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Kantian Forgiveness: Fallibility, Guilt and the need to become a Better Person: Reply to Blöser


In ‘Human Fallibility and the Need for Forgiveness’, Claudia Blöser (Philosophia 47:1-19, 2019) has proposed a Kantian account of our reasons to forgive that situates our moral fallibility as their ultimate ground. Blöser argues that Kant’s duty to be forgiving is grounded on the need to be relieved from the burden of our moral failure (guilt), a need that we all have in virtue of our moral fallible nature, regardless of whether or not we have repented. Blöser claims that Kant’s proposal yields a plausible account of the normative status of forgiveness. Kant classifies the duty to be forgiving as a wide (imperfect) duty of virtue, and according to Blöser, this means that Kantian forgiveness is elective in the sense that forgiveness is good in general (i.e. an attitude that we have moral reason to adopt) but without being obligatory in each particular case. In the course of presenting her own reconstruction of Kant’s account, Blöser also objects to some aspects of an interpretation of Kant’s theory of forgiveness which I had previously defended in my paper ‘Forgiveness and Moral Development’ (Philosophia 44:1029–1055, 2016). Although there are a lot of points of agreement between our interpretations, the aim of this article is to highlight four key points of disagreement. These issues are worth discussing because they have implications not only for a plausible interpretation of a recognisable Kantian account of forgiveness but also for wider debates in the contemporary literature on forgiveness. First, I show that Kant is not committed to a form of weak situationism as suggested by Blöser and that Kant’s grounding of the duty to be forgiving does not appeal to moral luck. Second, I argue that although Kant’s duty to be forgiving is elective in one sense of the term, it is not elective in another important sense of the term, and that it is in fact better not to interpret Kantian imperfect duties as being elective. Third, I show that awareness of moral fallibility per se does not provide a morally appropriate ground for forgiveness and offer an alternative reconstruction of Kant’s account- in which fallibility plays a role, but it is not the main reason to forgive. Finally, I argue that Blöser’s account of the need to be forgiven is not recognisable Kantian because, from a Kantian perspective, repentance is a necessary condition for the desirability and, in fact, the very possibility of ameliorating our own guilt.

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  1. Citations to Kant’s work will reference the page number of the Akademie edition and also provide the year of original publication as well as the year of publication in translation. I also provide abbreviations of Kant’s works for easy reading. Translations and abbreviations used are indicated in the bibliography.

  2. See e.g. 1784–5/1997 LE 27: 435 and 1793a/ 1997 LE 688–9.

  3. See also Blöser 2019, p. 13.

  4. Moran 2013, p. 421; Blöser 2019, p. 13.

  5. 1797/1991, MS 6:461. See Satne 2016, section VI.

  6. We both provide explanations of how Kant can account for the idea that emotional responses can either be controlled or, at least, shaped by the agent. See Blöser 2019 pp. 12–13 and Satne, 2016 pp. 1033–35 .

  7. See Blöser 2019, p. 14; Satne 2016, p. 1032.

  8. Satne 2016, p. 1034.

  9. I am convinced by Geoffrey Scarre’s argument that we cannot give a strict definition of forgiveness because overcoming the negative emotions commonly associated with wrongdoing might be neither necessary nor sufficient for forgiveness (See Scarre 2004, pp. 25–31). Kant’s account is well suited to accommodate a flexible and pluralistic model because Kantian imperfect duties of sympathy involve the adoption of maxims which can be understood as principles of cultivating one’s character through a variety of practices including the cultivation of some emotional responses (See Satne 2016, esp. p. 1034).

  10. Blöser 2019, p. 3 and Satne 2016, p. 1036.

  11. For an explanation and defense of this claim see Satne 2016, section IV, esp. pp. 1042–3.

  12. Kant says that the choice of evil Gesinnung (i.e. the fundamental disposition) is an ‘intelligible deed’ that does not occur in time (1793c/1998, RGV 31) which is sometimes taken to imply that the choice of a good Gesinnung is equally timeless. The challenge is then to explain the relation between the timeless revolution and the gradual process of moral self-improvement involved in a project of moral self-transformation. Some authors solve the problem by arguing that the process of overcoming radical evil occurs simultaneously with the process of improving the morality of one’s maxims, a process that takes place over the course of a person’s life (Sussman 2005b p. 173; Korsgaard 1996, p. 181) while others are willing to allow that there is a sense in which we can say that the revolution can be placed at a moment of a person’s life (Drogalis 2013, p. 166). The point I am making here about moral progress and the ongoing struggle to achieve moral perf is supposed to be compatible with both readings (see Satne 2016, p. 1043).

