Margalit on Forgiving

Recently I’ve been exploring the notion of ‘forgiveness’. Avishai Margalit has devoted a chapter to it in his book ‘The Ethics of Memory‘. The chapter is titled ‘Forgiving and Forgetting’. In it, Margalit makes a distinction between forgiving as ‘deleting’ (text, as in a text editor) and forgiving as ‘crossing out’ (which leaves the original text visible). Forgiving as deleting means totally forgetting the original misdeed: it restores the original relationship between offender and victim, as if the misdeed had never happened. Forgiving as crossing out leaves the memory of the deed intact. Forgiving here is the intention of the victim not to act out of vengeance, i.e. the offense will be remembered, but the offended person will act as if it had not been committed.

Margalit notes aptly that forgiving as deleting is contradictory. It means forgetting the misdeed; and forgetting is something we cannot do intentionally. Margalit compares this to voluntary muscles, such as those in legs and arms, which we can exercise at will, and involuntary muscles such as the heart muscle, which we cannot stop and start at will. Like voluntary and involuntary muscles, there are voluntary and involuntary mental acts, and forgetting is not voluntary. We can strive towards it, try not to think of something, and in due time we may indeed forget it, but we cannot decide to forget.  (I skip the remarks Margalit makes on religion and forgiveness, and the special role of God in religious views on forgiveness – for this I heartily recommend his book.) Like Paul van Tongeren, Margalit notes that forgiving actually entails not forgetting: ‘…forgiveness, which is voluntary, should not be tied to forgetting, which is involuntary’ [EM, p. 203].

Margalit further distinguishes between forgiving as a decision, a policy adopted by us not to act out of vengeance, and forgiveness, as the mental state of having overcome resentment and anger: ‘…forgiveness denotes both a process and an achievement, just as the word work denotes both the process of working and the work that is accomplished’ [EM. p. 205]. This conception of forgiveness as a state of non-resentful inner calm and peace is why we forgive on behalf of ourselves as well as the other, as Margalit concludes.

Next, I’ll explore Margalit’s views on atonement and remorse.

[EM] The Ethics of Memory, Avishai Margalit, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2002