The Ethics of Forgiveness
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The Ethics of Forgiveness

A Collection of Essays

Christel Fricke, Christel Fricke

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eBook - ePub

The Ethics of Forgiveness

A Collection of Essays

Christel Fricke, Christel Fricke

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We are often pressed to forgive or in need of forgiveness: Wrongdoing is common. Even after a perpetrator has been taken to court and punished, forgiveness still has a role to play. How should a victim and a perpetrator relate to each other outside the courtroom, and how should others relate to them? Communicating about forgiveness is particularly urgent in cases of civil war and crimes against humanity inside a community where, if there were no forgiveness, the community would fall apart.

Forgiveness is governed by social and, in particular, by moral norms. Do those who ask to be forgiven have to fulfil certain conditions for being granted forgiveness? And what does the granting of forgiveness consist in? We may feel like refusing to forgive those perpetrators who have committed the most horrendous crimes. But is such a refusal justified even if they repent their crimes? Could there be a duty for the victim to forgive? Can forgiveness be granted by a third party? Under which conditions may we forgive ourselves?

The papers collected in the present volume address all these questions, exploring the practice of forgiveness and its normative constraints. Topics include the ancient Chinese and the Christian traditions of forgiveness, the impact of forgiveness on the moral dignity and self-respect of the victim, self-forgiveness, the narrative of forgiveness as well as the limits of forgiveness. Such limits may arise from the personal, historical, or political conditions of wrongdoing or from the emotional constraints of the victims.

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Part I
Historical and Intercultural Perspectives on Forgiveness

1 Forgiveness and Forbearance in Ancient China

Christoph Harbsmeier
There is a moral core to forgiveness which has been very much in the focus of a wide range of philosophical debates. Charles L. Griswold provides an excellent introduction to some of the fundamental philosophical issues involved (Griswold 2007).
The variations in the social modes of forgiveness across different civilizations, meanwhile, have not received so much attention. From the point of view of forgiveness in the Chinese cultural context there are at least two central concerns that call for attention. One is the interaction between hierarchy and acts of forgiveness in a basically non-egalitarian social context. The other is that of the socio-psychological dynamics involved in acts of forgiving. In China, then, and presumably elsewhere as well, forgiveness is not only morally rule-governed behaviour, it is very much also socially and psychologically role-governed behaviour. Roles being defined in hierarchical terms, forgiveness comes to operate within a fundamentally non-egalitarian social and psychological context. This is not just to say that the actual context of acts of forgiveness is non-egalitarian. I mean to say that egalitarianism is not in any way envisaged or aspired to at any level, practical or psychological.
I shall begin with a pre-meditation on a cause where in the ancient Chinese context forgiveness never became an issue, but might have done if the Chinese thought about forgiveness in one of the ways we do. In the Confucian Analects, Thesaurus Linguae Sericae, LY 13.18 we are told:1
The Duke of Shè told Confucius:
‘In my village there was someone of morally straight personality: his father had stolen a goat and as a son he witnessed against his father.’
Confucius said:
‘The morally straight in my village were different from such a person: the father would hide things on behalf of the son, and the son would hide things on behalf of the father.
There is moral straightness in this.’2
Stealing a goat is an offence. For one’s father to steal a goat might seem to be an offence that is hard to forgive in a person of authority, like one’s father. The dilemma focussed in the Chinese cultural context, however, is not of the psychological kind. According to our text, the dilemma is construed as purely pragmatic: What is the son to do about a father who turns out to be a thief?
The conflict is not between moral attitudes or ethical judgments, it is between roles. The conflict is between one’s role as a filial son and one’s other role as a ruler’s loyal subject.
The son’s internal psychological conflict, his internal dialogue concerning moral appraisal or ethical judgment, are not dramatised in the tale. Neither are they focussed anywhere I can see in the extensive commentarial literature available on the subject.
Professor Lǐ Líng of Peking University, in his recently published commentary on the Analects, has a congenial political interpretation of all this. It becomes clear that he takes this text to be at the very root of a persistent Chinese tradition to cover up, in particular, the crimes and injustices of superiors (Líng 2008: 245).
According to him, even to this day, it is significant that within China, after the Tiananmen crisis of 1989, the predominant question for the protesters of the time is unrelated to forgiveness for what they must see as the ‘perpetrators’ of the massacre. Forgiveness towards The Party or the leadership even now seems beside the point. The question whether they forgive or do not forgive Deng Xiaoping has become purely academic (i.e. quite irrelevant) within the Chinese context, if it is brought up at all. The predominant question for those surviving protesters remains the pragmatic one of whether the 1989 protesters can or cannot regain their social place and fulfil their role in the paternalistic conventional fold of public Chinese hierarchical society.
Some might suspect that stealing a goat (or a sheep: we can’t tell which, actually!) is a small matter which therefore would not so much tend to give rise to primarily moral or ethical reflections. But even in the case of murder the problem of forgiveness as such does not arise in our ancient sources. Thus, from the second century B.C. we find the following striking tale of moral conflict:
King Chao of Ch’u had an officer named Shih She,
who was characterized
by his impartiality and love of the right,
and the king made him a judge.
At this time someone killed a man on the highway.
When Shih She went in pursuit of him,
it turned out to be his father.
He returned to the court and said:
‘The person who killed the man was my father.
My duty is to submit to punishment
for having overlooked this crime
and disregarded the law.’
He prostrated himself before the axe and execution block saying,
‘My life is in your hands.’
The prince said,
‘You pursued him without catching him;
how can there be any blame?
May you go on with your work.’
To sacrifice one’s father to perfect one’s administration
is not filial
not to put in operation the laws of one’s prince
is not loyal.
Shih She said,
‘Not so.
Not to be partial in favour of one’s father
is not filial
not to carry out the laws of one’s prince
is not loyal.
To go on living when guilty of a crime deserving death
is not honest.
If Your Highness wishes to grant a pardon,
it is the grace of a superior;
but I cannot neglect the laws:
such is the duty of an inferior.’
Whereupon he would not leave the axe and execution block,
but cutting his throat, died in the court.
When the superior man hears of this he says,
‘Pure and law-abiding–
such was Master Shih.’
Hánshī wàizhuàn 韓詩外傳 ed. TLS HSWZ 2.14, tr. J. Hightower
Even here, the moral or ethical exacerbating problem of whether or not to forgive one’s father for his murderous behaviour never arises: The conflict is between conflicting pragmatic duties imposed by one’s social roles as a ruler’s loyal subject and as a father’s filial son.
The moral issue is not whether the father deserves forgiveness, but how forgiveness fits into the world of social roles, social relations, and even the broader socio-political context. Thus the legalist philosopher Hán Fēi 韓 非 of the third century B.C. is radically opposed to all forms of forgiveness involving legal pardoning. He does this not because he thinks no one might deserve to be forgiven. He does it because forgiving those who might deserve to be forgiven has undesirable socio-political consequences in that it weakens the unquestionable authority of the law and the inexorable enforcement of legal stipulations. In Hán Fēi’s view, moral forgiveness without legal consequences is simply socially irrelevant and therefore in his view ultimately unimportant. His perspective on forgiveness is primarily social, not moral.
This does not mean that there cannot be moral conflict. Thus there is indeed one neat case of psychological moral conflict reported by Hán Fēi:
Zǐxià said:
‘Inside I have seen the moral principles of the Former Kings,
and I found them tremendous;
outside I saw the delights of wealth and honour
and again I found these tremendous.
The two were at war in my chest,
and I was not quite sure who would win or who would lose.’
Hánfēizǐ 韓非子 ed. TLS HF 21.21.2
The personal, private conflict is focused. But its resolution is not an argumentative philosophical one. There is no philosophical elaboration, no element of ethical argumentation. The dramatic elaboration of such psychological, personal, and private conflicts was not a feature of ancient Chinese culture.


