On October 29, 2012, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled, “When Forgiveness Isn’t a Virtue.” It centered, in part, on research by Dr. James McNulty of the University of Tennessee. The newspaper author makes the claim that once a person forgives another for a transgression, then the act of forgiving “may encourage the transgressor to do it again.”
For example, in one of Dr. McNulty’s studies of newlywed couples, “He found that the day after forgiving a partner, people were 6.5 times more likely to report that the partner had again done something negative, compared with when there was no forgiveness.” A similar finding was reported in another study that examined these outcomes over a six month period. Forgiving partners were the recipient of continued transgressions. Yet, the critical question is this: Is forgiveness the culprit here?
The conclusions reached in the article have at least one major philosophical flaw and one major psychological flaw worth noting. First, the philosophical flaw is this: We have known for at least 3,500 years that we are not to practice any one virtue in isolation of the other virtues. Aristotle taught us that. Otherwise, for example, a courageous non-swimmer who practices only courage and not wisdom might jump into a raging river to save a drowning dog, only to lose his own life. It is the same with forgiveness. It must not be practiced in isolation from justice, otherwise other people will take advantage of us. This is not the fault of forgiveness itself. It is the fault of the one appropriating it in isolation from justice.
The major psychological flaw is this: Dr. McNulty, when asking research participants about forgiveness, presumed that each was using that
word correctly. It is an assumption that should not have been made.Researchers Freedman and Chang in 2010 did a study in which they found that most people misunderstand what forgiveness is, equating it with letting a transgression go or “moving on.” Philosophers and psychologists who make the study of forgiveness their life’s work will tell us that these are misconceptions because “letting go” and “moving on” are not virtues.
Instead, forgiveness is offering goodness to another in spite of what he or she has done. Forgiveness then comes alongside justice, which asks something of the transgressor. To avoid any misunderstanding of what forgiveness is, I suggest using the definition I developed from more than 25 years of forgiveness research: Forgiveness Defined.
Forgiveness need not get a black eye from Dr. McNulty’s research when we realize that participants can misunderstand and therefore misappropriate this virtue. If anything, his research calls for careful forgiveness education for anyone who wishes to practice the virtue of forgiveness in important situations with important people in their lives.