The Unforgivable Sin

Okay, yes. I know that some of what I say below is wrong and some of my claims do not follow. I shall write a review on this topic sometime before my exam. Speaking of the topic, this was about something to do with certain unforgivable act. Again, the paper is somewhere on my desk I just can’t find it at the moment.

Sovereign Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a topic that many take for granted. I have an intuitive stance to disagree with most of the literature that tries to define forgiveness in rigid terms and therefore align myself with Garrard (2003) in defending a view of forgiveness as free from conditions and I shall oppose myself with views like Griswold (2007) wherein conditional forgiveness is an assumption. The act of forgiving should be like the concept. There need not be any formalised order in which one has to go through in order to forgive or apologise, but there is a typical procedure that makes it easier for forgiveness to take place. I’m going to argue that forgiveness itself is a ‘forgiving’ thing, in the sense described above, and because of that, there are no moral obligations involving it. It is a virtue and never a requirement.

When starting off with this topic I, as many others in the literature did, assumed that we would need to critically examine the conditions under which forgiveness can be given, however, to do so was a critical error in my initial formulation of a theory. Forgiveness is just not like that. It is a cultural phenomenon which can have significant psychological effects. Two of the obvious objections to any account of unconditional forgiveness is that of a lack of self-respect and an overestimation of self-worth.

In order for a thing to be wronged, it needs to have some set of conditions or parameters within which it is acceptable to act inside of, and unacceptable or inappropriate to act outside of. One simply cannot forgive someone for stealing their car if they had no car for the other to steal or if the other did not in fact steal the car but moved it. The counterpoints raised by Garrard (2003) to these points stand strong. It does not follow that one regards oneself as not worth a moral dime if they forgive another in the act – or, ‘too easily’. If you punch me in the face in a fit of rage and I forgive you, it does not mean that I think of myself as superior to you or that I think that you are not worth moral respect. I can forgive you by excusing your behaviour and saying I understand why that happened.

This may be argued to not be forgiveness at all. Or that, if it is then it is not taking the wrong act seriously enough. Typically, there is a clear reason that separates forgiveness of an act and excusing one of an act. There is a further distinction between forgiveness and mercy in that if you crash into my car, I can forgive you but still demand that you pay for the repairs (Garrard, 2003). When we excuse someone of an act we acknowledge that they had understandable reason for doing what they did. It is not because they had a valid reason for what they did. This is where the respect for persons theory intertwines with the excusing of ones behaviour. Govier (1999) states that unconditional forgiveness undervalues the respect that we ought to have for our fellow man. However, she emphasises that we ought to think of the wrongdoer as capable of doing virtuous acts (Govier, 1999), it follows then that if we are to hold wrongdoers in a neutral light because of their potential to do right then we ought to hold moral saints in the same neutral light because they are still human and are just as capable of committing moral wrongs as said wrongdoers (Garrard, 2003).

And so, when I excuse you for punching me in the face while angry, I am not supposing any kind of a moral difference between us. Instead, I am acknowledging that we are both human and susceptible to acts that we will regret in the future.

Now the question can be thrown in: is repentance necessary for one to forgive? And again, my answer would be no. But it sure does make it easier.

As I see it, the best way to understand the concept of forgiveness is in terms of gratitude. When someone does a great deed for you, you, traditionally, wish to repay them in an equal amount. There is a sense in which you want to clear any debt you may have to that person. When you do me a great service, I am grateful and wish to repay you. When I do you a wrong and realise it, I feel guilt and wish to repay you for the wrong I caused you. And, if I have repaid you in a sufficient quantity, I may expect to be forgiven but unless you feel the same way, I cannot demand forgiveness. This point complicates things as if I have cleared my debt to you and have not yet been forgiven by you then there is a sense in which it is now you that owes me. For, if I have cleared my debt to you then I do not owe you anything and I do not need your forgiveness. Yet, we consider forgiveness as taking place only if it concludes in one expressing their forgiveness in whatever matter. This doesn’t make sense to me. Forgiveness is an overcoming of one’s own feelings of resentment and anger, if the wrongdoer expresses remorse then it will no doubt help us to forgive. Yet, even if they do not, it is not impossible for us to overcome our feelings towards them in another manner and therefore repentance does not qualify as a necessary condition for forgiveness.

The conclusion that I have come to involving forgiveness is that there are no obligations involving it. This is because it is a virtue that we can (and seem to) desire to achieve and not a moral law that we all agree on; i.e. do not harm or bear grudge to your neighbour (Leviticus 19:18 New International Version) (Mill, 1869) (Johnson, 2016)The wrongdoer may or may not show signs of repentance but if it has significant negative consequences on them (such as a society that ostracizes wrongdoers) then even if they do not even repent, moral theories like Utilitarianism demand that we forgive them to stop the society from increasing the amount of negative happiness. We must do whatever we can to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number (Mill, 1869). So forgiving someone else is always demanded if it brings about good consequences. On such a theory, the opposite is also true, if the victim is suffering intensely due to the wrong that they suffered then they ought to forgive the perpetrator to supersede the pain even if the perpetrator is in jail or not even alive to apologise. Both of these instances are a case in point against my argument. This view shows that forgiveness is obligatory, this is counter to my intuitive stance on the topic and I am simply not convinced by these arguments. Forgiveness necessitates a forgiving demeanour and therefore Utilitarianism does not provide a satisfactory answer here, nor does a deontological view that supposes forgiveness to have to have certain conditions to be met.

Further along the line of understanding forgiveness and the chalky boundaries it has, is the idea of entitlement to forgive. Can anyone but the victim forgive the wrongdoer? Here, I agree with Benn (1970) on his account that something like quasi-forgiveness can be given but I do not think he gets the point just right. To my understanding, we can only forgive the wrongs that are done to us because only we are the ones who feel wronged by that act. It is nonsensical to say that I can forgive the wrongs that Hitler did to the Jews. Secondary and tertiary victims may forgive a perpetrator of the wrongs they did to them but they may not forgive for the wrong that were done to the primary victim. The only way in which quasi-forgiveness can take place is when the secondary victims give reasons to the perpetrator for why they think that the victim, although unable to, would forgive them if they could. If you steal the eraser of someone who dies shortly later and you go to their family and apologise, there is no doubt that they would forgive you and, all else being equal, they would give you reason to believe that the deceased would forgive you. Quasi-forgiveness is better defined as the assisting of the perpetrator to reconciliation with one unable to forgive for circumstantial reasons.

This account of forgiveness implies that there is nothing that can cause one to be an unforgivable person. Conditional unforgivability is not appropriate as quasi-forgiveness as defined above and not as Benn (1970) has it, means that Govier’s point of conditional unforgivability is not appropriate either (Govier, 1999). I conclude then that the main flaw in my argument is that by arguing for unconditional forgiveness, I am unable to accept views like Utilitarianism or Kantian Deontology due to the conflict caused. If we are unwilling to accept this, then more work needs to be done on this topic.



Benn, P., 1970. Forgiveness and Loyalty. American Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 7, pp. 246-252.

Garrard, E. a. D. M., 2003. In Defence of Unconditional Forgiveness. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 103(1), pp. 39-60.

Govier, T., 1999. Forgiveness and the Unforgiveable. American Philosophical Quarterly, 36(1), pp. 59-75.

Griswold, C., 2007. Self-forgiveness. In: Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 38-59.

Mill, J., 1869. On Liberty. s.l.:Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer.



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