From a Chinese point of view there is not one concept of forgiveness to philosophise about. What we face and what we need to account for is the subtle systematic structure of the whole semantic field of forgiveness, the whole gamut or cluster of subtly distinct notions within that general semantic of forgiveness, each of which deserve subtly distinct philosophical attention in their own right.
To take a Western example, we need a separate philosophical analysis of Greek notions of ‘suggnōmē’1 which create a solidarity group containing the forgiver and the forgivee, as distinct from Roman verbal notions of ‘ignosco’ in which by forgiving one merely dismisses the forgivee into a limbo of unresented indifference. We also need to see how exactly, for example, the Chinese construe what in English we may loosely describe their various acts of forgiveness.
It turns out that Chinese forgiveness inscribes itself into hierarchical social and practical contexts and involves public roles, public action, and often even public display rather than mere private psychological acts and moral judgments. Here are twelve Chinese concepts within the semantic field of forgiveness which involve a kind of exercise of socially sanctioned and hierarchically motivated moral power on the part of the forgiver:
1. The most general current word for leniency and forgiveness is yòu 宥 (antonym: kè 刻 ‘strict and ruthless’), and this word is often used to refer to a general tendency to be forgiving.
2. Kuān 寬 (antonym: kè 刻 ‘ruthless strictness’) refers to a general attitude of mind which inclines one to pardon others and to show forgiveness.
3. Róng 容 is an individual act of forgiveness or pardoning vis-à-vis a person who is guilty of something or might be blamed for something. This word is pragmatic and not so far in meaning from ‘put up with’.
4. Shì 釋 ‘let off’ refers to a personal act of forgiveness directed at a certain person, and in regard of a certain public social action. The basic semantic image is that of untying.
5. Jiě 解 ‘untie’ literally focuses on the way forgiveness removes the ‘ties of guilt’ which would inhibit the forgivee if he were not forgiven, ‘unties’ the fetters of guilt that immobilise him.
6. Fàng 放 focuses on the power of the forgiver not to forgive what he is in fact forgiving. The basic semantic image is again that of releasing something into freedom.
7. Zòng 縱, literally ‘let go; let off’, assumes that someone is somehow restricted in his movement by guilt and focuses by natural extension on the freedom of movement and action which the forgivee obtains by being forgiven.
8. Miǎn 免 can refer to the decision to let someone avoid the consequences of his action. In particular, the image is one of allowing the forgivee to avoid the moral disrespect which his action might warrant.
9. Shè 赦 refers more properly to the formal act of pardoning or acquitting in court, but the word is also commonly used for mental acts of non-legal social forgiveness.
10. Ráo 饒 plays on the higher status of the forgiver as compared to that of the forgivee. This word emphasises the dramatic seriousness of an act of forgiveness, and the word is rarely merely psychological, although a famous piece of moral advice for horizontal behaviour from the third century A.D. goes like this: 行止與人, 務在饒之. ‘In your behaviour towards others make it your business to forgive them.’ (先賢家訓, Hong Kong: Zhonghuashuju, 2006, p. 71).
11. Jiù 救 literally refers to the act of forgiving insofar as it constitutes an act of rescuing the forgivee from the results of his transgression which might ensue if he were not to be forgiven.
12. Qīng 輕, literally, ‘take lightly’ and then, by extension, ‘cause to be taken lightly’, refers to forgiveness insofar as it constitu...