too easy to absorb society’s justifying meta-narrative out of self-interest and to fail to respond critically to abuse of power and injustice. Such people are not innocent of moral fault.

Even the perpetrators of evil may come across as ordinary people who are as much colluding with the evil of others as themselves also perpetrating it. At his trial, Eichmann said that he did not personally have anything against the Jews and that he had not sought to be cruel. He appeared to be an ordinary person, little different from anyone else. His answer as to why he was one of the architects of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ was that he was a soldier in a system that expected him to comply with its authority and that he was obeying orders. Arendt (1958: 49) observed that, the longer one listened to Eichmann, ‘the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely linked to his inability to think, namely to think away from the standpoint of somebody else’. Scarre (2004: 6), in critical engagement with the subtitle of Arendt’s book on Eichmann’s trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil (1968), rightly describes Eichmann – not the evil he committed – as ‘banal’ and says that he was ‘unimaginative, unreflective . . . with scant capacity for empathy’. In other words, Eichmann did not seem to think that what he had done was wrong, even though right-thinking people would think that it was.

It is easy to underestimate the power of a received ideology, and it takes a brave and intellectually unusual person to be critical and independent of the prevailing ideology. Those who collude remain morally culpable. As for Eichmann, possibly he was a child of his time, who had absorbed Nazi lies about the Jews. Even so, he was culpable – perhaps all the more so – because he vigorously carried out and initiated plans to implement the Final Solution and was one of the architects of the lies that others believed. He was not just an uncritical victim of the contemporary worldview. If he had reflected on the truth of what he believed and on the morality of his actions, he could only have realized that his actions were wrong. For these reasons, he was responsible for his actions and so culpable.

It is worth adding that, in the day-to-day pattern of human life, it is sometimes simplistic to say that all the ‘wrong’ rests with the wrongdoer and all the ‘right’ with the victim. There is often wrong on both sides, and people are sometimes both wrongdoer and victim in relation to the same set of events. Both wrongdoer and victim may have to search their own consciences about forgiveness: forgiveness may be a mutual, not a one-way, process for them and the categorization of the people involved as ‘victim’ and ‘wrongdoer’ will become considerably more nuanced.

A wise observer of human beings will also recognize that people are capable of great evil. Garrard (2003: 241) explores the fact that the innocent and guilty alike share a common nature and that people are ‘morally mixed, not in the sense that some of us are almost entirely good, and some entirely evil, but rather in the sense that most if not all of us are capable of both good and evil’. We might add that, in some senses, people share in the wrongdoing that others do without themselves being personally responsible for it. Garrard (2003: 241) suggests that ‘we are all inextricably implicated in, and shamed by, deeds of our fellow human beings [who are] the perpetrators [of wrongdoing], even though we do not endorse [the deeds] and are not responsible for them’. (This latter point has been painfully illustrated by reports of abuses of human rights at the Abu Ghraib detention center, abuses of a kind that many in the west assumed were – and could only be – committed by non-westerners.) Garrard’s point is that we all share a measure of the same ambivalent humanity as those who do commit wrong and that each of us can participate in a sense of shame that human beings should have behaved in that way.

Unforgivable Wrongs and Unforgivable People

Some argue that there is a genus of wrongs that are unforgivable because of the nature of the wrongs themselves (e.g., Arendt 1958; Golding 1984– 5; Lang 1994; North 1998; in Wiesenthal 1998, see Shachnow, Goulden, Telushkin, Langer and Ozick), that is, the wrongs are so reprehensible as to be beyond forgiving. If there are unforgivable wrongs, it also means that it is impossible to forgive those who commit unforgivable wrongs and morally wrong to attempt to do so. Jankel´ evitch ´ (1986) has argued (particularly in relation to the Holocaust) that there is a duty not to forgive if the wrong is ‘inexpiable’ (not able to be expiated), irreparable, or where one does not know whom to blame or accuse. Jankel´ evitch ´ (1996: 567) also suggests hyperbolically that forgiveness ‘died in the death camps’ of the Holocaust.

