Is the Offer of Forgiveness Done for Me or for Others?

The question posed in this essay centers on my goal in forgiving.  Is the goal of forgiving to help me or is it to aid the one I am forgiving and others?  The answer can get very confusing because as we muse on this idea of the goal, at least two possibilities emerge. (Actually, there are more than two, but for the sake of clarity, we will focus only on two here).

Let us make a distinction between a primary goal and a secondary goal.  As an analogy, I may have as my goal the winning of a tennis match and so I am motivated to become physically fit.  The physical fitness is not the primary goal, but instead is a secondary goal that could lead to the primary one of winning.

It is the same in forgiving.  Sometimes forgiving is the primary goal and sometimes forgiving is the secondary goal.  When a primary goal, forgiving is offered by people for the sake of the other person who acted unjustly.  I want good for that person, even though I have been hurt by that person’s actions.  I, thus, am motivated, not by self-interested goals, but by the altruistic goal of betterment for the other.  This is a primary goal because this is what forgiving actually **is.**  It is the offer of goodness, as an end in and of itself, toward others who acted unjustly.


“When forgiveness is a primary goal, it is the offer of goodness toward others who acted unjustly.”

Dr. Robert Enright


When forgiveness is a secondary goal, then we have a different endpoint, at least for now, than the other’s betterment.  In most cases of forgiveness as a secondary goal, we desire to use the process of forgiveness to feel better.  We are hurting, possibly feeling unrest or anxiety or even depression.  We want to be rid of these and forgiveness offers a scientifically-supported path to this healing.  Thus, we forgive for ourselves and not for the other.  This is a secondary goal because it does not focus on the essence of forgiveness, on what forgiveness is, but instead focuses on forgiveness as a vehicle for advancing the goal of one’s own health.

As an analogy, suppose a person gets into a car to go to work.  Driving the car is not the primary goal.  It is a vehicle that gets one to the primary goal of going to work.  Forgiving is the vehicle for health in this case.  This usually is not a selfish goal, but instead a self-interested goal.  To use another analogy, if a person has a throbbing knee and she goes to the doctor for relief, this is not selfish but instead is a sound self-interested goal.  Going to the physician is secondary to the primary goal of walking pain-free again.

When forgiving others is the primary goal, it is showing an understanding of what forgiving is by definition.  To forgive is to reach out to the other for the other’s sake.  When forgiving is the secondary goal, there may or may not be a deep understanding of the essence of forgiveness.  We would have to probe the person’s understanding: Is the self-interest the primary goal so that the person defines forgiveness as a vehicle for self-betterment?

We have to be careful not to conflate using forgiveness as a vehicle to promote health and the actual essence of what forgiveness **is.**  If we mistakenly conflate the two, equating forgiving with emotional relief, then our definition of what forgiveness is becomes only a self-serving activity, which then moves forgiveness away from the fact that it is a moral virtue, something good for others as well as the self.  Forgiveness, then, is only a psychological self-help technique, not a virtue.  Virtues when practiced well become part of the person’s life, part of who the person actually is.  A self-help technique never goes that far but instead is used for a while and then is discarded.  We need to distinguish forgiving as a secondary goal and as a primary goal to keep its definition—what it **is**—as accurate as possible. 

In summary, if we want to forgive for our own emotional relief, this is being motivated to achieve a secondary goal, and a good one.  If we want to forgive for the sake of the other, this is being motivated to achieve a primary goal, and preserves the accurate definition of what forgiving **is.**

Robert

Criticisms of Forgiveness — 5th in a series: “Women Are Controlled by Men in Forgiving”

“The self-help books target women; research sometimes targets women. Forgiveness is asking women to tolerate men’s injustice; men would not be asked to do this toward women. Therefore, forgiving is playing out the power differential in the new societal struggle (which, to Marx, belonged once to ownership and labor in industry), which is the battle of the sexes.” Lamb (2002) made this point.

The argument is helpful if clinicians and researchers focus attention on only men or only women. In actuality, however, the pioneering research and interventions have been concerned about both. For example, Al-Mabuk, Enright, and Cardis (1995) educated both college men and women in forgiving deep hurts. The first empirical study on person-to-person forgiving published in psychology included both men and women (Enright, Santos, & Al-Mabuk, 1989).

Although it is true that some self-help books are geared toward women only, most talk to both genders (see, e.g., Smedes, 1984, 1996). Our studies on participants with postabortion emotional effects (Coyle & Enright, 1997) and on those with coronary artery disease were exclusively with men. Our studies of participants in drug rehabilitation (Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004) and of adult children of alcoholics (Osterndorf, Enright, Holter, & Klatt, 2011) include both men and women.

