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Ambivalence About Forgiveness

  • Miranda Fricker (a1)

Our ideas about forgiveness seem to oscillate between idealization and scepticism. How should we make sense of this apparent conflict? This paper argues that we should learn something from each, seeing these views as representing opposing moments in a perennial and well-grounded moral ambivalence towards forgiveness. Once we are correctly positioned, we shall see an aspect of forgiveness that recommends precisely this ambivalence. For what will come into view will be certain key psychological mechanisms of moral-epistemic influence – other-addressed and self-addressed mechanisms of moral social construction – that enable forgiveness to function well when it is well-functioning, but which are also intrinsically prone to deterioration into one or another form of bad faith. Thus forgiveness is revealed as necessarily containing seeds of its own corruption, showing ambivalence to be a generically appropriate attitude. Moreover, it is emphasized that where forgiver and forgiven are relating to one another in the context of asymmetries of social power, the practice of forgiveness is likely to be further compromised, notably increasing the risk of negative influence on the moral-epistemic states of either the forgiver or the forgiven, or both.

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1 For the first ideal, see for example Griswold's, Charles paradigm of forgiveness in his Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); for the second, see for example Pettigrove's, Glen notion of ‘grace’ in his Forgiveness and Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

2 Nussbaum, Martha C., Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 72–3.

3 Elsewhere I argue for this view in relation to what I call Communicative Blame – blame communicated in a manner suitable to elicit remorseful moral understanding on the part of the wrongdoer. See Fricker, , ‘What's the Point of Blame? A Paradigm Based Explanation’, Noûs 50.1 (2014), 165183.

4 See Swire, Peter P., ‘Equality of Opportunity and Investment in Creditworthiness’, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 143.5 (1995), 15331559: ‘a person may reasonably decide not to bother participating in a lending market that seems discriminatory. And, if a person is in fact approved for a loan in such a market, greater incentives exist to take the money and run, or at least not to strive so valiantly to pay on time’ (1534–5). I thank Boudewijn de Bruin for directing me to this work. For a virtue-based account of the broader issues, see de Bruin, Ethics and the Global Financial Crisis: Why Incompetence is Worse than Greed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

5 See Holton, Richard, ‘Deciding to Trust, Coming to Believe’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy 72 (1994), 6376; Faulkner, PaulNorms of Trust’, in Haddock, A., Millar, A., and Pritchard, D. (eds.) Social Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Jones, KarenTrust as an Affective Attitude’, Ethics 107.1 (1996), 425.

6 See Fricker, ‘What's the Point of Blame? A Paradigm Based Explanation’; and Williams, Bernard, ‘Internal Reasons and The Obscurity of Blame’, in Making Sense of Humanity and other philosophical papers 1982–1993 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

7 See Williams ‘Internal Reasons and The Obscurity of Blame’, 40–43. Williams does not use the term ‘recognize’ of course, which is a term of art on my part. In relation to practical reasons Williams generally used the verb ‘have’, since his commitment to the doctrine of internal reasons pictures reasons as relativized to a semi-idealized set of motivational states in the agent (her ‘S’). From this it follows that the proper description of any case in which a proleptic mechanism has any real work to do must be given in terms of the wrongdoer actually lacking a reason the blamer might however cause him to acquire. (In Williams's idiom, the bad thing about really bad people is that they really lack moral reasons.) No doubt proleptic mechanisms can cause some other things in this general vicinity: realizing I have a reason I didn't know I had, for instance, because the requisite motive was either already in my motivational set but concealed from me, or because it should have been there but, owing to an error of fact or reasoning on my part, wasn't.

8 Benjamin Bagley discusses these issues in a way that envisions blame's proleptic action as a matter of retrospectively rendering determinate some patch of the culprit's normative psychology presumed to have previously been less than fully determinate. (See Bagley, Benjamin, ‘Properly Proleptic Blame’, Ethics 127 (2017): 852882. While I would agree that increasing psychological determinacy is indeed one modus operandi of prolepsis, and an important one to emphasize, still I do not regard it as the only one. In my view (and I believe in Williams's conception) being blamed is one kind of experience that stands a chance of changing one's outlook or sensibility, adding or subtracting an item in one's S, or shifting the order of priority among existing items so as to produce new sound deliberative routes and thus new reasons for the agent. New experiences sometimes change us; new morally relevant experiences sometimes change us morally.

