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On Forgiving and Forgiveness

The alternative to forgiveness is not revenge.


What is forgiveness? Is forgiving always a moral and praiseworthy thing to do? Or are there certain acts that are so terrible that they are deemed ‘unforgivable’? Is there, furthermore, a distinction between personal and political forgiveness? These are some of the central questions under discussion in the burgeoning contemporary literature on forgiveness.

Let us begin with how to define ‘forgiveness’. The central debate here is between those who endorse an emotional model, on the one hand, and those who embrace a pluralistic one, on the other. According to the emotional model, forgiveness is conceptualised as an internal matter requiring a change of heart. On this account, forgiveness consists in the renouncing of negative emotions on moral grounds, which exist as a natural response to having being wronged. Although there exists considerable debate about exactly which emotions forgiveness should overcome, many contemporary theorists maintain that forgiveness consists in the overcoming of resentment. This is understood broadly to include various vindictive passions, such as anger; the desire to strike back; hatred; and the desire to see the wrongdoer punished. Critics, however, have pointed out that our response to wrongdoing does not always include emotions. Indeed, even where emotions are felt, these are not always vindictive. For instance, common emotional responses to culpable wrongdoing include sadness, disappointment, resignation, and pity, among many others. In contrast, perhaps a change of emotion is neither sufficient nor necessary for forgiveness. Perhaps forgiveness involves broad and varied practices and what ‘counts’ as an act of forgiveness will depend in part on whether those involved see it as such.

In clarifying what forgiving consists in, we ought to be careful to distinguish it from other related phenomena. Forgiving is, for example, commonly conflated and thereby confused with phenomena such as justifying (coming to see the action as not truly wrong), excusing (coming to see the wrongdoer as not fully responsible for the action), and accepting (coming to see the action as something for which the wrongdoer need not account). Pamela Hieronymi has argued that a legitimate account of forgiveness ought to be both ‘uncompromising’ and ‘articulate’. Overcoming resentment and anger by taking a specially designed pill, or large amounts of alcohol, for instance, would not count as forgiving. Thus, an account of genuine forgiveness ought to be articulate in the sense that it ought to articulate reasons for overcoming resentment. However, it should also be uncompromising insofar as genuine forgiveness ought to articulate reasons for a revision in judgement which do not compromise on the following claims: the act was wrong; the wrongdoer is a morally responsible agent whom we can reasonably expect not to act wrongly; and the victim is worthy of respect and ought not to be wronged. The challenge is that these claims warrant resentment, so how can we rationally overcome it?  


"Refusing to forgive atrocity can amount to or express a moral stance and it can be a powerful means of resisting wrongdoing."


This problem is sometimes expressed in terms of a paradox: forgiveness involves seeing the wrong as culpable, unacceptable, and inexcusable. Nevertheless, at the same time the forgiver (somehow) has to rationally change their judgment about the wrongdoer by overcoming their resentment and ceasing to “hold [the wrong] against her”.    

One common strategy for solving the paradox is to claim that forgiveness requires the satisfaction of some condition that would show that resentment is no longer warranted. Hieronymi conceptualises resentment and anger in cognitive terms, as “attitudes sensitive to one’s judgments […] [and thus] subject to rational revision”. She argues that the wrongdoer’s apology would justify the victim’s change of judgment necessary to overcome resentment,  allowing the victim to forgive rationally and uncompromisingly. Some other conditionalists—as I shall call them—do not insist on apology. They instead emphasise the need for the wrongdoer’s repentance, a revolution of heart, whereby the wrongdoer commits to a project of moral self-improvement; an expression of regret; or showing evidence of a ‘fully changed  life’. While some conditionalists usually conceptualise forgiveness as a perfect duty or an imperfect duty akin to a virtue.

By contrast, unconditionalists—as I shall call them—reject this picture altogether, claiming that there is always a reason to forgive irrespective of how serious the wrongdoing and notwithstanding whether the wrongdoer has repented or apologised. According to Garrard and McNaughton’s influential account, human solidarity provides a reason for unconditional forgiveness, understood as an attitude of love and good will towards wrongdoers who have not necessarily repented. Human solidarity is understood as “the concern for the well-being of those who one feels are in the same condition as oneself”. Moreover, this kind of solidarity involves acknowledging that we share a fallible and tainted nature—viz., human nature—with the wrongdoer.  While claiming that there is always a reason to forgive, unconditionalists nevertheless acknowledge that forgiveness is in some cases very difficult. Owing to this, unconditionalists wish to avoid blaming victims who are ultimately unable, or fail, to forgive very serious wrongs, or unrepentant wrongdoers.


