Friday, October 12, 2007

Forgiveness is Not a Virtue, or "Pomegranates"

There are some people whom I would forgive anything. There are others whom I don't believe I'll ever be able to forgive. This suggests to me that there is nothing moral about forgiveness. It's a feeling--it is, in effect, a preference.

Here's an analogy: I love pomegranates. They're only available here in one brief period of the year (namely, right now!) Now, when choosing a pomegranate it can be difficult to tell if it's any good. It might be under-ripe, or have a bad spot. And they're expensive. But none of that matters to me. None of it will ever make me want to stop buying pomegranates. I love them so much that I can forgive them anything. The ideal, the Perfect Pomegranate, is always floating before my eyes, even when individual pomegranates disappoint. (Some people claim that pomegranates are "not worth the trouble" it takes to eat them. For me, the fact that you have to eat them slowly and laboriously is part of their charm. But I digress.)

Certain people talk about forgiveness a lot. They make it sound like you ought to forgive everybody for everything, all the time. I have always had a problem with this attitude.

It seems to me that "forgiveness" means various things to various people. It can mean "Pretend that what that person did was not wrong" or "Allow that person to keep treating you badly." Nobody has the right to treat another person badly. There's nothing moral about that. If someone is not going to change their bad behavior, it is completely unacceptable to condone what they're doing. And even if you feel that you should forgive them for what they did to you, what if they've hurt other people as well? You can't forgive them for that.

I also wonder if some people believe that "forgiving your enemies" means you're morally superior to them. (Self-righteousness is not a virtue either.) This reminds me of the late Doreen Valiente's remark, "I cannot see any virtue in unctuously professing to forgive someone against whom you can do nothing. The only time I can see merit in forgiving an enemy is when you have your foot on his neck."

The only interpretation of forgiveness that I have any sympathy with is the idea that it means "not holding grudges." But even then, the problem with holding a grudge is that it's bad for you, not for the person you're angry at. It's just self-interest. (I would argue that with true forgiveness, the grudge never even gets formed, so it doesn't have to be let go of.)

Furthermore, "holding a grudge" is not the same as "holding someone responsible for their actions." Neither is it the same as remembering "This person would hurt me again if they got the chance." That's self-preservation.

The problem with forgiveness is that it can lead to your being taken advantage of. I think I might go so far as to say that forgiveness is too risky to be a virtue. Forgiveness is spontaneous, it comes from the heart, it doesn't care about self-preservation and that means it has to be tempered with something more moderate. Or to put it another way, sometimes it's best to forgive but not forget.

Oh, pomegranate . . .

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