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Per-Erik Milam, researcher in practical philosophy
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The Limits of Forgiveness

Research project
Active research
Project period
2019 - ongoing
Project owner
Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science

Financier
The Swedish Research Council

Short description

Wrongdoing is inescapable. We all occasionally do wrong and are wronged and in response we often blame one another. But if wrongdoing and blame are ubiquitous features of our shared moral lives, so is forgiveness.

This project aims to demonstrate the limits of forgiveness and explain the implications of these limits for how we understand and practice forgiveness.

Philosophical scholarship on forgiveness has focused on two questions: what forgiveness is and when one should forgive. However, little has been said about when one can and cannot forgive. This neglect is significant because there are limits and obstacles to forgiveness. Anger can be overwhelming, an offence may be unforgivable, or one may simply have no reason to forgive. Theories about the nature and ethics of forgiving should be plausible in light of these limits and our practice of forgiving – our expectations, expressions, and responses to it – should reflect them. This project aims to demonstrate the limits of forgiveness and explain the implications of these limits for how we understand and practice forgiveness.

Wrongdoing is an inescapable fact of life. We all do wrong and are wronged from time to time and in response we often blame one another. While such conflicts are not the whole or even the greater part of our social experience, they’re a defining feature of it. But if wrongdoing and blame are ubiquitous features of our shared moral lives, so is forgiveness. The ubiquity and significance of wrongdoing, blame, and forgiveness has not always been reflected in academic scholarship, but the last twenty years has seen increasing interest in forgiveness across many disciplines and it is frequently discussed in the popular press. Philosophical scholarship on forgiveness has focused on two main questions, one conceptual and the other practical:

1. What is forgiveness?

2. When should one forgive?

On the one hand, we want to know what changes when a person forgives and how forgiving differs from excusing or condoning an offence. On the other hand, we want to know when, if ever, we should criticise those who grant or withhold forgiveness. However, despite the attention to what forgiveness is and when one ought to do it, little has been said about the limits and obstacles to forgiving—i.e. when one can and cannot forgive. This neglect is surprising when we reflect on how challenging it can be to forgive and how different circumstances can affect our ability and opportunities to forgive. Moreover, if ought implies can, then any account of when we ought to forgive requires an account of when we can. This project considers the neglected question:

 3. When can one forgive?

More specifically, it will demonstrate the limits of forgiveness and explain the implications of these limits for how we understand its nature and ethics.

First, I will identify and explain the limits of forgiveness. We are familiar with insincere apologies, overwhelming anger, and absent wrongdoers, all of which undermine our will, ability, and opportunity to forgive. These obstacles are recognisable from fiction and experience, but no one has given a comprehensive account of them. Some describe situations of ineffective or inappropriate forgiving, but few have explored how our ability and opportunities to forgive can be compromised. I will argue that this ability is more fragile and more often diminished than many think.

Second, I will explain the significance of these limits for leading philosophical theories of forgiveness. If we are limited in our ability to forgive, then any theory of what forgiveness is must reflect these limits. For example, it may be misguided to understand forgiving someone as releasing them from a debt. This common conception neglects a social dimension of forgiveness. A better model would understand forgiveness as part of a conversation, in which, ideally, the victim blames the offender, the offender apologises, and the victim forgives. On this model, we can imagine how such a conversation could break down, leaving the victim unable to forgive.

Third, I will explain how recognising these limits could reshape how we talk and think about forgiveness. When we expect forgiveness, and how we express and respond to it, should reflect its limits, but this is not always the case. At the personal level, we must consider the metaphors we use to promote forgiveness and whether they accurately reflect our (in)ability to forgive. At the social/political level, we must consider the ways in which forgiveness may be gendered and racialised. And, to the extent that it is, we must reflect on how inaccurate and otherwise problematic conceptions of forgiveness are perpetuated – e.g. in the media. Finally, I will evaluate possible solutions to the problem of limited forgiveness. Understanding its limits may help to move beyond them. In particular, I will explore how our blame and apology practices influence our forgiveness practice, for better and worse. As a case study, I will examine the increasingly common phenomenon of public blame, apology, and forgiveness often described in the popular media.

This project aims to systematically describe, analyse, and explain the limits of forgiveness and to provide a richer and more realistic – i.e. a less idealised – account of the concept and our practice. Forgiveness is an important part of our shared existence, but, like any tool or practice, it is most valuable when its limitations are recognised and it is used properly.