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In defense of genuine un-forgiving

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Despite much philosophical attention on forgiveness itself, the phenomenon of un-forgiving is relatively neglected. Some views of forgiveness commit us to denying that we can ever permissibly un-forgive. Some go so far as to say the concept of un-forgiving is incomprehensible—it is the nature of forgiveness to be permanent. Yet many apparent cases of un-forgiving strike us as both real and justified. In what follows, I will address the latter view, that genuine un-forgiving is impossible or incomprehensible as a phenomenon, advanced by a character I will call the “Un-Forgiving Denier.” I address two views which purport to describe candidate un-forgiving cases in alternative ways and deny that any candidate un-forgiving cases are truly cases of un-forgiving: the “epistemic invalidation” and “new forgiveness opportunity” views. In creating problems for those views, I hope to defend the possibility of genuine un-forgiving. Even if it’s possible to respond to the “Un-Forgiving Denier,” a defender of genuine un-forgiving still faces the “Un-Forgiving Critic,” who insists that un-forgiving, while possible, is morally indefensible. Against this view, I argue that un-forgiving enables an ideal of forgiveness wherein victims hold wrongdoers accountable for their moral development and allows certain opportunities for relational repair. I conclude that there is good reason to think un-forgiving is both possible and permissible. Embracing genuine un-forgiving puts constraints on how we should theorize about forgiveness itself and gives us an additional tool for understanding and navigating our relationships.

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  1. Exceptions include Wonderly (2021a, 2021b), Scarre (2015), and Bash (2007, 2015). Warmke (2014) very briefly discusses un-forgiving on 585.

  2. Scarre (2015) offers such a view.

  3. Scarre (2015) Scarre also uses the language of “withdrawing” forgiveness in epistemic invalidation cases, which I will avoid for the sake of clarity.

  4. Scarre (2015), 933.

  5. Owens (2012), 53; footnote 13.

  6. Kolnai (1974), Lang (1994), Murphy and Hampton (1988), Novitz (1998), Richards (1988), Swinburne (1989), Wilson (1988), and Milam (2019) argue for wrongdoer-dependent conditions on forgiveness. Hieronymi (2001), Novitz (1998), Holmgren (1993), and others have pointed out that there may be victim-dependent conditions on forgiveness as well. I remain neutral on both wrongdoer- and victim-dependent conditionalism.

  7. Hughes and Warmke (2017).

  8. Milam (2019, 247).

  9. Milam (2019, 247–248).

  10. Milam (2019, 243).

  11. Milam (2019, 246). See also Brunning and Milam (2022).

  12. Milam briefly discusses the possibility of “reversing” or “withdrawing” forgiveness but seems to have something more like epistemic invalidation in mind; see page 603 and footnote 18 in Milam (2022). If he indeed endorses the weaker view I’ve identified here, he can also allow for cases of genuine un-forgiving. Thank you to an anonymous reviewer for Philosophical Studies for encouraging me to clarify this and pointing me to this passage.

  13. Scarre (2015, 933).

  14. Scarre (2015, 932, footnote 1).

  15. Griswold (2007) sometimes wavers between the normative claim (that forgiveness offered for the wrong wrongdoer-dependent reasons lacks a positive moral status) and the descriptive, constitutive claim (that such forgiveness is not forgiveness at all). He writes that “forgiveness has not been given or received simply because one believes or feels that it has been […] regardless of the level of subjective conviction” (xv). In other words, we are sometimes mistaken about whether we have given or received forgiveness.

  16. This includes cases where the victim more carefully considers the wrong, realizing that he offered forgiveness too hastily. Scarre (2015) offers a case in which Miles forgives Jules’s cruel practical joke, convinced in the moment that she intended nothing malicious. But upon more careful and cool-headed consideration, he reconsiders the “joke” and determines Jules was never worthy of forgiveness—her behavior was simply cruel (240). This is a case of epistemic invalidation because Miles’s more thorough deliberations allowed him to understand the wrong more clearly and therefore realize that his assessment of Jules’s attitudes, beliefs, and so on was mistaken. So, re-offense is not the only way to get better evidence about a wrongdoer’s worthiness at time1.

  17. Later I will discuss the view that says forgiveness of the “unworthy” is not impossible but is always impermissible.

  18. Deception shares many features with the case of James and Peter in Scarre (2015, 931–932). It is also similar to Wonderly’s Jane and Mabel case (Wonderly 2021a, 7). Wonderly thinks Deception-type cases, in which “one forgives while operating under certain false assumptions about—or, again, an incomplete understanding of—the relevant wrongdoing,” may be cases of genuine un-forgiving, though this epistemic condition is neither necessary nor sufficient for genuine un-forgiving (6). Contra Wonderly, I think it is plausible that we should reserve a distinction between Deception-type cases, in which forgiveness is plausibly invalidated, and genuine un-forgiving cases. Because Hannah seems to have exhibited an apparent (though not actual) change of heart at the time of forgiving in this case, theorists who think an apparent change of heart is what makes a wrongdoer forgivable may concur with Wonderly’s assessment of the case.