  13. For a more detailed examination of this point, see Satne 2016, p. 1044.

  14. See also Blöser 2019, fn. 22. For a defense of this reading of Kant, see Satne (2013).

  15. I argued for this interpretation of Kant’s theory of rational agency in 2016, esp. section IV. Blöser also interprets Kant as excluding a form of strong situationism which involves determinism (2019, p. 7).

  16. Thank you to an anonymous referee for Philosophia for presenting me with the following objection. My example fails because in the example, the action is both a function of the circumstances (had I not had cake in the house I would not have eaten it) and of character (I have the desire for cake, and I decide to endorse it). I do not deny that there is a sense in which the circumstances influence my action (had I not had cake in the house I would not have eaten it). However, my point is that this sense is a trivial one (e.g. if it is not a sunny day, I cannot sunbathe), that is, in order for me to be able to do certain things some other things have to be the case (or be available). It seems to me that Blöser’s weak situationism requires a substantive reading of (i), that is, that circumstances themselves are direct influences in what I end up doing. However, this does not seem to sit well with Kant’s theory of action. To see this, I introduce a slight modification of the example. If I dislike cake (perhaps I had a bad indigestion as a child), then I will not eat it even though it is available. The circumstances themselves are not direct influences on action but sometimes allow inclinations to become stronger or available. For Kant, I maintain, is the inclinations that influence my action, i.e. when I decide to endorse them.

  17. I argue for this interpretation of Kant’s theory of virtue in Satne (2013).

  18. See Satne 2016, p. 1044.

  19. A perhaps more interesting kind of cases, in which it might seem that what we do is more deeply influenced by our circumstances, are cases in which we have no way to act rightly because we live in a structurally unjust society such that, despite our best efforts, we cannot but be implicated in wrongdoing. In her article, Blöser does not discuss this type of case. However, Allais (2015) and Williams (2018) have recently discussed them. Allais discusses the moral dilemma of whether or not to give money to a beggar while Williams discusses our complicity with climate change. Here I do not have space to consider these cases, but I simply note that although these cases might initially look like good examples of cases in which what we do is deeply influenced, or even determined, by our circumstances, from a Kantian perspective, it turns out that these circumstances are the expressions of our collective agency in which we are ultimately complicit and, for which, we bear responsibility.

  20. As Blöser, I follow the standard interpretation that sees the pair wide/narrow and imperfect/perfect as making the same distinction (e.g., Blöser 2019; Timmermann 2005).

  21. See Blöser 2019, p. 8; Allais 2013, esp. p. 642, and Hallich 2016, p. 1009.

  22. See Satne 2016, p. 1051.

  23. In a recent paper Per-Erik Milam also notes the tension between simultaneously claiming that forgiveness is elective and that it is something that we do for reasons (2018). Milam, however, does not approach the issue from within a Kantian framework. Here my point is that, from a Kantian perspective, this tension is particularly pressing. As I go on to explain in what follows, given that for Kant, morality is a source of unconditional reasons, if there are moral reasons to forgive, then these cannot be trumped by considerations based on empirical inclinations.

  24. Blöser 2019, p. 9.

  25. The most important defender of the relaxed reading is Thomas Hill Jr. (1992, 2002) while Jens Timmermann (2005) has argued forcibly against it. Other important defenders of the rigoristic reading are Marcia Baron (1995, esp. ch. 1) and David Cumminskey (1996, esp. ch.6). As noted recently by Eric Boot (2018) the consensus in the literature seems to be turning towards the rigoristic reading. In addition to citing Timmermann and Baron, Boot also cites Simon Hope (2014) in support of this assertion (fn. 41, p. 67).

  26. Against the possibility of a category of supererogation in Kant’s ethical system, Timmermann cites some passages in Kant (1788/ 2002 KpV 5: 84–85 and 157) where he seems to dismiss “the idea of grand and noble deeds as high-flown emotional nonsense” (2005, p. 10) and 1790/ 1987 KU 05:210 in support of the claim that “Kant makes no provision for going ‘beyond the call of duty’ because duty leaves the agent little room for choice.” (p. 10).

  27. In support of this reading Timmerman cites Kant 1793b/ 1996, TP 8:283 and 1788/2002, KpV 5:92–93.

  28. In addition, Timmermann also shows that the moral goodness defined by the categorical imperative does not admit of degrees and that there cannot be a conflict of duties in Kant: when two ‘grounds of obligation’ conflict, the stronger ground wins out to constitute a duty, all things considered (see 2005, pp. 14–5).

  29. For the view that Kant’s duties of virtue are as equally morally binding as duties of right, see Boot (2018, pp. 60–61), Timmermann (2005, p. 21 and 23) and Wood (2009, p. 229).

  30. As correctly stated by Stratton-Lake, interpreting imperfect duties as allowing exceptions in the interest of inclinations robs them of all deontic force. It is not clear how they can be considered duties at all (2008, p. 103).

  31. I interpret Kant as committed to a multidimensional account of forgiveness, so in my account there can be a variety of ways of forgiving wrongdoers.

  32. This is an important passage in favour of the rigoristic reading. The relaxed reading gains support from a passage in the Groundwork which says “I understand here by a perfect duty one that admits of no exception in favour of inclination” (1785/1997, G 4:421n). Hill takes this to suggest that wide duties admit of such exceptions (1992, p. 148; cf. 2002, p. 214 and n. 34). Timmermann notes that this interpretation of the passage is by no means necessary. He takes the passage to imply only that perfect duties admit of no exceptions “in the interest of wider obligation nor in the interest of any other such ‘inclination.’”…Kant “is lumping together everything that may seem to interfere with strict duty” (p. 16). Thus in this passage, Kant would be emphasising the primacy of perfect duties over imperfect ones: while imperfect duties are restricted by the demands of perfect duties and other imperfect duties, perfect duties admit of no exceptions whatsoever. However, neither type of duty admits of suspensions of duty in favour of an (empirical) inclination (see Timmermann 2005, esp. pp. 16–8).

  33. I provide a more detailed defence of this interpretation of Kant’s theory of forgiveness in Satne 2016, section V. The main idea is that the duties to know ourselves and transform ourselves morally play a key role in Kant’s theory of moral development. We have a strong moral reason to forgive repentant wrongdoers because forgiveness can encourage and in fact help the wrongdoer to continue in the path of moral improvement. Commentators disagree as to whether or not Kantian forgiveness should be seen as being conditional on repentance. Sussman (2005a, p. 87) and Moran (2013) also endorse versions of the conditional reading. In contrast, Claudia Blöser (2019), Lucy Allais (2014), Margaret Holmgren (1993), and Owen Ware (2014) have suggested different versions of Kantian-inspired accounts of forgiveness which aim to also reach unconditional cases. The problem with the unconditional reading is that it does not seem to be Kant’s own view given that there is direct textual evidence for the conditional reading. In the Lectures on Ethics, Kant explicitly identifies a “duty to prevent offences to oneself” (1793a/1997, LE 27: 686) and talks about the need for compensation, apology, or at the very least the acknowledgement of the injustice, presumably stating the need for repentance (1793a/1997, LE 27: 688). Kant explicitly says that if there is no excuse or reparation for an offence, the wrongdoer should show “contrition” and “regret.” But if “the injured party is not content with that, then it does a man honour if he offers an apology”, noting that “it is not degrading to apologize” (Kant 1784–5/1997, LE 27:435). In support of the conditional reading see also 1797/1991, MS 6:461 discussed Satne 2016, section VI.

  34. See Satne 2016, p. 1049, fn.40.

  35. In blind, I argued that forgiveness of the unrepentant, particularly when we have reasons to believe that their wrongdoing will reoccur, is impermissible because it involves the violation of our duty of self-esteem (see especially section VI). In a more recent paper (Satne, P. Kantian Self-Respect and the Wrongdoing of Others. Unpublished), I provide a more detailed analysis of the forms of forgiveness that are impermissible in a Kantian account. I also qualify my position by allowing for some exceptions, i.e. cases of forgiving the unrepentant which do not constitute violations of the duty of self-esteem because the victim has already fought hard to- and in fact succeeded in- overturning oppression.

  36. See e.g. Blöser 2019, p. 16.

  37. I engage with this aspect of Blöser’s proposal in section 6.

  38. Lucy Allais is preparing a book on Kantian forgiveness which Blöser quotes (Allais, L. Frailty and Forgiveness: Forgiveness for Humans. Unpublished). Unfortunately I have not seen the manuscript so I cannot comment on Allais’s proposal.

  39. Garrard and McNaughton (2003) are, of course, influential proponents of the need to appeal to human fallibility in discussions about forgiveness.

  40. In a recent paper Cristina Roadevin argues, in my view convincingly, that “someone should not express her blame if she is guilty of the same thing for which she is blaming others, in the absence of an admission of fault” (2018, p. 137). Roadevin argues that this form of blame is morally inappropriate because it involves a form of hypocrisy.

  41. See Garrard and McNaughton 2003, p. 54.

  42. This case is discussed in Robin May Schott (2004).

  43. In their 2010 book Forgiveness, Garrard and McNaughton claim that forgiveness requires an “attitude of goodwill towards the perpetrator” which they equate with “wishing him well” (p. 24) but they don’t mention love.

