Bay presented a paper by Howard McGary titled, appropriately enough, “Forgiveness” (McGary 1989). McGary’s paper is divided into sections, with each section making a separate point about forgiveness. Making matters harder, several of the sections are clearly written in response to a different paper by Jeffrie Murphy. Nonetheless, our author clearly identifies two points that he wishes to establish and he gives us a hint about some other things he’s going to do.
In this paper I shall contend that (1) the reasons for forgiving or failing to forgive can be self-pertaining and that (2) forgiving or refusing to forgive primarily involve the forgiver’s feelings about the elimination of her resentment. (I shall define a bit later what I mean by a self-pertaining reason.) (3) Along the way, I shall make some points about the differences between forgiveness and other closely related virtues. (McGary 1989, 343–44, numbers added by me)
Philosophy articles don’t have as many conventions to help their readers as articles in other disciplines do, but we do have the “I shall argue” paragraph. Never look this gift horse in the mouth. It tells us that the author is primarily interested in arguing for points (1) and (2) and that he will feel free to go through some digressions along the way (3). Once you see it, you know what to look for. So as you begin and end each section, ask yourself: “Was that (1), (2), or (3)?”
Anyway, McGary’s understanding of forgiveness involves three conditions that he argues for throughout the paper. Bay’s presentation helpfully brought them all together and that served as the focal point of our discussion.
One of the points we circled around concerned obligations. Specifically, we talked about whether people are obliged to feel resentment and obliged to let it go by forgiving. Speaking for myself, I find the idea of an obligation to feel resentment, um, unfamiliar. I would think that the primary cases involve self-respect. Someone who doesn’t feel resentment when wronged just isn’t willing to stand up for herself or doesn’t count herself as being worthy of proper treatment.
Bay said she was interested in moral luck cases. In these cases, people seem to do bad things despite not meaning to. Think of accidents. If you run over your neighbor’s dog, you’re going to feel terrible even if you didn’t see the dog and so couldn’t help it. Conversely, if you drive drunk and don’t hurt anyone, you have good moral luck. When you wake up, you feel relief rather than guilt. But if guilt is a matter of what is under your control, your feelings should be the other way around.
Bay is interested in the thought that the people who suffer bad moral luck do not do anything wrong but that it can be appropriate to forgive them nonetheless as doing so helps to alleviate their feelings of guilt. If she’s right, then the analysis that says forgiveness can only be given to those who have done something wrong is mistaken.
McGary, Howard. 1989. “Forgiveness.” American Philosophical Quarterly 26: 343–51. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20014302.