"There is a tendency in the literature to understand forgiveness as either a perfect duty or a gift. In my own work, I have noted that Kant’s notion of a wide, or imperfect, duty of virtue can provide a third option."


The view that forgiveness is unconditional is often combined with a rejection of the view that we can have a (perfect) duty to forgive. Instead, unconditionalists tend to embrace the idea that forgiveness is ‘elective’, or a ‘gift’. Although fairly common in the contemporary literature, the notion of ‘electiveness’ is slippery and authors often mention it without a clear definition in place. An exception to this is Lucy Allais. Her account develops and clarifies the notion in the following important respect:
the idea is that, whatever moral reasons there might be for forgiving, forgiveness (paradigmatically) does not involve giving a wrongdoer what is her due, or something to which she is entitled "[…] that is forgiveness is not deserved or owed […] [forgiveness is] something which the wrongdoer is not in a position to demand, something to which the wrongdoer does not have a right, and there is a central and crucial sense in which the decision to forgive is at the victim’s discretion."

Allais finds an alternative solution to the paradox of forgiveness by replacing a cognitive account of emotions—which she conceptualises more broadly as attitudes—with an affective one.  Allais argues that forgiveness involves overcoming retributive reactive attitudes, which are essentially affective. Retributive reactive attitudes involve an evaluative affective view of the offender, which sees her as being blameworthy for her wrongdoing. Allais endorses a rich notion of forgiveness, one that involves giving up warranted resentment to which the victim is entitled, and to stop seeing the wrongdoer “as tainted or dishonoured in the way that her action supports”.  Since the attitudes that forgiveness overcomes are not beliefs, this opens up the possibility that we can overcome them rationally by achieving a change of affective focus without also having to abandon our beliefs about the offender’s culpability. This is how we can forgive her unconditionally without having to compromise. Allais locates the power of forgiveness precisely in its capacity to overcome warranted resentment, that is, we always have the option of affectively choosing to see the wrongdoer as better than their wrongdoing. However, we might ask whether choosing to see someone as better than their wrongdoing—particularly when her offenses are very serious—is always a good idea. After all, why should we choose to see someone as better than their worst choices? Allais replies that forgiveness is a kind of generosity—nay a gift—precisely owing to which forgiveness is praiseworthy. She endorses Garrard and McNaughton’s view that compassionate solidarity with the wrongdoer as a fellow, fallible human provides a reason to abandon warranted resentment while also maintaining that forgiveness is always elective and never mandatory.

Nevertheless, there is a tendency in the literature to understand forgiveness as either a perfect duty or a gift. In my own work, I have noted that Kant’s notion of a wide, or imperfect, duty of virtue can provide a third option. I read Kant as maintaining that we have an imperfect (and conditional) duty of virtue to be forgiving, which I interpret as requiring the adoption of a maxim of developing forgiving practices and attitudes towards wrongdoers under circumstances that are deemed appropriate.  The chief  consideration in support of forgiveness is repentance as evidence of the wrongdoer’s commitment to a project of moral self-improvement. However, since this is an imperfect duty, there is no corresponding right on the part of the wrongdoer to be forgiven. Thus, I agree with Allais that forgiveness is elective but only in the sense that forgiveness is not something to which the wrongdoer is entitled (i.e. has a right).  Yet, at the same time, Kant  claims that there is a duty to be forgiving. Owing to this, from a Kantian perspective, it does not seem right to say that forgiveness is merely elective, or a gift, which is entirely at the victim’s discretion. Indeed, the notion of an elective duty sounds like an oxymoron.  On my account, however, adopting a maxim of unforgiveness is impermissible. A corollary of this is that adopting a maxim of forgiveness is not merely optional. This does not mean that there is a perfect duty, however: there always exists some latitude for the agent to decide when and how  to forgive in specific situations.  

What, then, about the refusal to forgive? Some conditionalists maintain that some cases of forgiveness are impermissible and that the refusal to forgive is in some cases obligatory. Murphy endorsed this view, although he has more recently qualified his account somewhat. Others take a more nuanced approach. For instance, Hieronymi allows for the possibility of unconditional forgiveness when there is, for example, strong community support for victims. By contrast, unconditionalists  are likely to say that the refusal to forgive is at most permissible but never obligatory. They tend to tolerate refusals to forgive. They implicitly see the unforgiving as a bit less than virtuous, as agents who are perhaps entrenched in their resentments, unable to extend their solidarity to perpetrators, and moreover unable to comprehend that we all ultimately share the same morally-tainted nature. However, most unconditionalists admit that, given the plethora of human horrors, it is understandable that in certain cases victims are simply incapable, or not willing, to forgive.

