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Dissecting Forgiveness

CAS prof’s new book explores the hardest thing we’ll ever do


CAS Philosophy Professor Charles Griswold's new book examines the process of forgiveness.

During the period of apartheid in South Africa, Eugene de Kock, the head of a notorious death squad, earned the nickname “Prime Evil.” But de Kock, now serving a life sentence, decided to tell the truth about the atrocities he committed and to ask for forgiveness from women he had widowed.

Incredibly, the women chose to forgive him.

Using examples from de Kock to Achilles, Charles Griswold, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of philosophy, examines the process of forgiving in his book Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, published in September by Cambridge University Press.

Griswold says he was drawn to the subject of forgiveness while working on a philosophical project on perfectionism, the conviction that it is possible to attain moral perfection.

“I began to think about the virtues that would naturally fit with an antiperfectionist outlook, and it struck me that one of them would be forgiveness,” he says. “That led me to the question, what is forgiveness? Over the course of a year, the answer to that question became a book.”

The book tackles several issues, including self-forgiveness, political apology, the history of forgiveness, and the steps to forgive, examined from the perspectives of the victim and the offender. BU Today spoke with Griswold about forgiveness, anger, and revenge.

BU Today: Why should we forgive?
Why not just stay angry and forget forgiveness or be vengeful? Because to take revenge is to take justice into your own hands and to license yourself to punish as you see fit. And to license revenge is to license everyone to be judge, jury, and executioner. That is obviously unacceptable.

Anger is toxic, and whether or not the person takes steps, it can be psychologically and morally deleterious for the angry person to stay angry. And yet, I want to say forswearing revenge and anger for self-regarding reasons alone is not forgiveness, however useful and commendable doing so may be.

Can you give an example of a current event that requires a political and public apology?
People always cite the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Within Iraq, there’s a lot of room for apology as a means to reconciliation — not that I have any hope that this will happen anytime soon in either case. It seems that bloodshed and conflict are just the order of the day across our troubled Earth. One of the motivations for the book was to think about one way in which wrongdoing and its effects might be successfully responded to — namely, by means of reconciliation based on forgiveness, or what I take to be its political corollary, the offering and receiving of truthful apology.

I argue in the book that as a nation, the United States has failed to confront the crucial moral question posed by the Vietnam War: namely, whether or not the war was just. The evasion of that question, and so of taking responsibility, truth-telling, and apology, makes room for a species of reconciliation, but it is paper-thin and is a recipe for repetition of the same moral mistakes that led us into that disastrous conflict. Reconciliation without apology, at least in the wake of violent conflict and of severe civic dispute, is brittle.

You address the fact that in order to effect positive social change, such as in the civil rights movement or to prevent atrocities such as the Holocaust, humans need to feel outrage — but where should they draw the line?
I side with the philosophers who think that anger can be warranted and that a lack of anger can be blameworthy. I differ deeply with those who say that one should always forswear anger, unconditionally and as quickly as possible, simply because it is a bad thing to be feeling.

However, anger does have a strong tendency to expand in intensity and scope beyond what is appropriate and to prompt revenge. This is true both in interpersonal life and in politics.

Is complete forgiveness possible? If it’s a continual process, can we completely forgive an action?
Forgiveness is possible when both parties — the wrongdoer and the victim — take certain steps, which I enumerate and defend. For example, the victim must forswear revenge.

Although fully forgiving someone may well take time, I think it’s meaningful to say that you’ve forgiven someone when you’re giving up anger for the right reasons, even when there’s still some lingering anger, so long as it is on its way out. By contrast, if you never stop being angry with the wrongdoer, you’ve not forgiven.

How do religious overtones complicate the study of forgiveness?
There are many different religious views of forgiveness. The framework of my book is entirely secular. I wanted to work out a definition of forgiveness in both the moral and political spheres and make no assumption about the truth or falsehood of religious claims. For example, the logic of Christian notions of forgiveness, which I talk a bit about in the book, is very different from the logic of the secular view. This is an area that no one has studied very carefully, interestingly enough. Forgiveness may itself have a history within Christianity. I note in the book that the vocabulary used in the Gospels is much more connected with debt forgiveness than what we would think of as moral forgiveness.

The logic of the Christian view is different because there’s a forgiving God who can do the forgiving on behalf of others. There’s a lot of forgiving being done by substitution. Christ on the cross doesn’t forgive his tormentors; he asks God the Father to do the job, and that’s very interesting. If God can do the forgiving on your behalf, he can forgive others, whether or not you approve of it. By contrast, in the secular view I advance, the right of forgiveness belongs primarily to the victim. I would also argue that what Christ on the cross is doing is excusing the wrongdoers. He gives a specific reason — they don’t know what they’re doing — which I think is a recipe for universal excusing. The Christian view favors unconditional forgiveness. I argue against that.

Is it ever possible to deem someone unforgivable?
No. Certain wrongs may be unforgiven in the sense that it is humanly impossible at the time to forgive. But I do not believe that a person can be unforgivable no matter what. There is a possibility that at a later stage the act and offender may be forgiven. An example is Eugene de Kock, the head of a South African death squad during the apartheid regime, who is in prison. The wives of several men that he killed forgave him after he took certain steps, such as telling the truth and giving evidence that he’d changed. Yet many people would mistakenly say that what he did was unforgivable.

The “unforgivable” is frequently tied to the idea of the “moral monster,” of the inhuman offender. I argue against that too. The frightening fact of the matter is that many people who do great wrongs are not that different from the rest of us. To classify them as inhuman or as monsters avoids looking the truth in the eye.

Those who perpetrated the attacks of 9/11 are not psychopaths; they’re not monsters. But I do not infer that they are excused. I hold them responsible. It may very well be impossible to forgive them, not simply because of the amount of damage they did, but because they’ve not taken the steps requisite to be forgiven or given any indication that they would have taken such steps. Unfortunately, in many cases of wrongdoing, the offender may be unforgiven. That is a hard truth. And yet, it does not follow that such wrongdoers are unforgivable in principle and forever.

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu.