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The trauma of evil and the traumatological conception of forgiveness


In recent years there has been widespread interest in assimilating forgiveness into a rational conception of the moral life. This project usually construes forgiveness as a way of “moving past” evil and resuming the moral narrative it disrupted. But to develop a philosophical sound conception of forgiveness, we must recognize that moral evil is world-shattering and cannot be assimilated into the moral narrative of our lives. It is not an event that happens in one’s world but to one’s world. In this respect it is similar to death as Heidegger has described it. But, contrary to what Heidegger implies, evil is more traumatic than death because, unlike the latter, it shatters moral reasoning and moral narrative. Evil is a monstrosity; it traumatizes historical existence by impossibilizing the future. A philosophical account of forgiveness must therefore be traumatological: recognizing the traumatizing impact that evil has on historicity, it has provide us a heuristic that will help us to imagine the unimaginable possibility of transforming historical horror into good.

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  1. See, for example, Karen (2001) which approaches forgiveness from a psychological point of view; Digeser (2001), which eschews the psychological and focuses entirely on the political point of view; and Minow (1998), which discusses the relevance of forgiveness to a variety of late twentieth century traumas.

    There is also an emerging body of philosophical literature on forgiveness in the continental tradition, some of which I draw upon in what follows; but, generally speaking, it is less clearly distinguished from religious thinking than works of the sort listed above. There is also a spate of new work on forgiveness in Christian theology, some of which is related to an attempt to develop a concept of redemption and atonement that is consonant with the heuristic of liberation and Rene Girard’s critique of traditional theologies. See, for example, Trelstad (2006).

  2. Kolnai’s (1978) provocative and still helpful essay on forgiveness (included in Ethics, value, and reality) encouraged philosophers operating in a non-religious context to grapple with it. Some of those who have done so are: Murphy and Hampton (1988), Haber (1991), and Govier (2002). I have found Govier’s study especially clear and illuminating.

  3. The same normalizing logic that is operative in much therapeutic thought and therapeutic practice is also operative in Thomas Kuhn’s conception of scientific revolution and in much of the discussion of “paradigm shifts” that Kuhn’s work precipitated. According to Kuhn’s account, the development of new paradigm makes it possible for human thought and practice to revert to the same kind of normalcy that reigned prior to the deconstruction of the previous paradigm by “anomalies” which could not be assimilated into it.

  4. See Derrida (2001a, p. 32). See also Derrida (2001b).

  5. Caputo (2002, p. 120) emphasizes this in “The Time of Giving, the Time of Forgiving,” in The Enigma of Gift and Sacrifice. But Caputo does not take into account what I will point out below: the person as such can be distinguished from the evil-doer he has become insofar as no person is ever reducible to his choices or entirely identifiable with either his past or his present.

  6. See Govier (2002, p. 57), italics in the original.

  7. Govier (2002, pp. 62–77).

  8. Govier, for example, frequently emphasizes that evil can cause the victim great anguish but she does not recognizes the “world-shattering” character of evil which I will be exploring in Part Two of this essay and hence does not acknowledge that it has the capacity to impossibilize the future.

  9. Derrida (2001a, p. 32).

  10. See Heidegger (1962, pp. H250–H256).

  11. Derrida (1976, p. 183).

  12. Caputo (2002, p. 131).

  13. See Kant (1991).

  14. See, for example, Marion (2002, p. 5).

  15. The avenger demands justice because justice will enable her to make the violator suffer; the retributivist, on the other hand, requires the violator to suffer because justice demands it.

  16. The Levinasian/Derridean conviction that one cannot answer the call to responsibility issued by one Other without neglecting the calls issued by other Others, and so without betraying one’s moral responsibility, flies in the face of the principle that “ought implies can.” This conviction implies that finitude renders us morally irresponsible and is intrinsically incompatible with moral order. There is, I would argue, underlying this view, a profound hubris that is not unrelated to Greek tragedy: a desire to be able to do what only an infinite Thou would be able to do.

  17. It seems apt to add “like a tumor” but employing this culturally approved metaphor would, of course, undermine the very argument which I am making—that evil differs profoundly from the possibility of nothingness. We are inclined to use this metaphor because, in our culture, the tumor is the paradigmatic harbinger of death, and death is considered the paradigm of all traumatizing experiences.

  18. Royce (1968) argues that this is the crucial issue to which religion has to respond. See The Problem of Christianity.

  19. Aristotle (p. 1165b).

  20. Ellison (1995, p. 129).

  21. I develop a theological treatment of forgiveness and others issues addressed here in Miller (2009).


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Correspondence to Jerome A. Miller.

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Miller, J.A. The trauma of evil and the traumatological conception of forgiveness. Cont Philos Rev 42, 401–419 (2009).

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