Through a Glass Darkly. Our Imperfect Understanding of Forgiveness and Why It Matters

Di Stephanie Worboys

In: Philosophical Insights for a Theory of Restorative Justice XLVIII , No. 2 ( 2019 )

Sezione Saggi / Articles


In recent decades, forgiveness has received a great deal of attention within a variety of fields, including medicine, mental health, and the criminal justice system through restorative justice initiatives and other practices. Forgiveness appears to offer many benefits to individuals and the relationships that constitute our lives. For these reasons, the question of how to position forgiveness in public life has been re-energized. However, there are some notable concerns. Many observe that forgiveness has the potential to compromise justice. This concern reflects uncertainty about the relationship between them. This paper contends that a critical obstacle to clarifying this relationship is our inadequate understanding of forgiveness itself. This paper lays out some of the problems with the two most widely embraced accounts of forgiveness, which will be called the conventional and the resentment accounts. The paper suggests that forgiveness can only be properly understood in terms of its moral meaning, which neither account adequately captures. The goal of the paper is to arrive at a better position to think clearly about forgiveness and its relationship to justice. The paper begins with an overview of the interest in forgiveness and the obstacles it poses for justice – both legally and conceptually. From there, the paper examines the two main accounts of forgiveness, considering the strengths and weaknesses of each. The paper concludes that both accounts fail to articulate the distinctive meaning of forgiveness and therefore are ill-equipped to advance our understanding of how forgiveness relates to justice.