The Nature and Limits of Forgiveness

Dissertation, Boston University (2008)

Alice MacLachlan
York University
This dissertation is a philosophical investigation of forgiveness, in both interpersonal and political contexts. The aim of the dissertation is to demonstrate the merits of a broad, multidimensional account that remains faithful to the moral phenomenology of forgiving and being forgiven. Previous philosophical work has tended to see forgiveness primarily in terms of reactive attitudes: specifically, the struggle to overcome resentment. Yet defining forgiveness along these lines fails to do justice to common intuitions that, for example, forgiveness may be a gift offered to another, that it may be the remission of a debt or burden, or that it may 'wipe clean' a stain. Against standard philosophical models that limit its nature to a single dimension, the multidimensional model acknowledges its affective, cognitive and socially performative aspects. My investigation begins by considering characteristic features of forgiveness, the reasons we have to forgive, and its potential moral value. In my preliminary chapters, I present my case against narrow theories of forgiveness, particularly those that define it in terms of attitude alone. In Chapter Three, I situate forgiveness in the context of moral considerations, by analyzing its relationship to other important moral values (trust, compassion, and moral sensitivity) and by defending an account of elective forgiveness. My fourth chapter turns from the act of forgiving to the limits of forgiveness. I discuss forgiveness of hostile or absent wrongdoers, forgiveness of injuries to other people ('third party forgiveness'), and the 'unforgivable.' Some philosophical discussions of the unforgivable have confused what is conceptually unforgivable with what is morally or even empirically unforgivable. By disentangling these threads, I argue that there are, in principle at least, no moral limits on what we may forgive. My concluding chapter applies the multidimensional model of forgiveness to recent discussions of the topic in political philosophy. I argue that the multidimensional model can meaningfully connect a range of forgiving practices in a political context, from transitional justice to interpersonal reconciliation.
Keywords Forgiveness  Third-Party Forgiveness  Reconciliation  Unforgivable  Political Forgiveness
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