3:AM: You like to untangle confusions in big but everyday ideas. One of the first of these is the ethics of forgiveness. In the literature and in everyday parlance, forgiveness has to be uncompromising – we’re not to do it begrudgingly. That suggests we all think that if we compromise our forgiveness it isn’t forgiveness. Don’t we risk losing the contrast Schiller makes between doing the right thing gracefully or not in thinking that? Why can’t I just forgive badly or awkwardly or clumsily?
PH: I guess I do like to untangle confusions in big but everyday ideas—I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that’s true.
You can definitely forgive badly, awkwardly, or clumsily. In my first publication I claimed that forgiveness must be “uncompromising,” by which I meant that you cannot genuinely forgive unless you continue to believe three things: that the wrong was a serious one, that you deserve not to be wronged in that way, and that the wrongdoer is someone who can be expected not to behave as he or she did. If you eliminate your resentment by giving up on one of these three claims, you are doing something other than forgiving. To give up on the first or the second claim is to excuse, not to forgive. To give up on the third is either to excuse or to do something like dismiss the wrongdoer or hold her in contempt—also not forgiveness. So, forgiveness must be uncompromising, to be forgiveness at all. But genuine, uncompromising forgiveness can certainly be done badly or awkwardly or (though this is more interesting) ungracefully.
3:AM: So you say everyone discussing forgiveness makes the same two errors. What are these and how does your approach avoid them?
PH: The first concerns how we relate to our own emotions. In thinking about how to “overcome” resentment (and so achieve forgiveness), people tend to think of resentment as a kind of force or affect to be managed—to be “dispelled,” “let go of,” or “conquered.” Of course, we can manage our own emotions (some of us are better at it than others). That is one way we relate to them. But emotions like resentment are not just forces at work within us, to be managed—like a disease or a headache—they also embody, or constitute, our take on some aspect of the world, our sense of what is important or threatening or wonderful or wrong. And so we relate to them, not just as forces to manage, but also as the stance on or posture towards the world that we, ourselves, inhabit and sustain. And that means we might alter them, not merely by “dispelling” or “conquering” them, but also by changing our mind about what is important or threatening or wonderful or wrong.
We do sometimes revise our resentment in response to new information in this second way—in something like the way we revise our beliefs in response to evidence. For example, we revise our resentment when we learn it was just an accident. In this example, though, we are excusing, rather than forgiving.
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