It seems to me that the refusal to forgive, particularly for very serious crimes, cases of widespread atrocity or crimes against humanity, can have a normative dimension. It is not merely permissible, or understandable, nor predictably human. Refusing to forgive atrocity can amount to or express a moral stance and it can be a powerful means of resisting wrongdoing.

Jeffrey Murphy appeals to Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov example of a general who sends his dogs to kill a terrified eight-year-old boy, in plain view of his helpless mother, on account of the boy casting a stone at his dog. This is a paradigmatic example of someone who has committed an atrocious, and prima facie unforgivable, act. Although it is difficult to imagine worse cases than this, human history is full of cases that defy the imagination, such as the crimes of the Nazis, the Argentine military junta, and the Rwandan genocide, among many others. These are serious cases of wrongdoing in which the offender is unrepentant and still sees her action as somehow justified.


"Any form of forgiveness that fails to uphold the victim’s rights, either by disregarding these rights or failing to demand moral treatment and resist wrongdoing, is impermissible because it violates Kant’s duty of self-esteem."


The following three considerations can be given as normative reasons not to forgive. First, refusing to forgive is sometimes necessary in order to uphold a victim’s self-respect.   Let’s focus here on what I take to be the Kantian version of the view. Kant closes the passage in which he claims that we have an imperfect duty of virtue to be forgiving with the following remark:

[b]ut [the duty to be forgiving] must not be confused with meek tolerations of wrongs […] renunciation of rigorous means […] for preventing the recurrence of wrongs by other men; for then a man would be throwing away his rights and letting others trample on them, and so would violate his duty to himself.

I read the above passage as maintaining that some forms of forgiveness are impermissible because they violate a duty of self-esteem. This is a duty to value, respect, and recognise one’s dignity as a rational being on an equal footing with others. Any form of forgiveness that fails to uphold the victim’s rights, either by disregarding these rights or failing to demand moral treatment and resist wrongdoing, is impermissible because it violates Kant’s duty of self-esteem. Kant is particularly concerned with preventing recurrent wrongdoing, which implies that at least some forms of unconditional forgiveness are impermissible.  Kant allows for some cases of unconditional forgiveness because the victim has already fought very hard to uphold their rights, perhaps even succeeding in overturning an oppressive social order such that forgiving does not involve compromising their self-respect. Mandela and Gandhi seem to be paradigmatic examples of this kind.  Considerations of self-respect, however, are most relevant in cases in which the forgiver is the primary victim. But the view that secondary and tertiary victims also have standing to forgive has recently gained acceptance among authors.

A second reason to refuse to forgive—one that will apply to secondary and tertiary victims as well—is that refusing to forgive can be a way of comprehensively condemning wrongdoing. The point has often been made that forgiving can be a way of condemning wrongdoing, but refusing to forgive clearly condemns it more forcefully. After all, continuing to “hold the wrong against the offender” is a way of staunchly condemning a wrong.

A third reason for refusing to forgive is solidarity with the moral order. Hallich has proposed to define ‘A is unforgivable’ as meaning that an agent who forgives A is deserving of moral blame. He argues that in some cases refusing to withdraw vindictive emotions felt in response of atrocious crimes could be a way of symbolically expressing one’s acceptance of basic moral values and one’s solidarity with those who have been wronged. Failure to do so would therefore incur moral blame.

Some might worry that in recommending that we refuse to forgive serious cases of wrongdoing I am therefore recommending hate and revenge. But the alternative to forgiveness is not necessarily hateful or unlawful revenge. Any form of revenge or retaliation that violates perpetrators’ rights is, of course, impermissible. If one accepts a pluralistic model of forgiveness, then refusing to forgive might involve a plurality of permissible attitudes and practices. As for human solidarity, I personally prefer to extend it to, e.g., survivors of the Holocaust, like Simon Wiesenthal,  as well as Primo Levi  and Jean Amery , survivors of the Rwandan Genocide, such as Esther Mujawayo,  and survivors of the Argentina military junta, like Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who refused to or could not forgive the perpetrators of atrocities.


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