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The Moral Psychology of ForgivenessReview - The Moral Psychology of Forgiveness
by Kathryn J. Norlock (editor)
Rowman, 2017
Review by Christian Perring
Sep 3rd 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 36)

One might wonder why forgiveness is a topic in a book series on the moral psychology of emotions. On the face of it, forgiving is primarily an action or process, associated with some emotions such as compassion, humility, and maybe a rejection of anger. But forgiveness is not obviously an emotion.  Nevertheless, forgiving is an important moral action that is connected with moral emotions, so there is certainly plenty of moral psychology to discuss. This collection of psychological and philosophical short papers does that. It is a relatively short book at about 210 pages. There are eight chapters plus an introduction by editor Kathryn Norlock. The authors of the earlier papers in the book are mostly psychologists, and their work is more empirical. The authors of the later papers are philosophical, and their work is more conceptual. For this review, I will focus more on the conceptual papers.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela discusses the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, and addresses a number of aspects, all quite briefly. C. Ward Struthers et al examine some empirical work on apologizing. Their conclusions don't seem very surprising: not all forgiveness is helpful to the forgiver, and the ways that apologies are communicated make a difference to the response of the forgiver. Robert Enright and Jacqueline Song describe the benefits of educating children about how to forgive people. Myisha Cherry argues that encouraging oppressed people to forgive transgressions against them by providing them with exemplars of other forgivers is problematic, and the arguments for forgiveness in these cases may include faults in reasoning. She suggests that this use of exemplars is manipulative rather than sincere.

Jonathan Jacobs writes the role of forgiveness in the criminal justice system of a liberal democracy. This is not a paper that engages any of the current literature in moral psychology, and the list of references at the end is short, with 14 items, 3 of which are Jacob's own work. He spends a fair amount of his space discussing Adam Smith. His main point seems to be that some forgiveness is a good idea, but we should not go too far with forgiveness, since it wouldn't solve central problems, and some punishment is helpful. He makes some interesting comments about the intended impersonality of the criminal justice system being incompatible with the personal nature of forgiveness. But he makes no mention whatever of the restorative justice movement, which aims precisely to being that personal element to the treatment of criminals. This is a glaring omission.

Daivd McNaughton and Eve Garrard have the shortest list of references in the book: 9 items, 4 of which are by them, and one of which is a novel by Marilynne Robinson. This paper sets out an account of forgiveness that they have defended previously. They call it the "goodwill" account, and have also labelled it as a defense of unconditional forgiveness. The idea is that to forgive someone for a wrongdoing is purely an action of the person wronged, and does not require that the person who is forgiven seeks forgiveness or apologizes for what they have done. Their paper does an admirable job of setting out their view and some opposing approaches, with special focus on the work of Brandon Warmke. They oppose his claim that "I forgive you" is an explicit performative. Much of their argument rests on intuitions about the intelligibility or unintelligibility of purported instances of forgiveness. The authors have a rather old fashioned approach is proclaiming their intuitions and assuming that they map on to reality somehow, and will be universally shared by their readers. There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years about this methodology, and the extent to which "common sense" can be relied on to provide philosophical truth. One might wish they made more modest claims, such as "here is a way to think about forgiveness that fits well with how people in our language community generally talk about forgiveness." Then the question becomes how large that language community is, and whether it extends beyond people brought in Judeo-Christian traditions. Furthermore, we may also find that even within that tradition, there are conflicting intuitions and practices, as McNaughton and Garrard at some points admit. They make attempts to account for intuitions that do not fit so well with their theory, but it is hard not to see this as a post-hoc patching up for a problem for their theory. There's a concern to which their own intuitions may very particular to them, and not widely shared at all. Nevertheless, their discussion of what sorts of resentment of a wrongdoer by the person wronged are compatible with having forgiven the wrongdoer are at least thought-provoking.

Barrett Emerick engages in a more sophisticated methodology than that of the previous chapter. His topic is the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation, and he argues against others, but with a thesis similar to that of McNaughton and Garrard, that reconciliation is not necessary for forgiveness. Emerick gives a succinct and clear summary of some of the debates about forgiveness and what it accomplishes. He argues that forgiveness is a personal process that can occur in total solitude, but reconciliation is essentially a mutual process involving two or more people. (Presumably there is a case for self-forgiveness and self-reconciliation, but Emerick is focusing on the case where the wrong-doer is a different person from the person wronged.) There are also debates about if forgiveness requires giving up negative attitudes and emotions towards a wrongdoer, then what attitudes and emotions does that include? Different philosophers have various theories about this. Emerick says that it is useful to maintain a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation, and taking an inclusive view of what forgiveness involves helps us do that. His point here is that the theory he recommends has linguistic benefits in enriching our moral concepts. He is not just appealing to common usage or intuitions. Emerick devotes the second section of his paper to elaborating the concept of moral reconciliation, which he argues involves more than mutual tolerance, but also involves other elements, including a process of repairing the relationship.

The final chapter in the book is by Alice MacLachlan. It defends the following possibility. Person A wrongs person B. Person C forgives person A for wronging B. This is known as "third-party forgiveness." This goes against the assumption of many that it is only the wronged person who has the power of forgiveness. MacLachlan uses the This American Life story "Redemption by Proxy" as one example, and Lionel Shriver's book We Need to Talk About Kevin as another. She argues convincingly that there are interactions between people in third-party forgiveness that resemble forgiveness quite closely. She does a good job at showing that arguments insisting that only the wronged person can forgive make unjustified assumptions, and so there is conceptual room to say that third-party forgiving is a real kind of forgiving. It's not quite clear to what extent the issue is purely arbitrary in whether we call it forgiving or not, but MacLachlan suggests that it makes sense to say it is real forgiving.

This selection of work on forgiveness will appeal to philosophers and some psychologists. It is a mixed bag, and not particularly cohesive. But it does provide a number of ways into the nature of forgiveness and moral questions around it. There is word that Oxford University Press has a philosophy book in the works on forgiveness, and when that eventually comes out, it will hopefully be the guide that the subject needs. But in the meantime, those interested in the topic should at least dip into this book.

 


© 2019 Christian Perring

 

Christian Perring teaches in NYC.


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