When my husband was in law school, he used to relate to me everything he was learning as a kind of memory exercise. I would typically pose a few naive questions. One evening he raised the matter of torts, and the ways a liable wrongdoer might redress the harm they’ve done. Almost always, I noticed, the restitution was monetary, even where the harm hadn’t been. “Why money?” I asked, not expecting much more than the idea that money is a universal solvent. Instead my husband dashed off a theory I’ve been considering since. As far as the law is concerned, when you harm someone, a piece of property is created—their damage, so to speak—and you, the wrongdoer, must buy it from the victim to satisfy (or at least exhaust) their claim against you.
Though I may have intuited it before, I had never quite realized so distinctly that harms can’t actually be redressed. Whatever you lose when someone hurts you, you lose for good; whatever they supply to make amends can never return you to your prior state of having never been hurt. For the law, this is a problem—because, as Agnes Callard points out, it means that the wronged have an eternal warrant for vengeance, and pose a permanent threat to peace. The imaginary property dreamed into being by tort law provides a remedy by way of metaphor. Once you surrender your damage for recompense, you have no further claim to it. So it goes with property.
But the metaphor was illuminating in other ways, too. In some sense, our damage is our own kingdom: an interior place of pain and outrage but also moral clarity, where we know that, in being angry over having been wronged, we are in the right. This picture adds a dose of concreteness to our talk of “dwelling on” aggrievement. Not only are people logically entitled to interminable anger over harm done—they have compelling emotional and moral reasons to hang onto a grudge.
This is a problem for us humans. We’re pathologically inclined to hurt one another, but also inherently in need of society. The infinite prosecution of grievances is arguably justifiable, but it is also certainly apocalyptic. We cannot all be like Michael Kohlhaas—protagonist of the eponymous, early nineteenth-century novella by the German novelist Heinrich von Kleist—pressing our rightful claims to vengeance and recompense until our demands dissolve all the bonds around us, eventually destroying us. The righteousness of Kohlhaas is a form of justice society cannot withstand.
Law may have its makeshift remedy to this conundrum in its figurative property sales, but what of morality? Callard argues that the wronged have no rational reason to forgo their anger, and by this I gather she means that there is no obvious benefit to the aggrieved in releasing their contempt. Surrendering their damage, so to speak, doesn’t remedy what was done to them; neither does it ensure that such a thing won’t happen again, nor does it impart useful moral lessons for the wrongdoer. Worse, it doesn’t even generally feel good.
What Callard has identified is the fact that forgiveness is unfair and painful. Much is made of the healing power of forgiveness, but in my experience, this therapeutic promise falls somewhere between being overstated and totally empty. Forgiving someone for hurting you is excruciating, because it requires you to follow an unjust wrong with a personal sacrifice. And yet: forgiveness is also good, and it may be a necessary ingredient for peace as we know it.
Whatever else forgiveness is or entails, it certainly requires giving up further claims to punitive action against a wrongdoer. It does not require that the wronged party seek no redress, only that the redress be limited. Neither does it require that the wronged party give up all traces of anger toward the wrongdoer, only that the anger cease to be acted on, and perhaps fade over time. Anger as a sentiment can remain, but forgiveness as a moral discipline transforms that anger into a less socially corrosive substance.
This isn’t to say that societies must advise forgiveness if they mean to remain intact. As classicist David Konstan observes in his book Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea (2010), Greek and Roman cultures of antiquity got along all right without forgiveness as we understand it. In their worlds, Konstan writes, “the appeasement of anger and the relinquishing of revenge were . . . perceived as resting on the restoration of the dignity of the injured party, whether through compensation or gestures of deference, or else by way of discounting the offense on the grounds that it was in some sense involuntary or unintentional.”
We still retain this tendency to avoid the sting of forgiveness by retroactively obliterating the bad act itself—that is, by explaining why the initial wrong isn’t something one can be justifiably angry about because it was somehow unintentional. Yet we’re also less comfortable than the Greeks or Romans were with compulsory displays of deference—say, public self-abasement, as in begging and pleading for pardon, prostrating oneself, or pledging service to one’s erstwhile victim.
Konstan argues that our contemporary version of forgiveness is a Christian-infused outgrowth of the Enlightenment, specifically the Kantian exhortation to treat all people as ends, not means. That maxim envisions a baseline moral equality that the Greeks and Romans rejected. Indeed, it appears that societies can survive sans forgiveness, but not the sort of society we want to have. In a putatively liberal-democratic order, we would prefer that our peace not be based upon enforcing a rigid social hierarchy; we must allow wrongdoers to reclaim a moral status equal to that of their victims, somehow, in order for an egalitarian polity to have any hope of enduring. Otherwise, the thoroughly inegalitarian futures Callard warns of might ensue. While oppressors might be morally degraded by their decision to oppress, so, too, would the oppressed, by their entanglement in limitless vengeance.
Forgiveness thus seems to be a crucial component of maintaining our preferred social order. But that doesn’t mean it is a therapeutic or self-serving one. In its capacity to halt an otherwise endless campaign of vengeance, forgiveness echoes René Girard’s definition of sacrifice in Violence and the Sacred (1972): an expression of limited violence which, when discharged, puts an end to the acceleration and reciprocation of violence. Unlike human, animal, or even token sacrifices, forgiveness requires only the destruction of that sacred property—one’s own damage, the interior realm of righteous pain, that wellspring of anger.
It is a mistake to frame forgiveness as something one does for oneself, as pop psychologists and wellness coaches often do. A forgiver might experience some benefits in the act of forgiveness, but it is just as likely that they will experience a secondary wave of pain. After all, they, the innocent, are being asked to sacrifice for some higher good: peace or egalitarian order, in the modern formulation, God in a more archaic version. And yet this strange custom—contrary to an individualist, ruthlessly rights-oriented point of view as it is—may well be the thin membrane separating our (aspirational) way of life from more violent, less egalitarian forms. And thus we may all be obligated to practice it.