Forgiveness as a capability

Li, Jian (2019). 'Forgiveness as a capability' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


Forgiveness is a philosophical problem that arouses more and more interest in the realm of moral philosophy. It is standardly defined as the overcoming of negative feelings such as resentment and anger by the victim toward the wrongdoer. But there have been some salient puzzles about forgiveness. On the one hand, forgiveness is only possible after there is a wrongdoing. Then resentment or anger is justified, and this means forgiveness is unjustified and it implies either the condonement of wrongdoing or lack of self-respect on the wronged party. On the other hand, if there is no wrongdoing then forgiveness is not needed because there is nothing to be forgiven. Therefore, it seems that forgiveness is either unjustified or pointless. (Kolnai, 1973-74) Another puzzle is whether forgiveness is conditional on the repentance of the wrongdoer. Is forgiveness possible even when the wrongdoer doesn’t ask for forgiveness and shows no repentance or remorse over the wrong done? In other words, has forgiveness the elective nature?(Allais, 2008, 2013)This paper suggests to understand forgiveness as a capability and in so doing shed a new light on how to solve the puzzles about forgiveness using the capabilities approach.

In Nussbaum’s list of ten Central Capabilities, the fifth category of capabilities are those of emotions. In this category fall the capabilities “to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger”. (Nussbaum, 2011) In Strawsonian terms, these are also affective reactive attitudes that one has toward others. It is noticeable that in the class of reactive attitudes Strawson also includes forgiveness and resentment, alongside with love and gratitude. (Strawson, 2008) This paper proposes that forgiveness is not only a reactive attitude in the Stawsonian sense, but a basic emotional capability that deserves deeper and broader exploration.

Understood as a capability, this new account of forgiveness can explain why forgiveness is both meaningful and justified after a wrong has been done. When a wrong has been done, the wrongdoer harms or hurts the wronged party. The victim now can have or utilize two kinds of capability, one of justified anger (or resentment) and another of forgiveness. With the capability of justified anger, the victim is able to achieve the functioning of feeling anger, resentment or other negative feelings, and/or the functioning of blaming the wrongdoer. The beings of negative feelings and the doings of blaming are reflective of the victim’s self-respect, i.e. she takes herself as one member of the community of moral equals. With the capability of forgiveness, the victim is able to let go of the negative feelings towards the offender and undergo a change of heart. The functionings that are achieved here are the beings of inner peacefulness (and maybe, in some circumstances, the positive feelings such as trust and affection) and the doings of reaccepting the offender into one’s life. Usually the capability of forgiveness follows the capability of justified anger and compliments the latter. Taken together, the two capabilities constitute one important aspect of our moral life. Because there are two distinct capabilities in operation after a wrongdoing, resentment and forgiveness (letting go of resentment) can both be justified. Resentment and forgiveness happen in different stages after the wrongdoing has been done and have different objects. The appropriate object of resentment is the fact that the victim’s respect is violated and she is not treated as she should be by the wrongdoer. This fact requires and justifies anger, resentment and indignation on the victim’s part. Whereas the appropriate object of forgiveness is the distorted relationship between the victim and the wrongdoer brought about by the wrongdoing. Forgiveness is an act performed by the victim to restore the relationship between herself and the offender. Through forgiveness, the victim reclaims her self-respect as being equal to anyone else in the moral community and lifts up the offender’s moral stature. Since through wrongdoing, the wrongdoer “thereby incurs a loss of moral stature – he foregoes certain claims to respect”. (Bovens, 2009) Once the capability of resentment and that of forgiveness are separated and the distinction between them made clear, the first puzzle of forgiveness can be dissolved.

Taking forgiveness as a capability also helps solve the second puzzle of forgiveness. Since capability is freedom to achieve certain functionings (beings and doings), forgiveness as a capability is essentially a freedom to choose among various kinds of reactive attitudes. Having the capability of forgiveness means the victim can make a choice, she can decide whether to forgive or not, with or without the repentance or remorse on the wrongdoer’s part. The essence of forgiveness is freedom, because capability is substantive freedom. Hence forgiveness has an elective nature, whether the past is put behind and the future is opened depends totally on the victim’s decision and choice. And, for that matter, the offender is powerless since he has foregone part of his rights by the wrong he has done to the victim.

Nussbaum’s distinction between internal and combined capabilities is particularly useful in explaining some phenomenon about forgiveness. In a society where a system of responsibility practices is not in place and the human beings are not treated as moral equals, forgiveness can hardly be operational. In such a society, harming a person is like treating a slave like a slave and such harm or mistreatment is not deemed as wrongdoing, anger and resentment may be the only proper response from the victim. She may still have the inner capability to let go of the resentment but not the combined capability, since her suffering is not publicly recognized by the society and the perpetrator is not seen as the wrongdoer. In such a case, a wrong has happened but no one is deemed blameworthy, no retribution or punishment is taken as deserved and therefore, no forgiveness as a combined capability is possible.

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