Flanigan (1998: 98–102) says that what makes wrongdoing unforgivable is not the intrinsic nature of the act but its effect upon the victim. If the act amounts to an ‘assault’ on a person’s fundamental beliefs that ‘shatter[s] the injured’s bedrock assumptions about life’ (e.g., beliefs that shape identity, sense of self-worth, confidence in the rules of justice and the goodness of people), the act may be unforgivable. She acknowledges that different acts or events will affect people in different ways. Forgiveness can come, she says, when victims have ‘cognitively restructured their bedrock assumptions so that their belief systems [are] intact’ and reformulated them so that they create ‘new assumptive sets’. Flanigan concludes that a person’s capacity to forgive is inversely related to the degree of damage to their assumptive set: the greater the damage, the less likely a person will be to forgive.

Govier (1999: 68, 71) argues that no one is absolutely unforgivable. To think that they may be ‘is to ignore their human capacity for moral choice and change, which is the very foundation of human worth and dignity’. She also identifies a category of unforgivable wrongs: they are wrongs that are ‘appallingly wrong acts that violate profoundly important moral principles’. Those who commit such wrongs are conditionally unforgivable if they do not acknowledge the wrong or offer restitution. Even so, Govier says that there is, even for heinous forms of wrongdoing, a place for unconditional forgiveness.

This analysis presents some difficulties. According to Govier, all types of wrongdoing are forgivable, whether or not the wrongdoer repents. It is therefore mistaken to regard a wrongdoer who does not acknowledge the wrongdoing to be ‘conditionally unforgivable’. It is better to say that such wrongdoers are ‘conditionally unforgiven’ because their victims will not forgive them unless they repent and make restitution (and perhaps not even then). In fact, there is not a discrete category of ‘unforgivable wrongs’. Govier is no more than distinguishing degrees of wrongdoing and saying that any wrongdoing may be forgiven, either after repentance and restitution or without repentance and restitution. It will depend on what the victims decide to do.

Wolfendale (2005) argues that believing a person to be unforgivable can cause victims to demonstrate the very moral qualities that they deplore in those who have wronged them. The belief implies that the wrongdoers are outside the moral community and inherently morally inferior. It also implies that the wrongdoers are incapable of moral change and of being responsible moral agents. What these beliefs fail to recognize, suggests Wolfendale (following Holmgreen 1993), is the wrongdoer’s person-hood and capacity for change. Wolfendale (2005: 358) rightly observes that such an unforgiving attitude ‘is . . . similar to the moral outlook’ of those who are guilty of dehumanizing evil: just as the wrongdoers regarded their victims as having ‘no claim to equal moral consideration and whose moral character is intrinsically and permanently inferior’, so the victims treat those who violated them in the same way. To regard people as irreversibly morally inferior because of the wrong they have done is to fail to acknowledge that all people – even monstrous purveyors of evil – can sometimes change.

Forgiveness has always been hard in the face of the monstrous perversion of human cruelty and, as Milbank (2003: 54) rightly says, to deny that the crimes of the Holocaust (and, we could add, of any other expression of dehumanizing evil) can be forgiven runs the risk of falsely glamorizing and absolutising those crimes. The issue is not whether there is a genus of wrongs that are unforgivable. Neither is it whether victims have been particularly grievously affected or even whether the wrongdoers are especially vile. This is because forgiveness is the gift – the free choice – of the victim. Rather, the issue is whether the victim is able and chooses to forgive. It would be odd to preclude a victim from forgiving if the victim wanted to forgive and it would be stranger still if such a victim were told it would be morally wrong to forgive and be thereby denied the psychological benefits that are known to accrue to those who forgive. It would be forever to insist that victims remain victims and not also forgivers.

Forgiving Oneself for Wrongdoing

The idea of forgiving oneself for having done wrong is analytically complex, for in forgiving oneself one is both subject and object, both offender and forgiver. The underlying question is whether it is meaningful to speak of forgiving oneself. Four different scenarios may arise:

  • The wrongdoer is repentant and the victim forgives: Repentance should result in the inner moral reordering of the wrongdoer, at least in relation to the wrongdoing. In this respect, it is a return to the shared moral values of the community and a recommitment to abide by them. The victim’s forgiveness means that the victim has let go of unforgiving feelings and acknowledges that the wrongdoer has been restored to the moral community. If the wrongdoer accepts that forgiveness, the wrongdoer can live as someone restored to the victim and to the wider community. It is appropriate for the wrongdoer, now forgiven by the victim, to forgive himself or herself for having done the wrong.
  • The wrongdoer is repentant and the victim does not forgive: Sometimes the wrongdoer may repent but will be unable to seek the forgiveness of the victim. A murderer cannot be forgiven because the victim is not alive to forgive the murderer: forgiveness is a matter of physical impossibility. From the Hebrew Scriptures, Joseph’s brothers came to the point of realizing that they had done wrong to attempt to murder Joseph and then to sell him as a slave (Genesis 42:21f.). They thought that their misfortunes were ‘a reckoning for his blood’ (verse 22). Implicit in their thinking is that they had forfeited the opportunity for Joseph to forgive them because they thought him to be dead.

