Is forgiveness possible?

The theme of this year’s ‘Nacht van de Filosofie‘ (Night of Philosophy) in Amsterdam was ‘Reconciliation’ (the Dutch word, ‘Verzoening’, doesn’t translate well to English – from it is derived ‘zoen’ which is Dutch for ‘kiss’ for which we also have the more common synonym ‘kus’ – the sweet overtones are unfortunately completely lost in translation). One recurring side-theme was ‘forgiveness’, which notion I am going to explore in some posts.

Paul van Tongeren argued at the ‘Night of Philosophy’ that true forgiveness is not possible. His argument runs thus: Forgiving is not forgetting. On the contrary, forgiving presupposes remembering. So we remember an evil act done against us, but do not consider the actor as evil anymore. Thus seems only possible if the actor radically dissociates himself from the act, without denying doing the act. The actor says: ‘Yes, I did do that, it is completely wrong, I should not have done that, I would never do that anymore now’. But if the actor dissociates himself from the act so completely, forgiving becomes impossible, for the actor is not the person who committed the act anymore – he has become a different person. If this dissociation does not take place, and we still consider the act evil, and remember who did the evil act against us, how can we not still see the actor as evil? In ‘Impossible Forgiveness’, van Tongeren states: ‘… the perpretator is being remembered as linked to his evil act and thus as evil and blameworthy himself’ [IF p. 372].

Two things are wrong with van Tongeren’s exploration. First, the link between an evil act and its evil perpretator is way too strong. There is nothing contradictionary in saying ‘Joe is a smart person, but now he’s done a dumb thing’. Being smart does not preclude one from doing dumb things. Nor does doing something dumb entail being intrinsically dumb. Likewise, doing an evil act does not entail being an intrinsically evil person. In forgiving, this distinction is of the utmost importance: if we see the perpretator as intrinsically evil, forgiving seems impossible indeed. But if we regard the act as evil, but do not regard the perpretator as intrinsically evil, we have the necessary leeway for forgiveness. So we can, sometimes, forgive, because we are able to see the wrongdoer as a more complete person than just the perpretator of this single evil act: the prepretator has other sides, some maybe bad, but some good as well. It is the complete person we forgive, not the one-dimensional perpretrator of the evil act.

The second oversight is the nature of forgiving, and especially the things leading up to forgiveness. Van Tongeren rightly mentions ‘confession, remorse and atonement’ [IF p. 370] as the preconditions of forgiveness. Unfortunately, he does not give the notions much further thought, but dismisses them: since forgiving is not conditional (I cannot forgive only if some conditions are met: I either forgive or I do not), the three acts cannot be the conditions for forgiveness.

But the nature of confession, remorse and atonement is much more profound. If someone has sincere remorse, and is pained and grieved by their wrongdoing, and we perceive the sincere pain and grief they feel, forgiving becomes possible. If someone dear to me has badly hurt me through inconsiderate actions, I will probably feel anger and vengeance. If this person apologizes, and I see a sincere pain, a hurt they feel for doing me pain, and I do not see this person as intrinsically evil, forgiveness may be easy: seeing the other suffer, maybe even as much as I have, makes me feel pity towards the other, the perpretator, and may lead me too think that this pain is not deserved. So true remorse can lead to forgiving, not in a causal way, but as a precondition, leading to my decision whether to forgive or not. Sincere remorse is a precondition: without it, forgiveness seems hardly possible. With it, forgiveness is not an entitlement, but it certainly becomes a possibility. My free act of forgiving becomes possible through the sincere remorse shown by the other.

[IF] ‘Impossible forgiveness’, Paul van Tongeren, in: Ethical Perspectives 15, no. 3, Leuven 2008