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Lincoln University Undergraduates on Forgiveness

This post was contributed by Finlay Munden and Harvey Baxter, first year undergraduate students in philosophy at the University of Lincoln. John Lippitt’s talk, ‘Why Forgive’ was the 2018 University of Lincoln Annual Philosophy Lecture. This event was sponsored by the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion, Oxford.

Summary of Lippitt’s Talk

Lippitt’s talk, with its focus on the question of why we should forgive, naturally began by asking what forgiveness is. According to Lippitt, forgiveness is not necessarily a matter of condoning or forgetting the wrongdoing somebody has committed against you. Rather it is the transcendence of what could be called a ‘lower state of mind’. This lower state of mind is a form of resentment, which does psychological harm not only to the individual it characterises, but also to the person who is being resented. This is not to say that Lippitt opposes resentment altogether. In fact, he endorses it as a virtue that prevents us from being taken advantage of. But Lippitt sees resentment as unhealthy when we begin to exaggerate the amount of harm we have actually suffered.

Lippitt explained that Joseph Butler saw virtue as a counter-balance to feelings of resentment in the sense that it consists of forswearing excess resentment and takes us beyond a destructive cycle of revenge. This is a philosophy that goes beyond our own perspectives and considers the needs of society as a whole. For this reason, Lippitt criticizes Jean Hampton for her individualistic conception of forgiveness. He explained that Hampton sees resentment as defending one’s self-esteem or self-respect, and forgiveness as regaining confidence in your self-worth. This, Lippitt argued, is too narrow-minded and fails to capture how forgiveness works; it is partly comprised of consideration for the other individual whom the act of forgiving concerns.

Lippitt acknowledged the value of Margaret Walker’s suggestion that resentment arises from threats to the authority of norms maintaining social stability. Lippitt suggested that forgiveness, by contrast, is an act of love, and that this requires seeing beyond the faults of someone else. Lippet then raised the question whether the kind of love involved in forgiveness sometimes violates justice, and if so, which virtue we should value more. In response to this problem, Lippitt considered whether it might be possible to reconcile love and justice, citing a passage from Leviticus 19 which suggests that justice is central to loving your neighbour. This implies that forgiveness consists of encouraging someone to do the right thing; being a moral aid.

A word from Finlay Munden

Lippitt’s talk largely revolved around the theme of one’s relations to other people. This made for a very interesting topic, as the vast catalogue of idiosyncrasies that characterise social interaction can be very puzzling to anyone. I agree with Lippitt – I find his notion of a ‘moral aid’ very appealing given my passion for learning, especially as it involves how we may grow as human beings. However, I think the appeal of this extends beyond my own perspective to the benefit of society. Let me begin by making a distinction: first of all, there is the tendency for us to see certain things as an intellectual endeavour, and I would even go as far to say that this is a way of discouraging oneself from actualising their potential because it is seen as a ‘specialist’ activity. Secondly, there is a tendency for characterising situations as ‘emotional’ that do not warrant a philosophical approach, such as the love between two people whether it be romantic or familial.

It is fair to say that the words ‘intellectual’ and ‘love’ are two extremes – one is cold and calculated, the other is free-flowing and emotional. I see Lippitt’s idea presented in the lecture as a way of reconciling these two extremes and finding a middle ground. He clearly thinks that there is room for philosophical thinking in situations that involve love, and this is something that his idea of moral aid would promote.

There is something vague about our conception of forgiveness, because often people are not sure if they should trouble themselves in reconciling their differences with their adversary or if they should do what is best for themselves. Lippitt offers a solution to this common problem, but I think the implications extend beyond forgiveness and suggest that philosophy should play a wider role in our inter-personal relationships. Philosophy is in a fundamental way concerned with understanding what we mean when we say certain things, and of course Lippitt is talking about what we mean when we say ‘forgiveness’. The understanding that philosophy provides may act as a pillar of stability in relation to others, and this is why I agree with Lippitt: because he offers a viable solution with practical significance.

It follows quite nicely from my interpretation of Lippitt’s talk that I now talk about its value. One may at first wonder why there was an entire lecture dedicated to forgiveness, but this is philosophy, and it is a subject that illuminates the parts of life that so many of us do not bother to explore. Forgiveness is one such topic – it is often viewed as a small component of social interaction that involves, quite vaguely, the act of ‘letting things go’. The value of Lippitt’s talk comes from the fact that he has not only presented an interesting topic, but also that he has done his duty as a philosopher by showing us that forgiveness is more than a vague concept, but a catalyst for human growth.

A word from Harvey Baxter

People have different ideas on what forgiveness is and how exactly is should work. In my opinion, forgiveness is, at its most basic, no longer harbouring any resentment toward somebody who has done you wrong. Lippitt argues that forgiveness does not entail forgetting or condoning the wrong done to you. I would have to agree. While somebody may choose to forget when they forgive, this opens them up to be taken advantage of. Lippitt said in his talk that resentment is useful in preventing this, but too much resentment will lead to a person believing that the wrong they have suffered is more extreme than it actually was. It is for this same reason that I believe that you should not forget or condone the act when forgiving somebody. For this would allow for people to repeatedly commit wrongs against you knowing that there will be no repercussions.

Because of this, I believe that when you forgive a person for their actions, you should both remember and, to a moderate degree, even resent their actions. This helps guard against being taken advantage of. But I would like to suggest an alternative to Lippitt’s model concerning how this works. Lippitt argued in his talk that a certain amount of resentment is healthy, but an excess causes a person to exaggerate the harm they have suffered. According to Lippitt, forgiveness is letting go of the excess resentment. While I agree that forgiveness is not necessarily forgetting the wrongdoing, I disagree with his view on how resentment works in regard to forgiveness. I suggest that when you forgive somebody, you are not letting go of an excess of resentment. Rather, you are letting go of the resentment you hold towards that person, as opposed to the person’s action. You may still resent their actions, but once you have forgiven that person, you should harbour little or no resentment towards them. Apart from this, I mostly agree with what Lippitt said in his talk. I particularly agree with his idea that forgiving a person for their actions does not have to entail forgetting or condoning the actions.

I see the ideas Lippitt expressed on resentment and forgiveness as holding an immense amount of value. While I don’t agree with how resentment should be handled, Lippitt’s view of letting go of excess resentment is still a positive process that should be considered in everyday life. When there is a conflict between two people, this kind of letting go can be very useful, even if just one person involved can take a step back and consider if the other person’s actions were really that harmful towards them. Thus I believe that spreading ideas like this is extremely beneficial to all people.