Forgiveness and mercy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K024-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

4. Apology, forgiveness and mercy

Because sincere remorse and repentance can sometimes open the door to both forgiveness and mercy, it is natural to think that apologies – as expressions of remorse and repentance – can legitimately function in a similar way. This is problematic, however, since apologies can easily fake remorse and repentance; and the suspicion that one is encountering fakery greatly increases, of course, when wrongdoers have reason to think that their own desires (to be forgiven, to be shown mercy) are likely to be advanced by a good show. As a Hollywood mogul once said, ‘Sincerity is the most precious thing in the world. When you have learned to fake that, you’ve got it made’. Not wishing to cheapen the concepts of forgiveness and repentance may be one of the reasons why those who designed the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (not called a ‘Forgiveness’commission, it should be noted) did not demand apology as a condition for amnesty for those who committed such atrocities as torture under the apartheid regime, a condition that would have encouraged fake apologies. All that was demanded was full disclosure and acceptance of responsibility (see Minow 1999).

One might see apology as opening the door to both forgiveness and mercy in cases where one has good reasons to believe that the apology is not counterfeit but is indeed expressive of genuine remorse and repentance. Such reasons will typically not be provided by mere words in, for example, a sentencing hearing before a judge in a criminal case. An apology in the context of a changed life, however, might provide such reasons. This is the sort of thing that takes time to establish, of course, and so in law a clemency or pardon hearing – which will typically take place after the wrongdoer has served some of the prescribed sentence – is the most appropriate context in which to consider the matter.

One might well wonder why even a sincere apology – one expressive of genuine remorse and repentance – should matter. From the perspective of a victim, how could the fact that the wrongdoer has repented lessen the grievance that the victim has? One possibility is that, at the very least, a sincere apology represents the withdrawal of the degrading and insulting message conveyed by the wrongdoer and in that sense might be seen as lessening the harm, and thus the grievance. Sometimes even an insincere apology can provide satisfaction – retributive satisfaction – to victims if participating in a public apology ritual can be seen as humiliating for the wrongdoer. And even the ritual itself might convey important expressive messages to victim, wrongdoer and society at large.

Both forgiveness and mercy, because of the tensions they generate, will no doubt remain problematic concepts that will continue to generate rich legal, philosophical and theological discussion. It is an obvious truth, of course, that the virtuous person is one lacking in neither charity (the primary foundation of mercy and forgiveness) nor justice (the primary foundation for resentment and punishment). What is by no means obvious, however, is how these virtues are to be brought into harmony in all the actual complex cases that arise in the moral lives of individuals and communities.

Citing this article:
Murphy, Jeffrie G.. Apology, forgiveness and mercy. Forgiveness and mercy, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K024-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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