In this essay I will be attempting to answer the question: ‘is it conceptually possible to forgive someone who does not show remorse?’ Beginning this with the definition of forgiveness, pardoning, and neglect, I will then move on to an extreme example by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, going on to explore the possibility of forgiveness with no anger or resentment, and also the possibility of forgiveness with no urge to punish the wrong-doer. Forgiveness from a religious context, forgiveness through meekness, through authority, and through neglect, and forgiveness without moral objectivity. I will then explore whether forgiveness from meekness, from authority, and from neglect qualifies as forgiveness and obeys the defining aspects of the concept. Then the possibility of forgiveness when the wrong-doer has no remorse will be explored. I will finish up the essay with an attempt at defining a full and well-rounded example of forgiveness.
To begin we need to define forgiveness itself. The standard definition is: ‘Forgive: 1, Stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone for an offence or mistake. 2, no longer feel angry about or wish to punish an offence or mistake.’ (1) As can be seen from this forgiveness is standardly seen as the action of stopping anger or negative feelings towards someone or something which has done harm or wrong to oneself. Typically this is when you feel or think someone has morally harmed you and you feel justified in your anger or resentment, but you actively put away these negative emotions in order to let the person forgo the punishment of the moral harm they have committed against you.
So, for example: someone has stolen an item from your household. You find out that it is a close friend, you are angry because they have taken one of your items and disrespected you by doing so. However, you put that anger at the disrespect away and wipe away their punishment (a legal fine, criminal record, your anger and lose of your friendship, etc..). This is a typical but somewhat shallow example of forgiveness. I will give more complicated and nuanced examples as I go in order to draw out the problematic nature of the concept of forgiveness.
However, a further distinction needs to be made. Forgiveness is a multi-faceted concept. It is not merely an action. The action of forgiving is best defined by the term ‘pardon’: ‘Pardon: 1, the action of forgiving someone for a mistake or offence. 2, an official cancellation of the punishment for an offence.’ (2) The term pardon is the action of forgiving, but the term forgiveness is much more than merely the pardoning of a wrong. Forgiveness is not the pardoning, but the ending/stopping/stunting the feeling of anger or resentment towards the person that did you wrong, while pardoning is removing the punishment. So as you can see pardoning is a part of forgiveness as well.
So, for example: someone has wronged me and I find out. I then initiate a pardon via an action: talking to them and forgiving them. The pardon is the action which contains the forgiveness such as saying so. Although legally a pardon is not forgiveness, but the wiping away of the punishment regardless of the crime or the guiltiness of the wrong-doer. It is worth noting that this legal concept of ‘forgiveness’, or more accurately ‘pardoning’ is not of any concern in this essay.
So it seems that one can forgive without pardoning, but one cannot pardon without forgiving the punishment into negation. For example if you forgive someone with no thought or any statement or action. You have forgiven the wrong with no action, and thus committed no pardon. However, this form of forgiveness can be a shallow form where there isn’t really forgiveness happening, but instead a lack of action. For example your friend steals something from you, and instead of expressing your offense and also expressing your willingness to forgive, you instead say nothing and do nothing. This is not forgiveness, but neglect. By neglect I mean: ‘Neglect: 1, fail to give proper care or attention to. 2, fail to do something.’ (3) In this sense forgiveness has not been given, nor asked for. Instead you have expressed moral cowardice and ignored the problem completely.
One of the most extreme and polarised examples of forgiveness being a multi-faceted concept which contains forgiving, pardoning and also a misunderstanding leading to neglect rather than forgiveness, was penned by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. The example that he gives is when two of the Karamazov brothers are chatting. (4) Ivan the intellectual Nihilist is interrogating the religious Alyosha in a debate about forgiveness and the virtues of religion. Ivan has been placing examples of evil deeds onto Alyosha by reading newspapers to him and telling stories of deeds he has heard about, and asking him whether he would forgive the deed. Alyosha replies in a typically Christian fashion by saying yes to each one, and showing a lack of thought behind each example. Ivan then uses the example of children, who he argues deserve no torment because of their natural innocence. Which Alyosha agrees to as he has often expressed that the innocence of children is a goodness which is worthy of Heaven and deserves no suffering. He gives the example of a young serf boy who accidentally harms a hunting hound by playing with throwing stones. The hound belongs to a general who as punishment demands that the child runs away after being stripped naked in front of him, the hounds and the huntsmen. When the child runs the general orders the hounds to rip him to pieces in front of the child’s mother, as if he is a hunted rabbit.