Even when the victim does not forgive the wrongdoer (either from choice or because the victim has died), is self-forgiveness possible for the wrongdoer if the wrongdoer has repented, sought to put right what can be put right and sought the victim’s forgiveness? The wrongdoer will have done everything possible for restoration and forgiveness but the victim will have denied the wrongdoer forgiveness. The effect of the victim refusing to forgive the wrongdoer may be to lock the wrongdoer in the ‘victimhood’ of guilt and remorse. To do this may be an abuse of the wrongdoer, in the same way that the former wrongdoing had been an abuse of the victim. If the wrongdoer does self-forgive, the wrongdoer may be spared that ‘victimhood’.

Even so, there are logical difficulties to the idea that wrongdoers can give themselves gifts that others deny them. Two examples, one hypothetical and one actual, illustrate the problem.

The first (the hypothetical example) is where the wrongdoer repents but the victim refuses to engage with the fact that wrongdoing took place. Suppose Peter’s mother-in-law is unwell and needs an operation to replace her hip. She attended her local NHS hospital and her consultant surgeon told her that the waiting list for operations of that kind was so long that she would do better to have the operation at her own expense in a private hospital. The surgeon said that he himself could perform the operation the following week at a nearby private hospital. The surgeon knew that what he said about the length of the waiting list was not true: though Peter’s mother-in-law would have had to wait more than a week for the operation, it was likely that the surgery could have been performed at the NHS hospital within three to six months. The motive of the surgeon was to ensure that the number of patients waiting for surgery was as small as possible. He also took the view that those who could afford to pay for surgery privately ought to do so. In addition, he himself was short of money and the fee for the operation would have helped pay some urgent bills that had arisen on account of his profligate spending habits. Peter’s mother-in-law had successful surgery at the local private hospital and was delighted with the outcome of the operation.

Two years later, as a result of meeting a wandering Galilean religious teacher, the surgeon realized that he had been wrong to mislead Peter’s mother-in-law, and that he had profited from his lie (since he had performed the surgery privately). The surgeon decided to go to Peter’s mother-in-law to apologize and to ask for her forgiveness. He was even willing to repay the fee for the operation. When he spoke to Peter’s mother-in-law, she would have none of it. She said she was delighted with the outcome of the surgery and with her new-found mobility. She added that she shared the surgeon’s view that those who could pay for surgery should, and had decided some years ago to spend her money while still alive on her own comfort and pleasure and not leave it to her daughter, Mary, and son-in[1]law, Peter, both of whom were associating with a religious figure of whom she did not approve. When the surgeon asked for forgiveness, she shrugged her shoulders and told him to stop being so sensitive and foolish and to get on with his work as a surgeon. ‘What’s the issue?’ she asked. ‘Everybody’s doing what you did. I came to you to get better and now I am.’

What of the surgeon in this example? He knows that what he had done was deceitful and that he had profited from lying. He feels remorse and shame, and wants to put right the wrong he has done. He recognizes that personal integrity, one’s actions and one’s moral framework should cohere, and that his do not. As a result, his conscience is troubled because he knows that what he did was wrong. His plea for forgiveness expressed his repentance and that he knew he had compromised truth, honesty and trust. But Peter’s mother-in-law did not forgive the surgeon because in her view there was nothing to be forgiven. She cannot forgive the surgeon because in her view the surgeon’s actions were not wrong. The view the surgeon takes of his actions and the view of his actions held by Peter’s mother-in-law do not cohere.

In these circumstances, must the surgeon remain unforgiven, troubled by remorse and a guilty conscience? At this point, the poverty of Kolnai’s view (1973–4: 99) that it is ‘pointless’ to speak of forgiving a repentant wrongdoer because there is nothing to forgive is evident: it fails to take account of the (new-found) moral integrity of the wrongdoer and the anguish that being unforgiven can cause.