One cannot help but see a particular assumption in the argument that targeting women for forgiveness is a gender bias. The argument seems to imply that forgiving is a way for the offender to keep a sinister control over the forgiver. If forgiving led automatically to reconciliation, then the argument would have weight. We already saw, however, that forgiving an offense and reconciling with an offender are two separate issues. The argument has a false first premise, that forgiveness and reconciliation are synonymous.

If, on the other hand, forgiving is a choice freely made and, once made, releases one from a host of psychological problems, then a predominant focus on women would actually be a bias against men. In actuality, however, forgiveness therapy and research target both genders. 

Robert

Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P.. Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5182-5198). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.

Weaponizing Forgiveness

Forgiveness can be misunderstood and dismissed for the wrong reasons.

A colleague, Megan Feldman Bettencourt, has written an important article in Harper’s Bazaar entitled “How Forgiveness Has Been Weaponized Against Women.”  The gist of the article is that as people misunderstand the actual meaning of forgiveness, they can so discourage people from forgiving that emotional healing is blocked.  In the case of sexual abuse of women, as Ms. Feldman Bettencourt points out, the “forgiver” is supposed to refrain from reporting the abuse and is expected to go back into the unwanted relationship. 

This is far from the truth because forgiveness is not the same as legal pardon (letting the other out of deserved justice), nor is it the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness is the commitment to get rid of resentment as well as the commitment, at the very least, of civility toward the offender and then acting on these commitments.  Reconciliation is the act of two or more people coming together again in mutual trust.  One can forgive and not trust or reconcile.  When these two issues (legal pardon and reconciliation) are confused with forgiveness, then women who have been sexually abused do not have a scientifically-supported pathway (forgiveness) for reducing or even eliminating deep resentment.  That kind of emotional disruption could be hers for the rest of her life.  In other words, not only is she left with the original injustice but also is left with a second wound of resentment with little hope of relief from it because there are few alternatives to forgiveness in eliminating this inner poison.
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In her article, Ms. Feldman Bettencourt gives stark examples of women who, in the name of forgiveness, think that they must keep the abuse against them secret, thus personally pardoning the offender.  One woman who did stand up for justice (not condoning or pardoning) was shunned by her support group because that group misunderstood what forgiveness is.  Forgiveness does not abandon the quest for justice.  The author’s call is for a clear and accurate definition of forgiveness so that it can exist side-by-side with justice-seeking and not block emotional healing.  True forgiveness can enhance the forgiver’s well-being.

Another Example of Weaponizing Forgiveness:

I once was asked to help an organization set up small groups focused on forgiveness in the workplace because there was high tension among the workers.  A Human Relations specialist in the company was convinced that adding a level of forgiveness into the workplace would be one strong way of diminishing the conflict and increasing productivity.  When we met with the owner of that company, it took him less than five minutes to dismiss the specialist’s idea.  “No. Forgiveness is  inappropriate here,” he said with cold confidence.  “Forgiveness asks too much of my workers,” was his reply. 

Source: KuanShu Designs

When we asked him how this is so, he quickly responded, “Look, when there is conflict in our workplace, this is an emotional pain.  Forgiveness adds another layer of pain to my workers and so why would I impose this second pain on them?  Forgiveness is quite a struggle and we don’t need that at this time.”  And that was the end of the specialist’s idea, which as of this writing has not been implemented… and the conflicts at that company continue with no end in sight.  What the owner did not understand is this: When there is physical injury, sometimes surgery is needed.  Yes, the surgery is an added burden, but it is temporary and restores what is broken.  It is the same with forgiveness: When the heart is broken, we sometimes need surgery of the heart to restore emotional health.
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Ms. Feldman Bettencourt sees how the weaponizing of forgiveness can actually hurt women who are trying to heal from sexual abuse.  I have seen firsthand how the weaponizing of forgiveness can keep workers from reducing acrimony and striving toward greater cooperation.

The moral of this essay is that to misunderstand forgiveness is to keep people from a scientifically-supported way of reducing resentment and getting on with life in a healthier way.  We misunderstand forgiveness sometimes at our own peril.  We misunderstand forgiveness sometimes at the expense of others.  It is time simply to define our terms — in this case forgiveness — and lay down the weaponizing against it.

Robert


This blog originally appeared in Psychology Today on October 08, 2018.

Criticisms of Forgiveness–4th in a series: “Forgiving Is Passive”

This argument, more from psychology than philosophy, does not present a moral criticism but does portray forgiving as negative. The gist of the argument is that forgiving always commences after injustice. It does not prevent injustice from happening in the first place, and so it is a passive form of communication and action.