Ivan then asks Alyosha if the general was captured and put on trial what should be done with him? Shoot him? Alyosha answers back in a weak voice that he should be shot, and that Alyosha himself would shoot him if he had the chance. To which Ivan is pleased that his brother has let go of his forgiving nature. Alyosha couldn’t bring himself to consider forgiving the general for this act.
But let us imagine the mother of the child visits the general, and says that she forgives him. What can we make of this? Is she in her serfdom and Christian values forgiving out of habit, and thus not forgiving but actually committing an act of moral negligence? Or is she actually forgiving the general, or merely pardoning his actions? While it seems conceptually possible for this mother of a torn-to-pieces young serf boy to forgive the general, it is also morally absurd for her to put away the anger and resentment, and also by allowing the general to be pardoned and thus avoid any form of punishment she is indeed forgiving, but with such an extreme example there seems to be something deeply wrong with her forgiving him. Our reaction to such an example is either to state that she is a moral paragon of goodness and forgiveness for being so able to put the moral law of forgiveness into action with such an evil case, or that she has not reflected on the action enough to even begin to be able to forgive, because such an act is unforgivable: which is the opinion of Alyosha.
Because of Alyosha’s deeply religious convictions towards forgiveness it is worth delving into forgiveness in this way. Especially because of the distinctions and modern form of forgiveness which we are now dealing with. The typical religious reason for forgiving within ethical systems like Christianity are put forward as a form of awareness of human flaws compared to God, and the nature of our existence which ultimately is judged by a higher authority.
‘In God’s reign, which is already beginning, it will be those who are humble enough to accept their need for God’s love and forgiveness who will find that they belong to this new order of things; the proud, self-righteous, and unjust will be revealed for what they are. Thus the first will be last, and the last will be first.’ (5)
Forgiveness in a religious context is usually given in order to remove the punishment of a sin committed. The etymology of the word sin is Hebrew and comes from a term which means to miss a target in archery. To sin is not to miss the target completely, but to not hit the centre, and thus fail at a perfect shot. In this sense forgiveness of sin is not punishment for not achieving perfection, but identifying your anger or resentment at the missed perfection as a reaction that ignores the flawed nature of man. Forgiveness within this context is the realisation through reflection that one could also commit this sin, and thus would be holding the sinner to a standard which all humans fail on occasion to keep.
John Patton makes this clear in his essay when he states:
‘[H]uman forgiveness is not doing something but discovering something – that I am more like those who have hurt me than I am different from them. I am able to forgive when I discover that I am in no position to forgive.’ (6)
This religious concept of forgiveness is based on the inherently flawed nature of the human condition, and thus is a form of forgiveness through meekness. When we forgive, we forgive because we would hope to be forgiven when we make a mistake too. Later on in this essay I will be making a distinction between forgiveness from positions, such as forgiveness from meekness and forgiveness from authority. This form of forgiveness from meekness is shared across many religions, and in our culture comes from the Christian and Judaic traditions.
A simple example of forgiveness through meekness in both Christianity and Judaism is the concept of prayer. (7) There are many forms of prayer: a plea for help, a request for change or guidance, or in the case of forgiveness; reflecting on sin done by you and to you. From this prayer, and thus reflection we study the human condition in the light of a universal law of human brotherhood, from this we consider how flawed we are, and how easy it is for us to go astray with ourselves and each other. Because of this we can obtain a reflected-upon position and come to forgive ourselves or those who have harmed us. This is forgiveness through meekness, thus this is reflective-forgiveness.