In my view, there is a place for self-forgiveness if a victim unreasonably denies forgiveness to a repentant wrongdoer. In effect, the surgeon should say to himself, ‘I have tried to put this matter right but could not. There is nothing more I can do. I shall now pay the fee I received to a charity, recommit myself to living in integrity, seek to put this behind me and move on.’

The attitude of Peter’s mother-in-law means that the roles of victim and wrongdoer have now become reversed. Peter’s mother-in-law’s action has, in effect, unjustifiably maintained the surgeon in the role of wrongdoer (so that he now becomes the victim) and her refusal to forgive the surgeon arising from her perverse view of his actions puts her in the role of wrongdoer. Her refusal to forgive also violates the surgeon, because it precludes the surgeon from having a restored relationship with her.

‘Self-forgiveness’ in these circumstances is different from forgiveness given by a victim. It lacks the moral richness of an unconditional gift. It is a pragmatic response, made as a last resort, by a person who has been violated by another’s refusal to forgive.

When it comes to ‘heinous wrongs’, might not considering self-forgiveness underestimate the depravity of the wrongs committed and deny the true horror of the evil? In seeking self-forgiveness, might the wrongdoer be demonstrating a pathological degree of rationalization and self-justification, of accommodation with evil, and a denial of personal responsibility? Many would say that self-forgiveness in a situation such as this is narcissistic, self-indulgent and sybaritic, typical of someone who does not feel the pain of authentic guilt and responsibility. Repentance does not entitle a person to mercy for wrongdoing: it is an expression of contrition that one has done wrong and it accepts the judgment ‘guilty’ for the wrongdoing. There is no acquittal except by the victim.

The case of Myra Hindley, our second example, illustrates the point. Hindley, together with Ian Brady, was convicted of the murder of two children in 1966 and of being an accessory to a third murder committed by Brady. Hindley was given a sentence of life imprisonment and was required to serve a minimum of twenty-five years (later extended to thirty years). The murders were regarded as particularly brutal and sadistic and caused enormous public revulsion at the time of the trial; the revulsion has not passed from public consciousness in the years following. In 1990, at the end of the twenty-five-year period, the then Home Secretary imposed on Hindley a ‘whole life’ tariff, meaning that she would be kept in prison for the whole of her life, without parole. Hindley appealed three times to the House of Lords for release from prison, arguing (as her parole boards had confirmed) that she was no longer a danger to the public and that she had acted under Brady’s influence.

Hindley wrote an article, published in the Guardian on 18 December 1995, that set out that she accepted responsibility for her part in the murders but that she was ‘repentant before Christ in the same way as Peter, after denying him three times, wept bitterly, repented and begged forgiveness’. She wrote of her ‘redemption’ both in a religious sense (implying that through faith she had been made a new person) and in a psychotherapeutic sense (that she understood the aetiology of her criminal behaviour). Hindley died in November 2002, shortly before another House of Lords’ ruling that would almost certainly have resulted in her release from prison.

Even if Hindley were a changed person who posed no threat to others and a person who had discovered the forgiveness of God (if not forgiveness of the parents of her victims), was it right for her to press vehemently and publicly for release? Is it not perhaps the case that true repentance means she would have accepted the justice of the sentence of life imprisonment for her crimes, rather than suggesting that because she was ‘redeemed’ and had atoned for her crimes she should be released? Does perhaps her insistence that she had acted under Brady’s influence also suggest that she accepted rather less than full personal responsibility for her actions? The question of extending mercy to her was not hers to pose; neither was it right for her to seek it. Mercy is the gift of those who had sentenced her and of successive government ministers to extend on behalf of the Crown. The fact that she sought that mercy perhaps indicates a degree of self-justification and self-interest that true repentance should exclude.

Not every wrongdoer whose wrongs are heinous is without hope if the victim does not forgive, provided that the wrongdoer truly acknowledges and recognizes the awfulness of the wrongdoing and its effects. Appropriate responses are repentance and contrition that are deep, thoroughgoing and rigorous. Such repentance acknowledges personal responsibility not only for the wrong done but also for the inner perversion that led to the wrong; the wrongdoer will strive to ensure enduring change. Not to repent because the wrongdoer is so overwhelmed by the depravity of the wrong may be a pathological response that may have the effect of reinforcing the victim’s suffering. It may, however, help the wrongdoer reach a point of rediscovering self-dignity and self-respect (if not the peace of forgiveness).

