What is Forgiveness?

The Department of Philosophy and the Center for Practical and Professional Ethics at Sacramento State University is sponsoring a student essay competition in connection with the Nammour Symposium, which occurs April 26-27. The competition is open to all students currently enrolled at Sacramento State University as well as those attending one of the community colleges in the Los Rios Community College District. 
The theme of the 2011 Nammour Symposium is "On Being Wrong," and the topic of the student essay competition is "Forgiveness".  Up to three winning essays will be selected, and each winner will receive 200 dollars.  Authors of the winning essays will present them on a student panel at the Nammour Symposium. 

The short prompt below has been created to help students begin to understand what makes forgiveness problematic.  Students may choose to address one of the questions raised in the prompt below, but this is not required or expected.  

The Problem of Forgiveness

To begin to appreciate why such an ordinary notion as forgiveness should be puzzling we first distinguish forgiving from excusing.  When we excuse a person, we typically recognize that something that appeared to be an intentional wrongdoing is in fact something which she may not reasonably be held responsible. According to this distinction, when Jesus said:  "Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do," he seems to be asking that his persecutors be excused, not forgiven.  

By contrast, we forgive acts that we continue to regard as blameworthy.  And this is where the problems arise.  What, exactly, are we doing when we forgive a blameworthy act?  Are we agreeing not to punish it even though the perpetrator is deserving of punishment?  If so, why?  And how is it morally acceptable to make an exception for this individual? Or is forgiveness something that we do even while advocating punishment?  If so, then what makes forgiveness a virtuous act? When we forgive a person are we promising to 'wipe the slate clean' and act toward them as if he had never committed the offense?  If so, is this even rational?  If not, then what are we promising?  Or is forgiving a person actually something that we do  for ourselves, to be free of the debilitating effect of negative emotions?  This is surely a rational aim, but what does it actually consist in and what makes it virtuous?  And is it really virtuous to have a forgiving nature?  Doesn't knowing that we will be forgiven simply encourage people to behave badly?

Forgiveness has obvious moral and religious significance, but it is also an area of intense empirical inquiry.  Psychologists and social scientists are interested in the neurological and sociological effects of forgiveness; political scientists are interested in effective means of fostering forgiveness between hostile nations; evolutionary biologists are interested in understanding the adaptive value of an instinct for forgiveness.  Papers exploring these areas are very welcome as well.

Resources and suggestions for writing an essay

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent article on forgiveness as well as a thorough bibliography. 

Students who are interested in participating in the essay competition but are not sure how to start should consider producing an analysis of an influential article. Guidelines for writing an analytical essay may be found here.  And here are a few articles that we believe to be well worth your time to read and write about.  The articles are all available free online through the Sacramento State Library to Sacramento State Students.

Submission Requirements

  • Essays are due on April 18th.  Late essays are not guaranteed consideration. 
  • Essays should be double-spaced and conform to Department writing and format guidelines. (http://www.csus.edu/phil/Guidance/WritingGuidelines.html)
  • Submit your essay as an attachment to an e-mail to mayesgr@csus.edu. 
  • Write "Nammour Student Essay Competition Submission" as the subject of the e-mail.
  • Identify yourself in the e-mail, but do not write your name on the essay.  
  • Supply both an e-mail (if different from the one you use to submit the essay) and a phone number at which you can be easily reached.

Good luck!