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Forgiveness and LoveReview - Forgiveness and Love
by Glen Pettigrove
Oxford University Press, 2016
Review by Ben Mulvey, Ph.D.
Jan 3rd 2017 (Volume 21, Issue 1)

Touring the seventeenth-century Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, I noticed a series of small doors that lined one of the cloistered walls.  Each door opened into a closet-sized confessional.  There's nothing particularly surprising about confessionals at a Catholic monastery, but I was struck by how many there were.  Altogether these confessionals took up a significant amount of the overall space of the monastery, indicating their importance in the daily rituals of the monks.  The ritualized seeking of forgiveness is an integral part of the Catholic religion's (among others) identity.  Alexander Pope's familiar quip, "To err is human; to forgive is divine," reveals the dual nature of forgiveness.  On the one hand, forgiveness is the prerogative of God.  On the other, we are told, mortals like us should emulate (not usurp) God's virtues and learn how to forgive.  "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those…," etc.  The modern western therapeutic regime that determines much of our popular discourse (consider Oprah or Deepak, for example) lauds the therapeutic value of forgiveness.  "Let it go. It's not healthy to held on to that resentment and anger.  Forgive and forget."  "Stop beating yourself up.  It's not healthy.  You must forgive yourself."  Is forgiveness the sole prerogative of the divine?  Can we forgive ourselves?  More significantly, who can forgive whom?  For what sorts of things?  In what circumstances?  These are some of the central questions addressed in Glen Pettigrove's Forgiveness and Love.

The short (174 pages), clearly written, book is divided into eight chapters and is replete with footnotes and an extensive bibliography, both features being very helpful.  I say it is a clearly written book.  But that doesn't make it particularly easy-going.  The book is not meant for the casual reader or someone looking for a quick self-help primer on how to fix their broken relationship.  The book is an example of what might be called "analytic philosophy."  It is logically rigorous and analytically thorough-going.  It's not aimed at Deepak's audience.

In the brief preface, Pettigrove, a philosopher, notes that what often drives philosophical inquiry "is simply a desire to understand something" (xii).  But the aim of this book "is to shed light on the nature of forgiveness" (xiii) not simply to understand, but to behave properly in our relationships with others, to react to their transgressions in a coherent, sensible, and, yes, healthy way.  After all, says Pettigrove, forgiveness is a more diverse phenomenon that is appropriate in a wider range of cases than is typically acknowledged in the philosophical literature" (159).  So we get a series of chapters that answer the who, what, where, and when questions about forgiveness.  Chapter 1 addresses the question, 'What is forgiveness?'  Chapter 2 takes up the question, 'Who has the standing to forgive?' Chapter 3 asks, 'What do we forgive?'

Having clarified the definition of the concept of forgiveness, Pettigrove proceeds in the reminder of the book to the implications his understanding of the concept has for number of interpersonal relational issues.  Thus, chapter 4 offers an examination of the relationship between understanding and forgiveness.  Chapter 5 explores the relationship between forgiveness and love.  Chapter 6 analyzes the claim that forgiveness should be conditional upon the offer of a sincere apology.  Chapter 7 explains that forgiving the unapologetic may well admirable.  Chapter 8 ties up some loose ends in the argument and considers what threads research on forgiveness might pursue.  Pettigrove understands these last three chapters to go beyond definition and to involve the normative nature of forgiveness.

For me, the two most interesting and compelling chapters, and the longest, are those that explore the relationship between forgiveness and love (chapter 5) and forgiveness and grace (chapter 7).  Without rehearsing the argument and analysis of each chapter, let me just say that the contributions Pettigrove offers in these chapters are not only intrinsically interesting, but convincing.  Subjecting the concept love, in chapter 5, to rigorous analysis has received a renewed urgency among philosophers in recent years as the enormous number of publications on this subject attest.  Pettigrove challenges several these analyses and offers his own well-argued conclusion as to the nature of love because addressing the question of the relationship between forgiving and loving will require both offering an account of love and saying a bit more about the emotion involved in forgiving…" (74). 

Pettigrove analyses love in terms of its cognitive (it involves beliefs), affective (it involves feelings), and volitional (it involves doing things) dimensions.  Understanding love in these terms is not novel.  But it clearly shows how love can manifest in so many ways in so many different relationships.   This makes any easy explanation of the relationship between love and forgiveness suspect.  But one very common "way of explaining the relationship between them is to treat forgiving as an instance of loving" (73).  In the end, though, Pettigrove offers an insightful argument showing that the "affects of love need not yield forgiveness" (103).  I'll leave readers to question, with Pettigrove, the value of an unforgiving love.

Pettigrove is no doubt correct when he says, "The ethical notion of grace has long been overshadowed by its theological cousin" (125).  We can ignore the theological debates and simply understand grace in this simple way, "An act of grace is an act of unmerited favor (126).  Though in his analysis of the relationship of grace and forgiveness Pettigrove efficiently mines the work of the ancient Seneca, his analysis is reminiscent of Aristotle's examination of the virtues in Nicomachean Ethics.  Pettigrove uses enlightening "every day" examples and engages philosophical heavyweights like Kant to illuminate his conclusion that forgiveness can be a virtue, even when popular opinion may regard some peoples' acts unforgiveable.

Again, Forgiveness and Love is not an easy read.  But it will reward the reader who sticks with the systematic analyses.   The book is a good example of how philosophy can help clarify useful options to empirical researchers, particularly those interested in moral psychology.  After all, "…our thoughts about moral character, both of the person forgiving and the one forgiven, profoundly shape our sense of who needs to be forgiven in which circumstances and for what reasons" (159).

 

© 2017 Ben Mulvey

 

Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences of Nova Southeastern University.  He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University specializing in political theory and applied ethics.  He teaches philosophy at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network.


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