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

Is Forgiving for the Forgiver or for the One Who Offended?

So frequently I hear this: “Forgiveness is for you, the one who was injured.”

I think this actually can be a distortion of what forgiveness is.  We need to make a distinction between:

  • the end point or goal of forgiveness, and
  • a consequence of forgiving.

These are different.  The goal is that to which forgiveness actually points.  Given that forgiveness is a moral virtue, it is concerned about goodness toward others.  Justice as a moral virtue is not primarily for the self but for all with whom you come into contact directly or indirectly.  Patience is directed toward those who are moving slower than you would like.  Yes, one can be fair or just to the self and patient toward the self, but these are not the primary goals of either virtue.  They are outwardly directed to others.  It is the same with forgiveness because, like justice and patience, it too is a moral virtue.  The end point of forgiving is to reach out in goodness directly toward the one or ones who have been unfair to you.

Yes, there is such a thing as self-forgiveness, but notice that the wording is intended to expressly direct the attention toward the self.  In the case of forgiving as it typically is used, the word “self” is not included.

A consequence of forgiving, shown frequently by our research, is that as a person extends goodness toward offending others, then the one who forgives experiences considerable emotional relief.  Excessive anger, anxiety, and depression all can go down in the one who genuinely forgives.

These emotional-health consequences, while very positive and desirable, are not the ultimate goal of engaging in the moral virtue of forgiving.  If it were, then this would be the goal for all of the moral virtues and such practice likely would degenerate into self-serving activities and therefore not be virtuous at all.

Is forgiving for the forgiver?  No, this is not its goal.  Is a consequence of forgiving emotional relief for the forgiver?  Yes.  And this distinction between goal and consequence makes all the difference in understanding what forgiveness is and what it can accomplish within the self.

Robert