Is Forgiveness Always Appropriate?

Yes-NoA former student applied for a professorship this week. While she was interviewing, a professor, frowning, asked, “Is forgiveness always appropriate?” Following her answer, the professor was still frowning, even though she gave the correct answer.

Shall we address the question here? (All of you who might be asked the question in the future, take note: Just refer the frowning one to this blog post. Blame me for the answer so you do not have to take “the heat.”)

Is forgiveness always appropriate? Let us break down the answer a bit further first. When we pose the question, are we asking about the virtue of forgiveness itself or are we asking about a person? There is an important distinction here.

If our focus is on the virtue itself, we must then ask the question of all virtues (because forgiveness is a moral virtue), and we can do so by focusing on the question’s opposite: Is justice, for example, as one of the virtues, ever inappropriate? In other words, can you imagine a scenario in which you could be arrested for deliberately being just? If not, then justice is always appropriate, under all circumstances. Is patience ever inappropriate? What about kindness? I can hear someone say this, “Well, if someone is beating me over the head with a frying pan, I will not be kind.” My response: You can flee the abuse. You can try taking the frying pan out of the person’s hand. In either case, you can do so with kindness. Thus, even in this example, kindness is appropriate. It is not inappropriate if other virtues (justice, courage, temperance) come alongside kindness to help rescue the person from the head-banging.

My first point is this: Because all virtues are concerned with the moral good of human interaction, and because it is alway appropriate to exercise the moral good, and because forgiveness is a moral virtue, it is always appropriate to exercise forgiveness.

Now to our specific difference between the appropriateness of exercising the virtue as a virtue and a person’s psychology. Is it always appropriate for any given person to exercise forgiveness all the time? The answer here, in contrast to our first answer, is no, it is not always appropriate because: a) the offended person may be so shocked by what happened that he or she is not ready at this particular point in time to offer forgiveness; b) the offended person may need to learn more about what forgiveness is and is not so that forgiveness properly understood is exercised rather than some false form of it; and c) forgiveness is a supererogatory virtue, not demanded by society and therefore not demanded of any one person right now. It is the person’s choice whether to forgive or not on any given occasion.

Yes, if we are talking about the quality of this term, specifically its quality of being a moral virtue.

No, if we are talking about a particular person’s psychology, including the degree of hurt and the person’s familiarity with what forgiveness is, and the circumstances of the injustice, including its severity, its duration, and the time since it occurred.

Dr. Bob

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