An example of this is when you’re wronged, you get angry but upon reflection you begin to see how easy that wrong was to do to you. Because of this you forgive the person and consider your anger shallow and narrow minded compared to the bigger picture of reality. John Patton defines anger being negated by reflection, thus leading to forgiveness as internal/external forgiveness. (8) For Patton internal forgiveness is when you can identify your anger and be able to change it and relinquish it because of changing to ourselves, while external forgiveness is when the reflection on the wrong done to you allows you to see and understand why and how that wrong came about. As can be seen both internal and external forms of forgiveness in these cases are forgiveness through meekness.
Forgiveness through meekness is that which negates the anger and resentment, and also the urge to punish. Because of this it is worth asking whether it is possible to forgive someone if the forgiver never gets angry in the first place. This seems to contradict what forgiveness is by definition. For example, the women who loses her boy to the general is not upset, angry, resentful and does not wish to punish the general. What sense can we make of her statement “I forgive you”, when she has nothing to forgive except the action? She has only spoken the words but put no anger or resentment away, and never formed an urge to punish the general. If we merely say the words “I forgive you.”, without first forming an urge to punish, and have an emotion of anger or resentment then the words “I forgive you.”, are the same as a promise: a token statement to be judged by, but doesn’t do anything or change anything.
Sharpe says this in a slightly different way:
‘Even if we treat ‘I forgive you’ as a performative which states a refusal to prosecute or seek revenge as has been suggested by some who think it can be a speech act, it does not seem on all fours with a speech act such as promising.’ (9)
We cannot forgive an action if that action has not harmed us. If we allow this then we could also allow forgiveness for any arbitrary actions such as being nice to you or walking past you. We cannot make sense of such a form of forgiveness. Forgiveness where no feeling of being wronged is in existence is not forgiveness.
Sharpe puts forward the idea of benign-neglect which I believe will be helpful on this subject. He puts this forward as so:
‘Part of our Christian legacy is that many of us prize innocence. We think it better to be taken in and forgive rather than to be suspicious and not forgive. If forgiveness depends upon honourable illusions, it is not thereby invalidated. In fact, if I am right about the influence of Christianity on the way we think, this process of forgiveness leads inexorably in the direction of ‘benign neglect’. Once we have forgiven, then too much time has elapsed to recommence a vendetta. It would be beneath me to bother. If I were mistaken and the offender was worse than I thought, that is sad, but it is not a reason to withdraw forgiveness. In practice we often think it right to avoid double jeopardy and think it wrong to re-open old wounds.’ (10)
What Sharpe is putting forward is the idea that when one forgives regardless of our reaction or lack of we turn our forgiveness into benign-neglect. Which is where we put down or ignore our feelings of being wronged. Because of our habit of forgiving first, and also because of the politeness of our culture to not bring up past wounds we leave such wrongs in the past. This kind of forgiveness negates the punishment, but not the feeling of anger and resentment. Which means this form of forgiveness is not forgiveness by definition either. I call this forgiveness from authority: that of removing the punishment – a pardon.
So we have forgiveness from meekness, from authority, and from neglect. Forgiveness from meekness is recognising with reflection that the sinner is suffering from the same flawed and human condition which we are, thus we forgive. Forgiveness from authority is benign-neglect and is the ignoring of our anger and resentment in order to remove the punishment, this fails to be forgiveness as it misses one half of the definition. Forgiveness from neglect is when we feel no anger or resentment, and do not have the urge to punish. I define forgiveness from neglect as impotent-forgiveness. Impotent-forgiveness is the form of forgiveness which has no anger, resentment and punishment: it is the emptiest form of forgiveness, and thus this forgiveness is not forgiveness at all, which is why I will now define it as impotent-neglect.
So now we have three main concepts of forgiveness:
1. Forgiveness from authority – benign-neglect: only obeys half of the definition of forgiveness; negates the punishment.
2. Forgiveness from meekness – reflective-forgiveness: obeys the full definition of forgiveness; negates the anger, resentment and punishment.
3. Forgiveness from impotence – impotent-neglect: doesn’t obey any definition of forgiveness; has no urge or emotion to negate – the negation is empty.
