The Ethics of Forgiveness
By Trudy Govier
This Article Summary written by: Mariya Yevsyukova, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Govier, Trudy. "The ethics of forgiveness" Interaction. Vol. 6, No. 3. Fall 1994. P. 10.
Govier explores the notion of forgiveness in the example of the attempts of reconciliation between "victims and agents of Stasi spying in the former East Germany" (p. 10). This reconciliation did not occur largely due to the unwillingness of the Stasi agents to acknowledge their wrongdoings. The victims felt that their attempts at reconciliation merely allowed Stasi agents to come up with moral excuses for their deeds. A similar situation is described in the movie "Music Box", in which a daughter cannot forgive her father for hiding [from her] the truth about his crimes in war-time Hungary, and his unwillingness to recognize his wrongdoings. Thus for forgiveness to happen there should be several elements present: the victim, the offender, and their mutual "understanding that the offender has done something wrong" (p. 10).
But are there unforgivable crimes? For example, Jewish theologists believe that Holocaust crimes cannot be forgiven. Nevertheless, before the Holocaust, the Jewish religion stated that if a wrongdoer repents, he or she has to be forgiven.
The ethical question here is whether people should always forgive if an offender acknowledges that he or she has done something wrong and repents. The philosophers Downie and Hosburg suggest that people should be willing to forgive under such circumstances, otherwise the wrongdoer would be forever isolated "from the moral community" (p. 10). Supporters of Victim-Offender reconciliation base their beliefs on the idea that forgiveness is beneficial for both victims and offenders. It would be difficult to maintain friendships for those who cannot forgive, since close relationships often provoke conflicting situations where someone feels hurt. It is psychologically damaging for a person to feel continuously victimized. In many conflicts the line between victim and offender is not easily drawn; in order for reconciliation to happen, these conflicts demand mutual repentance and forgiveness. In all cases, however, the act of forgiveness requires the acknowledgment of wrongdoing and repentance.