  19. Of course, most theorists do reject 1. It is much more common to argue that wrongdoer-dependent conditions affect the moral status of forgiveness rather than its conceptual coherence. Furthermore, others reject any wrongdoer-dependent conditions for the moral status of forgiveness, arguing instead of “unconditional forgiveness”; see Garrard and McNaughton (2003).

  20. We might wonder if this is a case in which Hannah is incapable of controlling her anger due to, for instance, a behavioral disorder. If this is so, excusing her rather than forgiving her might be the appropriate response. Furthermore, un-forgiving her might be inappropriate insofar as she lacks the control required to keep up her promise. I am leaving aside difficult questions about the degree or kind of control required for responsibility here, but readers should assume for the sake of clarity that this is a case in which Hannah has the sort of control required to be an appropriate target of forgiveness. Thank you to Danielle Guzman and Michael McKenna for help in thinking through the nuances of this sort of case.

  21. Scarre (2015, 933).

  22. Jones (2007); see Westlund (2009, 519–520).

  23. Jones (2007, 271–272).

  24. Jones (2007, 270, 273).

  25. Scarre (2015, 938).

  26. Westlund (2009, 521). As such, Westlund’s view of forgiveness involves the restoration of goodwill in the wrongdoer which sometimes requires a “leap of faith.” Aurel Kolnai (1974) has also pointed out that we often forgive before a wrongdoer has “undergone an obvious and credible change of heart.” According to him, one of the most important considerations for a victim is whether the wrongdoer “is engaged in an ‘upward’ movement or struggle or is on the contrary gliding down the slope” (100).

  27. Wonderly (2021a, 2021b, 10).

  28. Scarre (2015, 938).

  29. Scarre (2015, 942).

  30. Thanks much to Hannah Tierney for suggesting this dilemma on behalf of the Denier.

  31. See Wonderly’s case of Jane and Mabel on page 7–8 of Wonderly (2021a, 2021b). (Nor, she argues, is it plausible to argue that the victim fails to un-forgive because she resents the wrongdoer for the same act under a different description, what Scarre calls “the wrong different contextualized.”).

  32. This is so whether such a revival reflects a moral failing or not; recall that we are still concerned only with the possibility of un-forgiving, not its permissibility.

  33. See Murphy and Hampton (1988).

  34. Richards (1988). Murphy (2003, 59). See Bell (2008) for a defense of forgiveness as overcoming contempt and not merely resentment.

  35. This is not to be confused with forgiving as the foreswearing of negative emotions, sometimes invoked as part of the “standard view,” which involves a normative claim.

  36. Thank you to Michael McKenna for pointing out the significance of these asymmetric offenses.

  37. See Kolnai (1974), Westlund (2009), Dillon (2001), Stump (2018), and Garrard and McNaughton (2003, 2010).

  38. There may be other plausible alternative explanations for candidate un-forgiving cases. For instance, we might think these cases involve forgiving a person rather than a particular act, a distinction that might bear on either the possibility or permissibility of un-forgiving. (Thanks to Maggie Shea for this suggestion.) For the sake of space, I do not entertain all possible alternative explanations here.

  39. See Warmke (2016) for an articulation of this view. See Bennett (2018, 226–227) for a brief reply to the suggestion that a view on which forgiveness alters the normative landscape cannot accommodate un-forgiving. See also Wonderly (2021a, 2021b, 13), which I discuss in Sect. 2.2.

  40. I discuss one ideal of forgiveness made possible by un-forgiving here, but I do not mean to suggest that this is the only form of un-forgiving with a positive moral status. I do not discuss, for instance, whether we can permissibly un-forgive for reasons other than a wrongdoer re-offending in a similar way. Nor do I discuss the moral status of forms of un-forgiving that result from changes in the victim. There may be cases in which victims undergo transformations that alter their relationship to the previously-forgiven wrong, and some such cases may be good candidates for permissible un-forgiving. Thanks to Lel Jones and Hannah Tierney for raising this sort of case.

  41. Westlund (2009, 523).

  42. By “with conditions,” I do not mean to invoke the kind of wrongdoer-dependent conditionalism mentioned in Sect. 1.1; I just mean a commonsense understanding of conditions: “You’re forgiven if/as long as you never do it again.”.

  43. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to discuss this, and to Andrew Lichter for conversations about this distinction.

  44. To carry the analogy further, some marriages end in divorce. But (holding aside, perhaps, sacramental marriage) we don’t think the possibility of divorce undermines the legitimacy of the altered norms during the period of marriage.