9 Fricker, ‘What's the Point of Blame? A Paradigm Based Explanation’.

10 McGeer, Victoria, ‘Civilizing Blame’, in Coates, D. Justin and Tognazzini, Neil A. (eds.), Blame: Its Nature and Norms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 179.

11 Insisting on more explicitly articulate moral argumentation would seem intellectualist, and not in the spirit of McGeer's general Strawsonian approach; so I take myself, I hope correctly, to be presenting McGeer's selfsame view when I stretch the notions of ‘argumentation’, ‘evidence’ and own ‘proximal reasons’ to encompass the rational sensitivities that are expressed in an exchange of spontaneous moral reactive attitudes and feelings.

12 For some recent views of this kind see Griswold, Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration; Hieronymi, Pamela, ‘Articulating an Uncompromising Forgiveness’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 62.3 (2001), 529555; Murphy, Jeffrie in Hampton, Jean and Murphy, Jeffrie, Forgiveness and Mercy (Cambridge University Press, 1998); Bennett, Christopher, ‘Personal and Redemptive Forgiveness’, European Journal of Philosophy 11.2 (2003), 127144; among many others.

13 For some recent views of this kind see Pettigrove, , Forgiveness and Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Allais, LucyWiping the Slate Clean: The Heart of Forgiveness’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 36.1 (2008), 33-68; and Elective Forgiveness’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 21.5 (2013), 637653; and Garrard, Eve and McNaughton, David, ‘In Defence of Unconditional Forgiveness’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 103.1 (2004), 3960.

14 Strawson, P. F., ‘Freedom and Resentment’, in Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1974), 6 (italics added).

15 See Miranda Fricker, ‘Forgiveness: An Ordered Pluralism’, Australian Philosophical Review (forthcoming).

16 Pettigrove, Glen, Forgiveness and Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), chapter 7.

17 Pettigrove, Forgiveness and Love, 126, and see also 140 nn. 57, 58.

18 I thank David Enoch for a helpful discussion of these issues.

19 Here, as earlier, I am indebted to McGeer's discussion of the ‘regulation’ worry in relation to blame (McGeer, ‘Civilizing Blame’).

20 I thank Antony Duff and Christel Fricke for discussion of this point.

21 I set out the idea of ‘identity power’ in chapter 1 of Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

22 Espen Gamlund has argued that we can make sense of forgiving someone even for a wrong that was wholly excused (see Gamlund, Forgiveness Without Blame’ in Fricke, Christel (ed.), The Ethics of Forgiveness (London: Routledge, 2011). And Nicolas Cornell has argued that one can forgive someone pre-emptively, before they perpetrate the wrongdoing (Cornell, , ‘The Possibility of Pre-emptive Forgiving’, Philosophical Review 126.2 (2017), 241272).

23 Rae Langton, ‘Blocking as Counter-Speech’, in Daniel Harris, Daniel Fogal, and Matt Moss (eds.), New Work on Speech Acts, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming). Langton draws explicitly on David Lewis's notion of ‘rules of accommodation’ in Scorekeeping in a Language Game’, Journal of Philosophical Logic 8 (1979): 339359.

24 Langton, ‘Blocking as Counter-Speech’, 3.

25 This is very close to Agnes Callard's idea of self-addressed proleptic reasons that take the form of ‘self-management reasons’ (Callard, , ‘Proleptic Reasons’, in Shafer-Landau, Russ (ed.), Oxford Studies in Metaethics 2 (2016); and also somewhat to David Velleman's idea that sometimes in order to embrace an ideal we must pretend to it (Velleman, , ‘Motivation by Ideal’, Philosophical Explorations 5.2 (2002): 89103). But in the case I am describing here, the forgiver already embraces the reason and motive to forgive; she is simply trying to get her continuing or residual blame-feelings to catch up.

26 For the related idea that the justification of a speech act of forgiveness may precede the requisite change of heart, see Norlock, Kathryn, Forgiveness From A Feminist Perspective (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).

27 Charles Griswold suggests that a success condition of forswearing is that one has had at least a little success already at actually relinquishing the blame-feelings, and this seems right, on pain of the commitment being empty – forswearing is more than lip-service. See Griswold, Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration.

28 Earlier versions of this paper were given in a number of places including Sheffield, Oslo, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Princeton, Vanderbilt, NYU, The Graduate Center CUNY, and The Society for Applied Philosophy Annual Conference 2018. I am grateful to the many people who were present on these occasions for helpful discussion. I also thank the editors and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments.

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Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements
  • ISSN: 1358-2461
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