  44. Kantian ethics, of course, recommends that we have an attitude of good will towards all persons, including those who have committed terrible deeds: “I cannot deny all respect to even a vicious man as a man; I cannot withdraw at least the respect that belongs to him in his quality as man, even though by his deeds he makes himself unworthy of it” (1797/1991, MS 6:463). However, Kantian good will only requires that we respect others, not that we love them in a pathological sense as this cannot be commanded. The moral law can only command practical love: to strive to perform our duties gladly (1788/2002, KpV 5:83). Respect for persons, however, does rule out hate. Hate is always impermissible as it involves a positive joy at the infliction of suffering on another person, which is contrary to the “end of humanity in [our] own person” (1793a/ 1997, LE 27: 686–7). However, respect for persons is not incompatible with appropriate resentment and thus is compatible with a refusal to forgive (for a more detailed discussion of this point, see Satne 2016, pp. 1046–7).

  45. Blöser cites this passage approvingly (p. 6, esp. fn 17). As noted above, Blöser avoids the claim that moral fallibility is a sufficient ground for forgiveness by appealing to the idea that moral fallibility “plays a role in our duty to forgive because it grounds our need for forgiveness” (2019, p. 6). I discuss Blöser’s account of the need to be forgiven in section 6.

  46. Satne 2016, p. 1035.

  47. Ibidem.

  48. A more careful explanation of this argument is developed in Satne 2016.

  49. Blöser offers a good reconstruction of my position in pp. 14–15.

  50. See Satne 2016, p. 1050.

  51. In fn. 51 (p. 16) Blöser says that claiming that unrepentant wrongdoers might have a need for forgiveness does not imply the different thesis that forgiving the unrepentant is permissible. However, I think that in Blöser’s account it is difficult not to conclude that if the unrepentant have a need for forgiveness, then we have a reason to forgive them, and forgiving the unrepentant is permissible. This conclusion seems unavoidable because, according to her, it is our awareness of our moral fallibility that grounds our need for forgiveness, which, in turn, grounds a wide duty to forgive. Moreover, Blöser claims that ‘the topic deserves a discussion of its own’, but her account does not provide any indication of why she might think that forgiveness of the unrepentant is problematic for Kant. Also, a Kantian theory of forgiveness surely should include a discussion of this important point.

  52. Pasternack (2012) provides a good discussion of the difficulties associated with interpreting Kant as appealing to divine forgiveness in order to help us overcome our moral guilt.

  53. For further details of this argument, see Satne 2018, pp. 213–215.

  54. This paper was presented at the 13th International Kant Congress held in Oslo in August of 2019. I expect the paper will be published in the Proceedings of the Congress.

  55. The link between guilt and our awareness of our freedom that Kant makes in these passages is also emphasised by Zupančič (2000), pp. 21–42 and Gamberini (2013).

  56. For a more detailed explanation as well as arguments in support of this claim, see, see section 3 in P. Satne “Kantian Guilt.” Unpublished.

  57. Reath 2006, p. 21. Reath provides an interesting analysis of the different tendencies that might be involved in erroneously taking mere subjective grounds of action as having objective or justifying force.

  58. This is a well-known Kantian claim. See e.g. 1793c/1998, RGV 6:20.

  59. In fact, Kant says that self-scrutiny is the first command of all duties to oneself (1797/1991, MS 6:441).

  60. This point is well-explained by Miranda Fricker’s account of Communicative Blame: “the perlocutionary point of Communicative Blame is to prompt a change for the better in the behaviour (inner and outer) of the wrongdoer” (2014, p. 173).

  61. The intellectual interpretation of repentance as the commitment to abandon immoral maxims and become a better person is defended in Satne 2016, p. 1044. Further support for this reading is found in the Lectures on Ethics where Kant explicitly rejects the notion of repentance as a form of self-punishment or chastisement (Kant 1784–5/1997, LE 27:464). However, Kant still maintains that “inner contrition for our offences and the firm resolve to live a better life” is the most helpful thing to us and others (ibidem) thus suggesting a more intellectual notion of repentance.


Kant’s Works Abbreviations and Translations Used Are as Follows

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Satne, P. Kantian Forgiveness: Fallibility, Guilt and the need to become a Better Person: Reply to Blöser. Philosophia 48, 1997–2019 (2020).

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  • Kantian forgiveness
  • Moral guilt
  • Moral transformation
  • Situationism
  • Moral fallibility
  • Imperfect duties
  • Elective forgiveness