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Accepting Forgiveness


Forgiving wrongdoers who neither apologized, nor sought to make amends in any way, is controversial. Even defenders of the practice agree with critics that such “unilateral” forgiveness involves giving up on the meaningful redress that victims otherwise justifiably demand from their wrongdoers: apology, reparations, repentance, and so on. Against that view, I argue here that when a victim of wrongdoing sets out to grant forgiveness to her offender, and he in turn accepts her forgiveness, he thereby serves some important ends of apology and reparation, no matter what else he did—or did not do—by way of repair. Although much overlooked, the simple act of accepting forgiveness joins victim and offender in affirming and acting upon some important shared background assumptions, including many of those expressed in standard apologies. Perhaps more surprisingly, I argue that accepting forgiveness also fulfills the duty to counteract any concrete harm wrongfully inflicted. The argument helps explain some otherwise puzzling features of forgiveness, including that a victim can change her offender’s normative status, making him a less fitting target of the resentment, indignation and shunning of others, and even his own guilt pangs, simply by forgiving him.

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  1. 1.

    See, for example, Garrard and McNaughton (2003) and Fricker (forthcoming), the latter coining “gifted forgiveness” as provided without demands for remorse and the like otherwise required as conditions for forgiveness; the “gifted” variety is offered, in Fricker’s words, “for free” (2).

  2. 2.

    Norlock (2009a, b), for example, points out that there are multiple forms of forgiveness, contrasting in particular a psychological form from that of a social performative utterance which, I am emphasizing, involves acceptance (107).

  3. 3.

    Warmke (2016) uses the phrase “normative significance” to refer primarily to the impact forgiveness has on the “norms of interaction” between victim and offender, whereas here I focus, instead, on the normatively valenced reactive attitudes—indignation, criticism, blame, guilt—that forgiveness may render less or no longer reasonable.

  4. 4.

    Owens (2012: 51–59) characterizes this normative impact more strongly, suggesting that when a victim forgives her offender, his guilt feelings and (anyone else’s) resentment are inapt altogether. For present purposes, suffice it that being forgiven makes it appropriate to feel less guilty or for others to be less indignant or resentful than before. See, infra, Part III. In contrast, Bennett (2018) argues for a more modest interpretation of what he calls the “alteration thesis,” arguing that forgiveness merely changes the way victim and offender ought to treat each other, without necessarily grounding a change in the appropriate reactive attitudes of guilt or blame.

  5. 5.

    For the canonical example, see Hohfeld (1964: 38).

  6. 6.

    As I indicated, committing not to act against one’s wrongdoer is merely a necessary element of the commitment forgiveness expresses. But it is compatible with a range of other things “I forgive you” could also express, as well. For example, Allais (2008: 33, 56–57) identifies forgiveness in general (not just the utterance “I forgive you”) with ceasing to hold the wrongdoing against the wrongdoer, in the sense of maintaining attitudes that lower his esteem and regard in one’s eyes. Bennett (2018: 208) argues that granting forgiveness involves “undertaking…no longer to treat the wrongdoer as under those obligations” he otherwise has to redress the wrongdoing, such as by apologizing and compensating for wrongful harm or damage. My contention is that if “I forgive you” and the like expresses either of those two stances, then it also expresses a commitment not to take adverse action of any kind toward the wrongdoer for what he did. For other accounts of forgiveness, that proposal follows more directly: Cornell (2017: 245), for example, identifies the commitment expressed in forgiveness as “giving up some form of holding the other person accountable,” while Pettigrove (2004: 385) sees it as forswearing retaliation and hostile reactive attitudes toward the wrongdoer and committing to his wellbeing.

  7. 7.

    To re-emphasize, I mean this element only as one necessary component of committing one’s forgiveness to another. I am leaving out, for example, commitments that explicitly involve emotions, or an attempt to try to change emotionally, as in Griswold (2007).

  8. 8.

    It is perhaps for this reason that McKenna and Warmke refer to forgiveness of this type as “directed forgiveness,” in the sense of being directed to the wrongdoer, as when we make a commitment or a promise to another, and in contrast to what they call “private forgiveness.” McKenna and Warmke (2013: 198–199).

  9. 9.

    Here it is important to distinguish a victim’s withdrawal of claims from what Pettigrove (2004: 380–381) calls the “financial model” of forgiveness, under which the forgiver does not merely relinquish her own claims but declaratively makes it the case that the offender’s reparatory debts dissolve. Other versions of this model hold that some, but not all, of those debts can be removed by forgiveness; for example, a law may require that concrete redress be provided by all who wrongfully impose a loss, regardless of the victim’s point of view, and a victim cannot remove this legal debt by forgiving the wrongdoer (Warmke 2014: 3). In light of these possibilities, I want to allow that a victim’s withdrawal of claims to redress might, in principle, leave in place at least some reasons to pursue such redress after all (though the victim’s act may, even them, have the normative impact of blocking or “estopping” the offender from actually pursuing them).

  10. 10.

    It may be wondered, though, whether accepting forgiveness can have the normative power I aim to uncover in it, previewed above, if giving forgiveness itself already has the normative power to release the offender from certain obligations. What, then, is left for acceptance to do, by way of changing the normative situation? I answer this question in Section IIIb, infra, where I discuss the broader normative implications of accepting forgiveness, and the difference between (merely) ceasing to have an obligation—such as the duty to apologize—and becoming normatively akin to one who has already fulfilled it.

  11. 11.