From this we have see that forgiveness from authority is not a full account of forgiveness, but certainly can be classified as a lower-tier version of forgiveness. For example, we disregard the punishment but we do not remove the anger or resentment, thus we fail to forgive in a full sense.
Forgiveness from meekness obeys all forms of the definition of forgiveness and thus is the fullest form of the three concepts. For example, we do get angry over the wrong, but forgive it because we share a common humanity which is flawed.
This concept has two tiers:
1. Tier one is that of forgiving the wrong done to you, but not disregarding the punishment. Thus this form is not a full account of forgiveness and is inferior to tier two.
2. Tier two is that of forgiving the wrong done to you by disregarding the punishment, and also getting over our anger by understanding the external circumstances of the wrong done to us.
Forgiveness from impotence obeys no form of the definition of forgiveness for the action of using the words or thoughts of forgiveness. It is an empty token version of forgiveness, a skeleton. For example, you are wronged but you do not feel anger, resentment or want the wrong-doer to be punished. Thus you fail to have any of the states which forgiveness relinquishes you of.
From this we can see that tier two of reflective-forgiveness is the fullest of the forms of forgiveness. This involves negating our anger, resentment, the urge to punish, and the negation of the punishment.
So when we ask the question:
Is it possible to forgive without being angry or resentful in the first place? The answer is no, that is impotent-neglect, and thus not forgiveness.
And when we ask the question:
Is it possible to forgive without punishing, but remaining angry or resentful? The answer is also no, that is benign-neglect and is a shallow half-definition of forgiveness.
So, what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is when we react to a wrong-doing by becoming angry, resentful and wanting a punishment for the wrong done to us, and then reflecting on that anger, resentment and urge to punish and expand on why and how this wrong did happen to us. We place ourselves in that situation and judge humans as flawed, and thus we realise that sinning is easy (miss the perfect target). Because of this reality of being human we relinquish our anger, our resentment, and also relinquish our urge to punish the wrong-doer, and wish no punishment upon them.
When we go back to the serf boy who was ripped apart by hounds, and the watching mother. Let us imagine the mother is distraught and wishes the general to be shot dead as Alyosha did. She reflects on this upset, anger, resentment of the action and what she wishes upon the general as punishment. If she came to the conclussion that she could have also done the same thing to her own son (no matter how immoral and absurd that is), then it is conceptually possible for her to forgive him.
But let us imagine she does come to that conclusion and years later tracks down the general. She tells him who she is, what he did to her son and how she felt about it then and now. She states that she forgives him, but his reply is that he doesn’t care, nor wants forgiveness. He states that he has no remorse, sees nothing wrong with the act and would do it again. What sense can we make of this? The general has no remorse, but does this impede the mother’s forgiveness?
Conceptually it certainly seems possible that forgiveness is still possible without the general’s remorse. But without the general’s remorse what wrong are we forgiving? Forgiveness requires a wrong done in order to be forgiveness. We cannot forgive something which is not a wrong. For example, we find out that someone has wronged us but come to forgive them upon reflection. This forgiveness is done by reflection and is a full account of forgiveness, it is legitimate. But we later find out that said wrong-doer is actually not the person that wronged us, we forgave the wrong person.
It makes no sense to say that we may have forgave the wrong person but we still forgive the action. We forgive people, not actions. And it also makes no sense to say that our forgiveness still stands. By finding out we have forgiven someone who did us no wrong, we have found out that our forgiveness is negated. We were mistaken.
There is something in this which is very rarely picked up on. How is it possible for us to forgive someone incorrectly and thus negate our forgiveness? By a moral objective law. Without the moral objective law we could not negate our forgiveness if no wrong was done, nor could we forgive when a wrong is done because a wrong would be based on our feelings or cultural norms, rather than an actual concept of forgiveness. (11) If we do not have this moral objective reality then we could forgive for any arbitrary action and not be contradicting ourselves.