  • The victim forgives but the wrongdoer does not repent: Self-forgiveness in these circumstances is impossible because the wrongdoer has not made a moral response to the wrongdoing. It is morally absurd (as well as an oxymoron) to seek to self-forgive without repenting. To attempt to self-forgive in such circumstances is a perversion of moral integrity, for the wrongdoer accepts the victim’s forgiveness without acknowledging responsibility for having done wrong and without contrition or moral change. Those who do ‘self-forgive’ if they have not repented engage in an act of enormous selfishness and egotism that, at the expense of moral integrity, seeks to assuage a troubled conscience, denies responsibility, or indicates a person with a conscience that is pathologically self-absorbed and narcissistic. In such a situation, the victim will often suffer further violation that reinforces the hurt of the original act of wrongdoing. From the victim’s point of view, it perpetuates the abuse of the original wrongdoing.
  • The victim does not forgive and the wrongdoer does not repent: ‘Self-forgiveness’ in these circumstances is equally perverse and also impossible because the wrongdoer has not engaged morally with the wrongdoing. A wrongdoer who apparently self-forgives but does not repent denies, on the one hand, that wrong has been done but implicitly acknowledges the opposite, on the other. ‘Self-forgiveness’ here is marginally less pathological than in the previous example, because the wrongdoer does not accept the victim’s forgiveness, the necessity for which the wrongdoer denies.

Wrongdoing and Phycology

It is important to recognize (as I seek to do in this book) that wrongdoing – a morally wrong act or omission – is not only a question for moral philosophy. There is also a very important psychological aspect to wrongdoing, from the point of view of both the wrongdoer and the victim. One can go further and say that what makes wrongdoing and forgiveness such an important issue is that not only are they important topics of moral philosophy but also they are topics that affect people personally and emotionally. Reflection on these topics in the past has been principally either philosophical or psychological: in this book, I hope to combine the two and let each approach and inform the other.

Many people experience powerful emotions after being wronged and these emotions make forgiveness a protracted and difficult process. Whether people come from faith traditions (Christian or otherwise) or no faith traditions, it seems to be a universal experience that it can sometimes be difficult to forgive others. The Reverend Julie Nicholson, an Anglican priest whose daughter was killed in a bomb attack in London on 7 July 2005, resigned her post as vicar in March 2006 because she was unable to forgive the bombers who took her daughter’s life. Nicholson said: ‘It’s very difficult to stand behind an altar and celebrate the Eucharist, the Communion, and lead people in words of peace and reconciliation and forgiveness when I feel very far from that myself.’ Forgiveness can sometimes be very hard, and for some – whether religious or not – simply impossible.

Forgiveness is, as I have said, a moral response to wrongdoing, and how (and whether) people respond to wrongdoing is in part conditioned by their psychological health. Richards (1988: 93f.) puts it this way: ‘. . . hard feelings toward those who mistreat us are not only natural but are called for, as expressions of aversion to the mistreatment’. But what of those who do not so react – or who remain trapped in such a reaction and cannot move on? An already under-confident person is unlikely to confront a wrongdoer. Suffering wrongdoing can be an emotionally degrading experience. Victims may consider that their status as human beings of worth, dignity and integrity has been impugned and that they have been treated as the plaything of the wrongdoer, to be used and abused at the whim of the wrongdoer. Victims abused in this way often find that their self-respect is undermined. As a result, they may blame themselves for the wrongdoing, be unable to confront the wrongdoer or deny that the wrongdoer’s act is wrong at all. Others will rage about the wrong they have suffered, sometimes many years after the event and long after the rage can apparently serve any useful purpose.

Hampton, in Murphy and Hampton 1988: 43–53, did combine psychological and philosophical insights. She distinguished ‘demeaning acts’ – acts that are insulting and express the wrongdoer’s lack of respect but which do not undermine a person’s sense of self-esteem and self-worth – from the more serious ‘diminishing acts’, which are acts that leave a person feeling degraded or devalued. In some cases, ‘diminishing acts’ may be so severe in their effects that the victim needs psychological therapy in order to recover.

The value of Hampton’s approach is that it highlights the fact that an important element of forgiveness is how the victim perceives the wrongdoing. It is self-evident that not all people will react identically to the same wrong. Some may be mildly irritated, irked, even annoyed; others may feel victimized, violated and abused. Others may blame themselves or feel guilty. A number may respond with phlegmatic detachment, barely concerned about what has been done to them; others may become resentful, angry, vengeful or self-pitying. Loss of confidence and self-respect may ensue; so may anxiety and depression. Some apparently quickly forgive, but the ‘forgiveness’ is no more than a form of passivity.