  45. See related remarks in Sect. 2.2 about the distinctive moral and narrative contours of cases in which a victim un-forgives, and cases in which a victim simply declines to forgive for a new offense.

  46. The following is summarized from a New Yorker article entitled “A Daughter’s Quest to Free Her Father’s Killer” (Orbey 2022).

  47. Orbey (2022).

  48. Orbey (2022). I have presented a simplified version of this case here, leaving out details that may complicate the moral status of Kitchen’s actual forgiveness. For instance, there seems to be lingering uncertainty about whether White himself killed Kitchen’s father or merely accompanied the killer. Also, Orbey sometimes casts the willingness of Kitchen (who is white) to forgive as related to a broader (perhaps racialized) condescension toward White (who is Black) (“In her narrative, the murder was a terrible accident, and White, because of systemic injustices, had been as much a victim as her father”; Kitchen herself concedes that this might be “disrespectful”). I believe what I have said about the case, or cases like it, holds true nonetheless. Thanks to Andrew Lichter for sharing and discussing this case with me.

  49. See Basu (2023) for an interesting discussion of the ethics of expectations. She points out that expectations can play a role in shaping or influencing our behavior, and rightly claims that such influencing (when it conflicts with our own self-understanding) can be deeply harmful. I am interested in cases in which the “expecter” and “expectee” share a vision for how the “expectee” ought to change. See also Breakey (2022), Martin (2010, 542–546), Horgan and Timmons (2023), and Mellema (1998, 2004) on the normativity of expectations.

  50. Scarre (2015, 943).

  51. Novitz (1998, 301).

  52. Murphy and Hampton (1988, 18). See also Swinburne (1989).

  53. Maclachlan (2009), Westlund (2009).

  54. Of course, many valuable forms of forgiveness can be offered unilaterally and without any ongoing relationship with the wrongdoer—including the “fideistic forgiveness” that I take my inspiration from here. In Westlund’s leading case, the parents of a murdered child forgive the perpetrator on faith without meeting or speaking with him (2009, 507). While such cases do not count as cases of faithful forgiveness on my account, they are still admirable instances of forgiveness. Thank you to Andrea Westlund for encouraging me to clarify this.

  55. Scarre (2015, 936).

  56. Martin (2010, 547 (my italics)).

  57. Beglin (2021, 260 (my italics)). Here, Beglin uses “unconditional” to refer to a kind of forgiveness that places no constraints on a wrongdoer’s features at the time of forgiveness. I am suggesting that similar worries apply to forgiveness that places no constraints on a wrongdoer’s future features or behavior.

  58. Thanks to Monique Wonderly for suggesting the possibility of unconditional forgiveness being condescending to wrongdoers, and to Andrew Lichter for many helpful discussions of “participant respect,” a term I borrow from him here. See Satne (2016, 1046–1047) for discussion of a closely related idea in Kant.

  59. See Scarre (2015, 934–937).

  60. On some understandings of forgiveness, forgiveness is a matter of what happens in your heart (not what is articulated to the wrongdoer); if un-forgiving can operate in the same way, biting your tongue may not be able to prevent it. See Warmke and McKenna on “private forgiveness” (2013, 198).

  61. Thanks to Max Kramer for pressing me on this.

  62. Driver (2015).

  63. See Murphy and Hampton (1988), Novitz (1998), Hieronymi (2001). See Dillon (2001) on the role of self-respect in forgiving oneself.

  64. But see Garrard and McNaughton (2010) for a defense of the idea that unconditional forgiveness is consistent with self-respect.

  65. Wonderly (2021a, 2021b, 13 (my italics)).

  66. I am very grateful to Hannah Tierney for pressing me on this, and for her clear articulation of the reasons for this objection.

  67. It is also worth flagging that some accounts of forgiveness prohibit us from protesting a previously-forgiven wrong in this way. See Couto (2022) for discussion and criticism of this feature of some accounts.

  68. Thanks to Andrew Lichter for pointing out that the redundancy of moral practices is not itself a reason to reject one.


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I am extremely grateful to Michael McKenna, Monique Wonderly, Andrea Westlund, Travis Quigley, and Andrew Lichter for their feedback and discussion about versions of this paper. I am also grateful for a wonderful audience at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress in August 2022, where I presented a version of it. Thanks especially to Hannah Tierney for her excellent comments and feedback. Members of the University of Arizona Writing Support Group helped me think through many of the ideas here; thanks to Robert Lazo for organizing this group. Thanks to Danielle Guzman for helpful conversations about forgiving and un-forgiving that aided my thinking on the topic, and to two anonymous reviewers of Philosophical Studies for their constructive comments.


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Sicilia, AB. In defense of genuine un-forgiving. Philos Stud 181, 1167–1190 (2024).

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