The concept of forgiveness cannot work without a moral objectivity, nor can forgiveness work by disobeying that moral objectivity. Allen Wood puts this view forward while discussing Kant and Kierkegaard:
‘Forgiveness cannot be something “outside” morality, or something “higher than” it. No theory of divine grace can be adequate which, like that of Kierkegaard, represents our faith in forgiveness as irrational, as an “offense” to reason, or a “placing of the individual higher than the universal.”‘ (12)
I do not want to go too deeply into the metaphysical reality of ethics, but merely hint at something which needs to be dug much deeper into by fellow thinkers in order to progress further with these problems. If the concept of forgiveness demands of the wrong-done by to relinquish our anger, resentment and the urge to punish, why can the concept of forgiveness not also demand that the wrong-doer is at the very least aware of their wrong-doing. If someone who commits a wrong says they do not have remorse for the action which is wrong, then in what sense have they actually understood what it means to do wrong. If you do understand fully that you did wrong then you would by virtue of knowing what wrong is feel remorse for your wrong-doing. So if a wrong-doer does not feel remorse, they either do not know what doing wrong is and what it means to know you have done wrong, or they simply do not care. If they simply do not care then they are not within the paradigm of morality, and thus are unforgivable.
If they do not care, can forgiveness still be given? I do believe that it is conceptually possible to forgive someone who does not show any remorse for the wrong they have done, however this is certainly not a full and well-rounded version of forgiveness, and it ignores the moral reality behind the wrong act and the forgiveness. What do we mean by remorse? Remorse is defined as: ‘Remorse, deep regret or guilt for a wrong that you have done.’ (13) How do we forgive someone who feels no remorse without committing a shallow version of forgiveness?
If we were to wrong ourselves and then forgive ourselves, this would be because we feel remorse for the wrong we do to ourselves. Upon reflection on this remorse and resentment we realise how flawed we are and instead of seeking punishment we steel ourselves with the resolve of doing better in the future. Thus this self-forgiveness is fuelled by remorse at the wrong we have done, and the urge to want to avoid this is the future.
We can do the same thing when we ourselves wrong someone else. We resent ourselves and ask for forgiveness. When we ask for forgiveness we are shining a light on the wrong we have done and asking for the person to understand that you do not want to do it again, or at least will try your best to avoid making a habit of it.
When we forgive someone else it is usually because the other person shows remorse and we no longer wish them to hurt themselves by that harm done, or because we are harming ourselves by not forgiving. By forgiving the wrong-doer we negate the harm on both sides and give each other the opportunity to do better in the future. Forgiving a friend is a way of allowing the damage done to the friendship to be controlled and stopped, allowing an opportunity on both sides to heal that damage. When we forgive a stranger it is usually because we assume that if we knew them better we would understand why they are wronging us and they are acting through ignorance or need. So, we assume innocence or misguidedness in order to forgive strangers.
This is what Sharpe means when he says:
‘The fuller elements of forgiveness – relevant in the case of a friend – are necessarily absent, the elements which make it possible for me to say ‘I thought you forgave me but you did not’, are not there. They need not be and so the forgiveness of an enemy is easier than the forgiveness of a friend.’ (14)
There seems to be no contradiction with our forgiving someone who shows no remorse unless it is ourselves. We cannot forgive ourselves unless we have a remorse towards the wrong we have done to ourselves. To forgive ourselves for a wrong done to ourselves that we feel no remorse towards makes no sense and contradicts itself. Although it does seem to be a unfulfilled version of forgiveness which doesn’t make the wrong-doer regret the wrong itself. A full account of forgiveness would be one in which we feel anger and resentment towards the wrong-doer while wanting them to be punished for it, but upon reflection we come to identify ourselves with their common humanity and forgive them of the wrong. This forgiveness of the wrong means we negate our anger and resentment, and also our urge to punish. Along with this the wrong-doer would identify itself with the wrong done and the victim and regret the act, causing remorse and an urge to prevent this wrong again in the future. Or at least the urge to try and prevent it. This seems to be a full and well-rounded account of forgiveness, which makes it reflective-forgiveness on both the side of the wronged and the wrong-doer.
