Is it selfish to forgive? After all, I do it to feel better. I do it for me.

There is a difference between what forgiveness is and why we do it.  To forgive, by definition, is to be good to those who are not good to you.  This is not a focus on the self, but on the other.  If your motivation is to feel better, this is reasonable, especially if you are experiencing inner discomfort because of ongoing resentment.  Thus, what forgiveness is and your current motivation can differ.  One (the forgiving) is centered on the other.  Your motivation is centered on your own healing. Neither of these is selfish.  As a final point, not all motivations to forgive are centered on self-healing. For example, a person might be motivated to forgive for the sake of the one who offended.

Would people-pleasers forgive more easily than others?

If a person is forgiving only to please others, such as to please one’s parents who are encouraging an adult son to forgive his partner, then the forgiving may not be genuine.  Genuine forgiveness comes from within the forgiver, who sees the goodness in forgiveness, is motivated to forgive, and then goes ahead with the forgiveness process.

In reflecting lately on forgiveness, I am left with a certain hopelessness and powerlessness regarding society. I feel this way because, in thinking about it, I have come to the conclusion that those who have been brutalized by others, such as incest survivors, really have no other choice than to forgive if they are to save themselves from a life of deep resentment and all that negatively goes with that. What do you think about my thinking?

I agree that forgiveness can be a bold, courageous, and even controversial response to brutality.  Yet, for those who choose to forgive, they can become much more psychologically resilient and the science supports that conclusion.  I am wondering why this makes you hopeless.  You, yourself, see one solution to the anger and even hopelessness of the victims.  I agree that not all who are brutalized will forgive, but for those who do, they can reverse the psychological damage done even when it is impossible to reverse the offense itself.  This, to me, is a cause of hope, not hopelessness.

I forgave my partner for an offense. I forgave. He did it again. Do I go through the forgiveness process again or go in another route?

I find that people find it harder to forgive a person when the offense keeps occurring.  Yet, continuing once again on the forgiveness path may make you more open to a genuine dialogue with your partner about changing his behavior and reconciling. It is hard to enter into respectful and patient dialogue when the offended person is fuming with anger.

You say that an apology is not necessary for someone to forgive. Yet, isn’t an apology a good thing?

Yes, an apology from the one who offended can go a long way in helping a person to forgive and in repairing a damaged relationship.  Yet, I say it is not necessary because forgiving is an unconditional response by the one offended. Offended people should be able to forgive whenever they are ready and have chosen to forgive.  This is a freedom that belongs to those who are offended.

As a strict philosophical materialist, I am convinced that there are no such things as moral offenses caused by an offender. I say this because there is no free will and so we cannot pin blame on “offenders” for their behavior. They have not chosen to act this way.

Well, I have to disagree.  Social science researchers claiming that brain activity preceded an observed behavior by participants never——never——study this in the context of morals.  In every case, the researchers measure such activity as button-pushing: Does the brain activity occur before a person pushes a button or does the person first decide to push the button and then it is registered in the brain?  Button-pushing has nothing whatsoever to do with moral decisions.  Would you claim that the person who executed little girls in the Amish community of Pennsylvania in 2006 “just couldn’t help it”?  Could he not help it when he lined them up?  Did his brain make him pull the trigger and some cause outside of him lead to what the executioner’s weapon was to be?  Had he lived, would you advocate no court trial? 

When it comes to morals and the claim that people have no free will, you have to be careful that your view of humanity does not degenerate.  I say that because your view leads to the ultimate conclusion that no person who acts monstrously ever can be rehabilitated other than through some kind of yet undiscovered brain surgery.  Surely some who act monstrously might have a brain lesion, but that would be the rare case, what Aristotle would call an Accident.  Why do I say this?  It is because many times (far too many) a young and very physically-healthy person has committed acts of unspeakable brutality.  Thus, the Aristotelian Accidents do not account for the entire story explaining monstrous behavior.  Free will, then, leading to self-chosen acts, seems to fit better such moral examples as occurred in the Amish community.

One of my students asked me recently, ‘Why should I forgive? Doesn’t this just let the one who is hurting me see that I am weak?’ I did not know how to answer that. Can you help?

The student is confusing forgiveness with giving in to others’ demands. This is not forgiveness. To forgive is to know that what the other person did is wrong and yet mercy is offered nonetheless. When one forgives, one also asks for justice and so this idea of weakness or giving in is not correct. There are two basic ways of distorting forgiveness: to let the other have power over you or to seek power over the other because of his or her transgressions. True forgiveness avoids these extremes.

Is there any advantage in forgiving and reconciling compared with forgiving and not reconciling? If I forgive but do not reconcile, will this weaken my ability to forgive in the future?

There is no general rule regarding forgiving and not reconciling. In other words, your not reconciling with someone who is not remorseful or who is unrepentant (when acting very unjustly against you) should not weaken your ability to forgive in the future. In contrast, if you refuse to reconcile with someone who in fact has remorse, has repented and, where possible, has given recompense, then you need to examine your own inner world. Perhaps you have excessive mistrust or resentment and these can get in the way of future forgiving.

Can I forgive someone who has not directly hurt me? For example, I am a teacher and one of my students was deliberately hurt by another student. Can I forgive the one who acted badly to a student whom I admire for his honesty and perseverance?

You describe a situation which some philosophers call secondary forgiveness. In other words, you have been hurt indirectly rather than directly by a person’s injustice toward someone who is important to you. Whenever an injustice occurs which hurts you, then you are free to forgive. This can occur even when you do not know the victim(s) but experience hurt nonetheless. An example of this tertiary forgiveness is this: the leader of your country enters into what you consider to be an unjust war with another country. You can forgive the leader if that is your choice to do so.

You talk about forgiveness as a process, one that can take time. I find that as I go along the path of forgiveness, that I slip into revenge-seeking. I do not mean anything violent, just some nastiness or even verbal disrespect. Do you think this will delay my forgiveness process?

We are all imperfect forgivers and so we cannot think of forgiveness as a straight line from the start to the finish. We go back and forth with forgiveness. At times, we see the one who offended us as possessing inherent worth. Then we might have a dream about the person and we wake up angry and do not want to even think about the person. The key here is to understand that the process is not a straight line. Have patience with yourself. Try to have patience with the one whom you are forgiving. In time, this back-and-forth will even out and improvements in forgiving are likely as you continue to persevere in the forgiveness process.