Can Forgiveness Ever Be Selfish or Even Immoral?
Might the act of forgiving at times enable the inappropriate behavior of others?
Posted May 06, 2019
I want to thank a person who commented on my recent essay in which I reflected on the 30-year-anniversary of the first empirical article published on the topic of person-to-person forgiving. The comment was quite thoughtful in arguing that the act of forgiving, if it is focused on healing the self of negative emotions, actually can be an act of selfishness. Even worse, if the one is forgiven does not show remorse, repent, or make amends, then the forgiver, by this supposedly morally virtuous action of forgiving, is enabling the bad behavior of the other, who might scoff at the forgiver as weak. The inappropriate behavior, then, marches on unchecked because the gesture of forgiving is seen as a sign of caving into the other's demands.
There are three major issues that we must scrutinize to accurately address these very interesting challenges to forgiveness.
First, forgiveness is a moral virtue, as are justice, patience, kindness, love and other qualities centered on goodness. As Aristotle reminds us, all moral virtues concern goodness that is in the best interest of others (Aristotle, 1999). He further explains that none of us is perfect in our expression of any virtue and so we will not necessarily get the expression of any virtue 100% correct on any given attempt. Forgiveness, as a moral virtue, then, is centered on goodness toward others, particularly those who have not been good to the forgiver. Because none of the virtues is focused exclusively on the self, it follows that forgiving cannot have this exclusive focus either. In other words, forgiveness is never about the self, but is about a response to those who have behaved unjustly. A special case is self-forgiveness in which people break their own standards, but even this is not exclusively self-focused as a self-forgiver tries to make amends with those hurt by the actions needing self-forgiveness. Even though the moral virtue of forgiving is directed toward others, there can be a focus on the self regarding the outcomes of forgiving, what is gained in the forgiving, particularly peace of mind, the cessation of negative emotions, and a general sense of self-health.
In other words, and continuing with this first point, we must make a critical distinction between what forgiveness **is** and the **outcomes** of forgiving. Forgiving **is** about offering empathy, compassion, and understanding to an offending other, not because of what happened, but in spite of this. Even if a forgiver's initial motivation is self-healing, if true forgiving is being exercised, then this forgiver must (by definition of what forgiving is) begin to focus attention on the offending other with the deliberate intention to be good to that person. The act of forgiving, then, is never selfish. False forms of forgiving certainly can be as, for example, the "forgiver" only proclaims such forgiveness for the purpose of virtue-signaling (See how great I am?). Yet, its false form is an imposter and not the real thing. A focus on the consequences for the self need not be seen as selfish in this context, but instead as self-interested. Having a self-interest in one's own betterment, in the restoration of one's own psychological health, is a reasonable goal. Even if this is the initial goal, when people truly forgive, they often shift that goal to include healing of the offending other as well, but this can take time and a more mature development in the practice of the moral virtues.
Second, is it ever the case that true forgiving will enable the other's inappropriate behavior to continue unchecked? The short answer is no. I say this, again because of Aristotelian wisdom in which he warns us never to practice the moral virtues in isolation. For example, the exercise of courage by itself could get a person killed, if for example, he is a non-swimmer and courageously dives into a raging river to save the life of a drowning dog. The courageous non-swimmer needs the virtue of wisdom to come alongside the act of courage so that, instead of jumping into the turbulent water, he instead picks up his cell phone and dials 911. When people forgive, it is important to bring into this situation the virtue of justice, or giving people what is earned or deserved. Forgive and ask for fairness. Forgive and stand up for your rights. Appropriating forgiveness and justice together will not give the other permission to keep being hurtful. Further, because forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same, one can forgive and stay away from the other until there is sufficient evidence of remorse, repentance, and at least as far as possible, recompense (see Enright, 2012 for a discussion of these themes).
Third, will true forgiving lead to the other scoffing at the forgiver? Yes, this can happen. The other could laugh and say something like this: "What?? I did nothing wrong. You are being overly sensitive!" In such a case, the forgiver has yet another forgiveness situation toward this person, this time for the scoffing. Also, if a forgiver suspects such behavior from the other, then the forgiver does not have to proclaim the forgiveness. Instead, the forgiver can show the forgiving by, for example, a smile, or a returned phone call, or some act of kindness. Scoffing by the other need not deter the decision to forgive.
Is forgiveness ever selfish? No, it never is when truly practiced as a moral virtue. Is forgiveness ever immoral because it enables bad behavior? No, it never is immoral precisely because it is a moral virtue and all moral virtues are good in and of themselves. Forgiving does not enable bad behavior because forgiveness and justice need to be a team.
All of this having been said, I still like the challenges put forth in the comment. This is because the person is warning us to get forgiveness right if we decide to go ahead with it. In other words, be careful not to conflate what forgiveness is with its consequences. Be careful not to practice forgiving without justice-seeking. Be careful how you express forgiveness to others. Yes, forgiving when done with much error associated with it can bring about more pain. Yet, refraining from forgiveness altogether may result in a harbored pain of resentment that can be much worse than the temporary consequences of imperfect forgiving.
Aristotle (1999), translated by Rackham, H. (1999). Nicomachean ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Enright, R.D. (2012). The forgiving life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.