16 February 2018

Forgiveness Is Not Always a Virtue

Jeffrie G. Murphy, ‎Forgiveness and Mercy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 17-18 (footnotes omitted):
Forgiveness is not always a virtue, however. Indeed, if I am correct in linking resentment to self-respect, a too ready tendency to forgive may properly be regarded as a vice because it may be a sign that one lacks respect for oneself. Not to have what Peter Strawson calls the "reactive attitude" of resentment when our rights are violated is to convey — emotionally — either that we do not think we have rights or that we do not take our rights very seriously. Forgiveness may indeed restore relationships, but to seek restoration at all cost — even at the cost of one's very human dignity — can hardly be a virtue. And, in intimate relationships, it can hardly be true love or friendship either — the kind of love and friendship that Aristotle claimed is an essential part of the virtuous life. When we are willing to be doormats for others, we have, not love, but rather what the psychiatrist Karen Horney calls "morbid dependency." If I count morally as much as anyone else (as surely I do), a failure to resent moral injuries done to me is a failure to care about the moral value incarnate in my own person (that I am, in Kantian language, an end in myself) and thus a failure to care about the very rules of morality. To put the point in yet another way: If it is proper to feel indignation when I see third parties morally wronged, must it not be equally proper to feel resentment when I experience the moral wrong done to myself? Morality is not simply something to be believed in; it is something to be cared about. This caring includes concern about those persons (including oneself) who are the proper objects of moral attention.

Interestingly enough, a hasty readiness to forgive — or even a refusal to display resentment initially — may reveal a lack of respect, not just for oneself, but for others as well. The Nietzschean view, for example, is sometimes portrayed (perhaps unfairly) as this: There is no need for forgiveness, because a truly strong person will never feel resentment in the first place. Why? Because he is not so weak as to think that other people — even those who harm him — matter enough to have any impact on his self-respect. We do not resent the insect that stings us (we simply deal with it), and neither should we resent the human who wrongs us.

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