Forgiveness and mercy

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

2. Forgiveness and self-respect

There are, of course, many things to be said in favour of forgiveness: it allows us to show our genuine commitment to love and compassion (central virtues in the Christian tradition) in really hard test cases, cases where we have been personally wronged or injured; it allows us to check excessive self-importance or self-love, tendencies that incline us to overdramatize some of the wrongs done to us (a point well made by Simone Weil and others); it allows us to avoid the self-poisoning effects of resentment itself (a poison graphically described by Nietzsche §§89); it may confer considerable social benefits, such as the avoidance of feuds and vigilante activities; and it allows us to maintain our most valued personal relationships. This last benefit arises from the fact that, since each of us will sometimes wrong the people that mean the most to us, there will be times when we will want to be forgiven by those whom we have wronged. Seeing this, no rational person would desire to live in a world where forgiveness was not seen as a healing virtue.

In spite of all these splendid fruits that may be born of forgiveness, it is hard to regard it as an unqualified virtue. Although one of course wants to guard against excessive self-importance or self-love, are not certain assertions of the value of the self – the assertion of one’s moral rights, for example – morally permissible, perhaps even morally mandatory? If one thinks that self-respect, in contrast to servility, is a virtue, is it not plausible to argue that one important way in which this self-respect may sometimes be shown is through resenting those persons who maliciously inflict wrongs upon us? We show our moral respect for others in feeling indignation when they are wronged. May we not show moral respect for ourselves by feeling resentment when we are wronged? And if we do not, what does this show? That we are manifesting the virtues of love and forgiveness, or simply that we are servile persons with low self-esteem, unable to demand the respect that we deserve?

Forgiveness thus creates a problem: can it be conceptualized as a virtue in such a way that it does not immediately collapse into the vice of servility? One way out of this tension, perhaps, is to make forgiveness conditional on a change in the wrongdoer: namely, repentance. When we are wronged, one of the things most threatening to our self-respect is the symbolic message that the wrongdoer seems to be conveying about us: the message that we matter less than the wrongdoer and thus may simply be used, like an object, for the wrongdoer’s own purposes. This is a message that one’s own self-respect prompts one to resist, and resentment of the wrongdoer is our primary emotional way of expressing such resistance. As much as we might like to follow Augustine’s counsel that we should ‘hate the sin and not the sinner’, it is difficult to follow this counsel when the wrongdoer remains attached to the wrongdoing. But what if the wrongdoer seeks to break this attachment – as shown by sincere repentance? Then there is no longer an endorsement of the insulting and humiliating message contained in the wrongful conduct, and the wronged person can now forgive and join with the wrongdoer in condemning the act from which the wrongdoer is now severed. In this case forgiveness and self-respect seem obviously compatible. For this reason it is not surprising that repentance, which opens the door to forgiveness by allowing the wronged person a self-respecting retreat from resentment, has loomed large in the moral literature on forgiveness. It is also not surprising that repentance (and the purity of heart at which it aims) has been regarded within some (but not all) religious traditions as a precondition of God’s forgiveness of sinners.

Of course, not everyone would agree that resentment of wrongdoers is essentially tied to human self-respect. (The whole conceptual framework of resentment and self-respect may not even apply to God, of course, and thus divine forgiveness may have to be understood in totally different terms.) A person who grounds their self-respect in something other than the regard of other people will perhaps see resentment as a natural response but also as a dangerous temptation – a temptation to rely on something that is an improper basis for self-respect. Such a person may well see forgiveness – even in the absence of repentance on the part of the wrongdoer – as a way of restoring full and properly founded self-respect. Persons who do not derive their self-respect from treatment by other people may, of course, rely on a variety of different sources and world views to support a sense of their own worth – for example, the moral elitism of a Socrates (‘Why should I care if the ignorant seek to harm me?’) or the belief of Christians that their self-respect is grounded in the fact that God loves them.

People sometimes speak of unforgivable injuries, but it is not always clear what this phrase means. Does it, for example, mean injuries that literally cannot be forgiven or rather injuries that ought not be forgiven? And is it the injuries themselves that are supposed to be unforgivable or rather the wrongdoers who inflict the injuries who are to be regarded as unforgivable? (It is interesting to note in this regard that wrongdoers who seek forgiveness typically say ‘Forgive me’ not ‘Forgive what I did’.) Christians sometimes speak of despair as the one unforgivable sin (by God) and, interestingly enough, despair is generally characterized as coming to believe that one is outside the scope of God’s forgiveness – something that no human being should ever presume to judge.

Citing this article:
Murphy, Jeffrie G.. Forgiveness and self-respect. Forgiveness and mercy, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K024-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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