‘For in offering me “forgiveness” such a person would imply that I am responsible for the thing in question, and imply also that I am blameworthy for it. In asking for forgiveness, I admit my responsibility and my guilt for the deed in question, but ask that this guilt be lifted from me, that the evil I have done not be held against me. Forgiveness does not excuse evil; it justifies the agent in spite of his evil.’ (15)
Although it certainly is conceptually possible to forgive someone who shows no remorse, it does not reflect a full and well-rounded version of forgiveness. But it doesn’t contradict the definition of forgiveness, and is certainly a form of forgiveness. So, to conclude, yes we can conceptually forgive someone who shows no remorse for the wrong done. There is no contradiction committed by doing so. However, what is truly problematic is the fact that a wrong-doer who shows no remorse for his wrong-doing is not within the moral sphere, and thus forgiving him would be non-sense. This seems to suggest that they are unforgivable. Their lack of participation in morality and the objective moral sphere makes a non-sense out of our forgiving them.
1. Oxford English dictionary. (Oxford University press, 2012.)
2. Oxford English dictionary. (Oxford University press, 2012.)
3. Oxford English dictionary. (Oxford University press, 2012.)
4. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. Part two, Book V: Pro and Contra. 4, Mutiny. (Penguin Classics, 2003.) Pages 316-318.
5. Linda Woodhead, Christianity, a very short introduction. Chapter 1, Jesus: the God-man. Teaching. (Oxford University press, 2014.) Page 9.
6. John Patton, Is human forgiveness possible? (Abingdon press, Nashville, 1985.) Page 16.
7. Norman Solomon, Judaism, a very short introduction. Chapter 5, The spiritual life – prayer, meditation, Torah. What is prayer? (Oxford University press, 2014.) Pages 72-73.
8. R.A Sharpe, Forgiveness, how religion endangers morality. Chapter two, To forgive is human, to judge divine. III. Benign Neglect or ‘Letting Go’. (Imprint Academic (IA), 2007.) Page 47.
9. R.A Sharpe, Forgiveness, how religion endangers morality. Chapter two, To forgive is human, to judge divine. I: Christian forgiveness. (Imprint Academic (IA), 2007.) Page 25.
10. R.A Sharpe, Forgiveness, how religion endangers morality. Chapter three, How to forgive. (Imprint Academic (IA), 2007.) Page 73-74.
11. For a systematic attack on moral views and a defence of moral objectivity see Russ Shafer-Landau‘s book Moral Realism, A defence. (Oxford University press, 2003.)
12. Allen W. Wood, Kant’s moral religion. 6, Radical Evil and Divine Grace. The postulate of divine grace. (Cornell University, 1970.) Page 240.
13. Oxford English dictionary. (Oxford University press, 2012.)
14. R.A Sharpe, Forgiveness, how religion endangers morality. Chapter two, To forgive is human, to judge divine. I: Christian forgiveness. (Imprint Academic (IA), 2007.) Page 34.
15. Allen W. Wood, Kant’s moral religion. 6, Radical Evil and Divine Grace. The postulate of divine grace. (Cornell University, 1970.) Page 243.
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– Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. (Penguin Classics, 2003.)
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– Louth, Andrew. Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology. (Society for promoting Christian knowledge (SPCK), 2013.)
– Oxford English Dictionary. (Oxford University press, 2012.)
– Patton, John. Is human forgiveness possible? (Abingdon press, Nashville, 1985.)
– Roberts, Robert C.. ‘Forgivingness‘, American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pp. 289-306.
– Shafer-Landau, Russ. Moral Realism, A defence. (Oxford University press, 2003.)
– Sharpe, R.A.. Forgiveness, how religion endangers morality. (Imprint Academic (IA), 2007.)
– Solomon, Norman. Judaism, a very short introduction. (Oxford University press, 2014.)
– Wolf, Susan. Moral saints. (University Press Scholarship online, 2015.)
– Wood, Allen W.. Kant’s moral religion. (Cornell University, 1970.)
– Woodhead, Linda. Christianity, a very short introduction. (Oxford University press, 2014.)