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In recent years there has been a relatively small, but burgeoning philosophical literature on the nature of forgiveness, its place in the moral life, and its role in our understandings of justice and mercy. Margaret Holmgren’s book is a significant contribution to this literature. Intended for a philosophical audience, her book lucidly lays out the arguments for her position and critically addresses the connections between her own work and the scholarly literature. That said, her arguments are so clearly presented, with such a pleasing style, that her work should be accessible to a general, but well read, audience.
Holmgren defends a daring and original theory of genuine unconditional forgiveness rooted in a virtue-based approach to morality, contrasting her position with retributivist attitudes and approaches to punishment. Attitudinal retributivists hold that enduring attitudes of resentment and self-condemnation are sometimes warranted; retributivist justifications of punishment maintain that wrongdoers deserve punishment. Alternatively, Holmgren defends a paradigm of forgiveness in which unconditional forgiveness and self-forgiveness are desirable attitudinal responses to wrongdoing and punishment is justified only when it serves the good of all citizens.
Forgiveness, on Holmgren’s view is an attitudinal response that comes about through a process of addressing the wrong. This process for the victim will include: recovering her self-esteem, recognizing the wrongness of the offender’s action, acknowledging her feelings about the incident, expressing her feelings or beliefs to the offender, and making a decision about seeking restitution or criminal charges. Though not every victim will need to go through every stage of this process, Holmgren argues that forgiveness brought about through such a process will be genuine. Genuine forgiveness is unconditional in that it is not tied to any particular response on the part of the wrongdoer: it does not depend upon the wrongdoer’s remorse, apology, or restitution.
She argues that her understanding of forgiveness is more consistent with respect for the offender, respect for morality, and respect for the victim than a retributivist view, in part because her view more effectively distinguishes between the wrong committed and the person who committed the wrong, or between the sin and the sinner. Moreover, her view does not allow the victim of wrongdoing to have her sense of self-respect determined by the wrongdoer’s actions.
In defending genuine unconditional forgiveness, Holmgren claims that forgiveness is always an appropriate response to wrongdoing. For many readers, this may be a position somewhat difficult to accept, for we might find it hard to imagine forgiving a serial killer or even an abusive spouse. However, Holmgren makes the important distinction between forgiveness as an attitudinal response and reconciliation or restoration of relationships. A woman may well forgive her abusive husband at the same time that she breaks ties with him; forgiving him does not mean that she must continue a relationship with him. Even so, forgiveness may seem a moral challenge in itself. Holmgren is not arguing, however, that forgiveness is always easy, or that we should not experience negative emotions, but she argues that forgiveness is desirable as a moral virtue.
Holmgren then defends a view of self-forgiveness that effectively parallels her view of other forgiveness in central ways. Perhaps the most significant difference is that an apology and an attempt at restitution are central to self-forgiveness. In order for the wrongdoer to properly respect the victim, an attempt must be made at making amends.
Upon defending her view of forgiveness and self-forgiveness, Holmgren examines the connections between her view and some central themes in moral philosophy, including traditional views of the moral status of persons, moral responsibility, and notions of justice and desert. These themes are central to her argument inasmuch as they provide the philosophical underpinnings of her view regarding forgiveness. In arguing that we must distinguish the sin from the sinner, for example, Holmgren’s view is dependent upon an understanding of persons where persons and actions are not one and the same, i.e., where there must be some self independent of my experiences or actions.
In her final chapters, Holmgren considers the ways that genuine unconditional forgiveness and the sense of justice that follow from it might apply in the public sphere by addressing public responses to wrongdoing and traditional understandings of punishment. Holmgren’s argues that, given the paradigm of forgiveness she has defended, a public response to wrongdoing should include prevention of wrongdoing and restitution for primary and secondary harms. These latter may include traditional punishment. Perhaps what is most compelling in these final chapters is her description of the kind of society that would focus on the prevention of wrongdoing and harm rather than on punishment. She describes, for example, the need to secure a decent minimum standard of living, the need to reduce sources of mental and emotional stress and to ensure adequate mental and emotional health care, the need to create schools based on respect and compassion, and the need to support alleviate negative neighborhood environments. It was in these moments that I found myself wishing for the kind of society built upon attitudes of respect, compassion and goodwill that Holmgren described. Her discussion here demonstrates the ways in which our fundamental attitudes regarding wrongdoing and our response to it will radically affect the kind of society in which we live. Shifting these attitudes in a society often focused on retributive attitudes and retributive understandings of punishment, however, constitutes a serious practical challenge to Holmgren’s views. Articulation of the moral alternatives, however, is a significant first step.
In her preface, Holmgren claims that to bring about a good future for all citizens we must all adopt an attitude of good will and compassion towards one another, and that this book is her small contribution to this effort. On that front, her book is surely more than a small contribution.
© 2013 Kathleen Poorman Dougherty
Kathleen Poorman Dougherty, Ph.D., is Associate Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Notre Dame of Maryland University. Her primary areas of scholarship are in ethics, especially virtue theory, and the philosophy of literature.