Our response is a question: What is effective in stemming injustice in this imperfect world?

No form of communication, no problem-solving strategy to date, can prevent all injustice. Is it not reassuring to know that there is a potentially helpful response to injustice after it occurs?

Furthermore, we must ask why forgiveness is considered passive just because it comes after an injustice. When one examines the struggle to overcome anger, the struggle to offer undeserved compassion to an injurer, one can hardly label forgiving as passive.

Finally, as one forgives, is it not possible that the offender may be transformed through the forgiving, thus making that form of injustice less likely in the future? In such cases, forgiveness precedes issues of justice and injustice and acts as a preventive of further abuse.

Robert


Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P.. Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5225-5234). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.

Criticisms of Forgiveness–3rd in a series: “Forgiveness Obscures for the Forgiver What Is Just or Unjust”

J. Safer (1999) presented a case of family dysfunction in which “forgiveness” plays a major role in perpetuating deep injustice:   Two middle-aged parents ask their adult daughter to “forgive and forget” her brother’s sexual abuse toward her. The daughter, of course, is aghast at the parents’ apparent attempts to downplay and deny the offense. The parents in this case study do not seem aware of the enormity of the offense. Their quest for forgiveness is an attempt at distortion of reality, a cover-up for their son, and oppression of their daughter.

If J. Safer (1999) had shown this as a case of pseudo-forgiveness in which people are deliberately distorting the meaning of forgiveness for some unspecified gain, we would have no problem with the case or the analysis. Safer, however, used the case as an illustration of the dangers of actual forgiveness.

In our experience, true forgiveness helps people see the injustice more clearly, not more opaquely. As a person breaks denial, examines what happened, and allows for a period of anger, he or she begins to label the other’s behavior as “wrong” or “unfair.”

The parents in the case described here, however, have minimized what is wrong with their son’s behavior. They are using pseudo-forgiveness as a weapon. Certainly, therapists should be aware of such distorted thinking in a client or patient. The therapist, however, need not condemn genuine forgiveness because a client twists its meaning.

In sum, forgiveness is no obstacle to justice. Forgiving acts do not perpetuate injustice or prevent social justice from occurring. Forgiveness may thwart attempts at extracting punishment for emotional pain, but this usually turns into a gift for the offender and a release of potentially hurtful anger for the forgiver.

Robert


Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P.. Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5161-5175). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.

Safer, J. Forgiving and Not Forgiving. New York, NY: Avon Books.

Criticisms of Forgiveness —— 2nd in a series:   “The Forgiver and Forgiven as Inferior”

The Forgiver as Inferior

When someone forgives so rapidly that he or she glosses over a legitimate period of anger, that person is not showing self-respect, as Jeffrie G. Murphy,  (1982, 2005) reminded us. Murphy’s concern, however, was not with forgiving per se but instead with the short-circuiting of the process. As long as the process of forgiving makes room for this legitimate period of anger, Murphy and those who agree with him should not be troubled by forgiveness.

The Forgiven as Inferior

Even if a forgiver does not try to dominate the offender, the latter may nonetheless feel very badly about having to be forgiven (see Droll, 1985; O’Shaughnessy, 1967). Derek may feel that Alice (his wife with whom he is having conflict), by her forgiving, is morally superior to him. Yet, Alice need not tell Derek of her gift. Even if he should suspect forgiveness on her part and then pine over this, Alice has done nothing wrong. Her gift remains a gift regardless of Derek’s response. If a child wails in protest over the gift of socks on Christmas morning, does this present then not count as a gift just because the child wanted a popular computer game and did not receive it?

Robert


Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P.. Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5076-5085). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.

Criticisms of Forgiveness – 1st in a Series: “Forgiving as Disrespectful to the Forgiver”

One argument states that when someone is hurt by another, it is best to show some resentment because it lets the other know that he or she is being taken seriously. If forgiveness cuts short the resentment process, the forgiver is not taking the other seriously and, therefore, is not respecting the other. Nietzsche (1887) also devised this argument.

We disagree with the basic premise here that forgiveness does not involve resentment. As a person forgives, he or she starts with resentment.

We also disagree that resentment is the exclusive path to respecting. Does a person show little respect if he or she quells the resentment in 1 rather than 2 days? Is a week of resentment better than the 2 days? When is it sufficient to stop resenting so that the other feels respected? Nietzsche offered no answer. If a person perpetuates the resentment, certainly he or she is not respecting the other.

Robert


Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P.; Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5090-5097). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.