    To be clear, I am not suggesting that these are the only elements expressed in “I forgive you” and its cognates; I maintain, rather, that they are necessary.

  12. 12.

    I understand B’s holding A to a commitment rather broadly, to include B’s simply having a reasonable objection or complaint if A fails to live up, even if B has no outright claim to A’s fulfillment or, put differently, A does not owe fulfillment to B.

  13. 13.

    See supra, Part I:A, arguing that a victim of wrongdoing may, all else equal, act against her offender in some ways (blaming, shunning, distancing, rebuking, perhaps in some cases punishing), and that in verbally granting him forgiveness she “forgoes” her right to behave in these retaliatory ways.

  14. 14.

    This duty is sometimes equated with Aristotle’s idea of “corrective justice.” Aristotle (2014: 85–86). As I argue elsewhere, that equation is mistaken: Aristotle’s conception is of an unfair distribution of certain benefits and burdens, after a wrongdoing, that could be rectified by having the offender compensate the victim. But as we will see, the duty of reparation need not involve compensation or any concrete step. In fact, as Radzik (2014) argues, genuine reparation, and moral repair generally, can be stymied or prevented by a judge forcing compensation.

  15. 15.

    For versions of this account, see also Hampton and Murphy (1988), Hieronymi (2001) and Roadevin (2017), though as we will see, Roadevin’s version differs in an important way from the standard insult account.

  16. 16.

    Of course, as I pointed out at the outset, apologies affirm more than this. See, for example, Roadevin (2017: 17961–17997).

  17. 17.

    Of course, the argument here about the remedial function of accepting forgiveness assumes that wrongdoers should, all else equal, counteract their misdeeds by apologizing. This assumption, however, has been challenged in the literature, notably by Hallich (2016). Hallich argues that apologies are not only ineffective but distinctly inappropriate, in that they solicit an end to the victim’s resentment even as, paradoxically, the sincere apologizer views that resentment as warranted (Hallich 2016: 1008–1009, 1020). The same could be said of accepting forgiveness if, with Hallich, forgiveness is seen as an end to resentment (and apology as seeking forgiveness as such): on that understanding, the repentant wrongdoer should perhaps reject forgiveness. The present account, however, differs from Hallich’s in, among other things, viewing the act of granting forgiveness as altogether distinct from ending resentment.

  18. 18.

    It might even be thought that a fully repentant wrongdoer takes this stance as a rule, “turn [ing] away in shame” from his victim (Hallich 2016: 1009).

  19. 19.

    While Griswold, too, references the Jean Valjean case, he argues that it is not quite forgiveness, inasmuch as the offender did nothing to qualify for it yet; Griswold instead sees it as offered on the expectation or “hunch” that Valjean would repent as a result (Griswold 2007: 121 n.5).

  20. 20.

    At the very least, it has been argued, wrongdoing by itself communicates a subordinating insult along those lines, putting the victim down as one beneath the ordinary requirements of morality (Hampton and Murphy 1988: 28). The insult arguably stands in need of retraction or repudiation before its author could be justifiably let off the hook. I should note that most of these criticisms extend even to private forms of forgiveness—the kind that is not given in a single act—such as forswearing or resolving to overcome resentment of an unrepentant wrongdoer (even in his absence). I do not address that aspect of the objection here.

  21. 21.

    Although not everyone takes quite this strong a view of the normative changes forgiveness makes – see, for example, Bennett (2018: 11)—I will adopt this reading here inasmuch as what I offer, by way of accounting for it, likewise accounts for a less transformative understanding of the normative impact of forgiveness, especially when paired with the commissive understanding already discussed in Part IA, supra.

  22. 22.

    As Norlock (2009b) shows, however, this partition is somewhat artificial and idealized: third parties can resent a wrongdoer on the victim’s behalf (even without thinking themselves wronged). In that case, the same question arises: why should a victim’s own act of forgiveness mitigate their resentment, when its object is the wrongdoing and the offender, not the victim’s attitude about either?

  23. 23.

    That is, unless observers feel them vicariously or on the victim’s behalf because of whom she is to the observer (a good friend, say). See Priest (2016).

  24. 24.

    See supra, Part I:B and I:C: 10–12, and Warmke (2016: 697–699).

  25. 25.

    Maimonides would seem to be challenging this thesis, however, in his admonishment that a wrongdoer should automatically leave the victim alone once he has asked for forgiveness a certain number of times (Maimonides 1983: 113). But his point can just as plausibly be understood as simply directing wrongdoers not to harass a victim for her forgiveness, even if—in leaving her in peace without having obtained her forgiveness—they remain delinquent, or their reparatory obligations remain problematically unfulfilled.


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For helpful feedback I owe thanks to Aaron James, Margaret Gilbert, Seana Shiffrin, Michael Cholbi, Nico Cornell, Carl Cranor, Esther Friedman, Barbara Herman, Rob Hughes, Sari Kisilevsky, Herb Morris, Steve Munzer, Chris Naticchia, Amy Sepinwall, and audiences at the University of Southern California (especially Scott Altman, Greg Keating, Nomi Stolzenberg and Gary Watson) and the University of Pennsylvania Zicklin Center, and two anonymous referees for this journal.

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Correspondence to Jeffrey S. Helmreich.

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Helmreich, J.S. Accepting Forgiveness. J Ethics (2020).

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  • Forgiveness
  • Apology
  • Reparations
  • Redress
  • Speech Acts
  • Reconciliation