According to Hampton, what matters is the robustness of the victim’s self-esteem rather than the nature of the act performed, and one person may be deeply ‘diminished’ by an act that another might pass off and barely notice. What is also important to note is that it does not follow that the greater the moral wrong, the harder it will be to forgive: the true issue here is not so much the act itself but how the victim perceives the act. (Not surprisingly, therefore, in such an analysis and as we have said above, acts that the ‘victim’ does not regard as morally wrong or of which the ‘victim’ is unaware are not forgivable because there is nothing to forgive.)

We have looked at wrongdoing from the point of the psychology of the victim. We turn now to wrongdoing from the point of view of the psychology of the wrongdoer.

Wrongdoers may do wrong in part due to their own psychological needs. For example, moral wrongs may take the form of an abuse of power, an expression of disdain or an act of calculated contempt or disrespect, the purpose of which is to disparage, humiliate, violate or degrade the victim. Sometimes wrongdoing discloses the egotism of the wrongdoer: the wrongdoer is so self-absorbed as not to care about the victim and the effect of the wrong on the victim. In the thought of Levinas, ´ wrongdoing is (among other things) an exaggerated and distorted expression of one’s own freedom as a human being at the expense of the victim’s freedom. The victim is thereby subordinated to the willful and abusive power of the wrongdoer and so is regarded as less than fully ‘other’ as a human being. People have responsibilities towards one another because they exist in a matrix of social relationships, and to wrong another is to disorder the matrix and to fail properly to exercise the responsibility that freedom brings. Sometimes, without psychological help, wrongdoers of this sort are unlikely to be able to recognize that their behavior is morally wrong and that it is in part driven by morbid psychological desires.

Wrongdoers may respond in a variety of ways to their acts of wrongdoing. These responses may be outright denial that the events took place, that the victims suffered or that they were responsible. ‘Reinterpretation’ may also take place: this occurs when a wrongdoer distorts and diminishes the effect or significance of the wrong. Sometimes also, of course, a wrongdoer may repent, apologize and ask for forgiveness.

There are times when wrongdoers consider that the wrongs they have committed are so heinous that they ‘should’ not be forgiven. Perhaps this was the view of the prodigal when he came to realize his folly (Luke 15:11– 32). Even so, the question whether a wrongdoer ‘should’ be forgiven is not for the wrongdoer to decide. Forgiveness is a gift from the victim to the wrongdoer: it can be sought or begged for, but it is the gift of the victim alone.

A relatively under-explored question is the effect of forgiveness on the wrongdoer. When a victim forgives a wrongdoer, the victim, in effect, gives the wrongdoer a ‘new start’. Hampton in Murphy and Hampton 1988: 86f. correctly identified two of the benefits of forgiveness for the wrongdoer – benefits she described as ‘perhaps the greatest good forgiveness can bring’: the first is that the wrongdoer will be ‘liberated’ from the victim’s ‘moral hatred’, and the second is that forgiveness may save the wrongdoer from ‘the hell of self-loathing’.

Some wrongdoers, even after they have been forgiven, may continue in the ‘hell of self-loathing’, and may continue in this state for neurotic reasons, punishing themselves for the wrong they have done out of a sense of continuing guilt. They will be trapped in the ‘victimhood’ – to borrow and adapt Tutu’s phrase for a different context – of shame, guilt and remorse for their own wrongdoing, even though the victim, by having let go of vindictive and other unforgiving feelings, will have released the wrongdoer from the victim’s ‘moral hatred’. Alternatively, a wrongdoer may accept forgiveness from the victim, and live as a forgiven person, letting go of guilt and remorse. Without this self-forgiveness, there cannot be a restored relationship and reconciliation. Just as the victim (usually) does not choose to be violated and has had to learn to overcome the violation, so the wrongdoer will have to cooperate with and participate in the gift of forgiveness that is given. To do so may be a further expression of repentance and contrition, and a way to demonstrate renewed respect for the former victim.

The Next Step

We have now completed the exploration of what it means to do wrong and to be a wrongdoer. Before we can explore in detail what it means to forgive a wrongdoer and the wrong a wrongdoer has done, we will trace how thinking about forgiveness has been shaped and developed in the last two millennia

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