I spoke earlier of suffering, of unendurable loss. Without falling prey to cheap sentimentalism, reconciliation is painful. Attending to its ethics thus requires attending to its moral-psychological features—more precisely, to the affective redirection which (it is claimed) erstwhile enemies must sometimes undergo if they are to work together towards a justifiedATC peace. In this section, I first reject the view that forgiveness is central to reconciliation and argue that trust, rather, is its key (though not sufficient) condition.

Forgiveness after War

Having chaired the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) after decades of indefatigable fight against the Apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously wrote that there is ‘no future without forgiveness’. One should always be wary of slogans. Still, on Tutu’s account, forgiveness is central to reconciliation. It is an attractive, indeed powerful thesis. But I think that there are good reasons to resist it. First, though, we need an account of forgiveness. Suppose that John, whilst on deployment with his army in a foreign country, rapes and tortures Fatima as part of a campaign of intimidation against defenceless civilians. For her to forgive him is to overcome (most of) the negative feelings which his wrongdoing elicits in her towards him, to accept that he is not reducible to his wrongdoing, and to allow this acceptance to shape her attitude to him—without foregoing the judgement that he wronged her. Importantly, this is compatible with her still feeling sorrow when remembering what he did, and perhaps even anger at having been raped: forgiving does not imply overcoming all relevant negative feelings. The point though is that in forgiving John (assuming that she does) Fatima no longer feels angry with John himself; she is no longer filled with rage when thinking about him, and no longer sees him as just her rapist; should she encounter him, she would not behave in an angry, resentful, hateful, way; nor would she use her expression of forgiveness as an instrument for humiliating him, for to forgive another for his wrongdoing is not to diminish him for it.[1]

Forgiveness so construed implies that Fatima has harboured negative feelings towards John, and has had to work towards no longer letting those negative feelings determine her attitude towards him. Instant forgiveness is not really forgiveness; nor is taking a pill which eliminates those feelings of anger; nor is indifference as wrought by the passage of time; nor, in fact, is the overcoming of negative feelings for prudential reasons, or because (one thinks) God commands us to forgive. Forgiveness consists in doing all of the above out of recognition that the wrongdoer is not reducible to his acts.

Although forgiveness is typically granted and withheld in interpersonal relations, it is easy to discern why many see it as central to political reconciliation after war, particularly in the aftermath of mass atrocities in civil conflicts and when perpetrators have no choice but to return to live side by side, literally, with their former victims. Indeed it is hard to imagine that those victims and perpetrators can actually work together towards rebuilding their community—both local and less local—unless the former somehow undergo the change of heart towards the latter which is at the heart of forgiveness. Examples such as Nelson Mandela, who famously forgave his jailers, further buttress the thesis.

However, there is a normative risk that the unquestionable moral authority of Tutu and Mandela should lead us to over-emphasize the role of forgiveness in reconciliation. To begin with, even if interpersonal forgiveness is necessary to political forgiveness in those cases, it is far less likely to be so of other post-conflict situations where victims and perpetrators are not intermingled to the same extent. Moreover, even in those cases, there are difficulties with the view that forgiveness is key to reconciliation. In the remainder of this section, I reject one but endorse three arguments against it.

The argument I reject goes like this. Our concern is with reconciliation in the wake of war in general, and serious war crimes in particular. Those atrocities— genocide, rape campaigns, widespread torture and abduction, widespread extortions and pillages causing population displacements with their attendant traumas—are, one might think, so appalling, so evil, as to be unforgivable. And yet, those communities do need rebuilding, with most perpetrators in situ. If reconciliation is possible—and in some cases, such as Rwanda post-genocide, there are reasons to believe that it has happened, if to a limited extent—it is not thanks to the granting of forgiveness, since there cannot be forgiveness.

I am sceptical. For what it is worth, the claim that some deeds are unforgiveable is badly put, for a deed itself, divorced from the (morally responsible) agent who committed it, is not an appropriate object of forgiveness: only the agent is. Rather, to say that a crime is unforgivable is to say that it would be morally inappropriate for anyone, even victims, to forgive perpetrators for committing it. A victim who forgives, on that view, fails properly to understand and account for what was done to her, as well as properly to conceive of her relationship with her tormentor. It seems to me that we ought to reject that view. For a start, to claim that there are such deeds is to condemn victims who do not wish to forget to a lifetime of negative feelings (should those feelings not go on their own with the help of time passing). Should they decide to forgive, they would be aptly described as mistaken about the nature of their predicament and their conception of themselves in relation to their wrongdoer. This seems to heap further indignity on them.[2] Moreover, I shall argue below that only victims have the standing to forgive perpetrators for what the latter did to them. If I am right, only victims have the standing to withhold forgiveness. Given that, as we have just seen, victims may grant it, even for such crimes, there is no wrong for which perpetrators may not be forgiven. By implication, the unfor- giveability argument is misguided and thus does not undermine Tutu’s claim.

Still, there are other reasons to doubt that the claim is true. First, it does not accommodate other forms of affective redirection when forgiveness is not the appropriate reactive attitude. As we saw above, forgiveness can only be directed at wrongdoers. However, the commission of a wrongdoing alone is not enough to warrant the thought that forgiveness is appropriately granted (or withheld): the negative feelings which the wrongdoing elicited must themselves be justified. Rights violations appropriately elicit those feelings, and thus are forgiveness cases. This is so even if the wrongdoer suffered from diminished agency yet remained responsible for his actions. However, some wrongdoings, such as non-culpable rights violations or justified rights infringements, do not warrant those negative feelings (though having those feelings might be excusable, of course). Consequently, these are not forgiveness cases.[3] Yet, both non-culpable rights violations and justified rights infringements cause an enormous amount of suffering in war. If there is no future without forgiveness, then there is no future, no prospect of reconciliation, for those agents, which seems deeply implausible. In fact, reconciliatory processes are both important and clearly possible in those cases, but not in a way that gives forgiveness a central place.

Second, when one says that forgiveness is key to post-conflict reconciliation, one might mean not personal forgiveness, whereby victims personally forgive perpetrators, but rather and more plausibly, political forgiveness, whereby the act of forgiving is undertaken by political actors on behalf of victims. But political forgiveness is problematic: it raises one of the most difficult issues in the ethics of forgiveness, to wit, that of vicarious forgiveness. Simon Wiesenthal puts the point better than anyone I know in his often-mentioned book The Sunflower. One day, while working in a labour camp for mostly Jewish detainees on the Eastern Railway, he was taken to the deathbed of a SS combatant who wished to confess to a Jew—any Jew—his participation in an earlier horrific crime against Jewish civilians. The dying SS asked Wiesenthal for his forgiveness on behalf of his victims, without which, he claimed, he could not die in peace. Wiesenthal walked away, not having said a word throughout the encounter, and ends the story, in the book, with the question: ‘What would you have done?’[4] [5]

It is important to be clear as to what vicarious forgiveness is. By it, I do not mean forgiveness bestowed on behalf of a victim by someone whom she, the victim, has mandated so to act. In such cases, the mandatee would not appropriately say, ‘I forgive you for what you did to her’. He would have to say, ‘she asked me to say that she forgives you’. Rather, I mean that the forgiver forgives a wrongdoer for acts which the latter committed against others, with no stipulation that those victims have, either explicitly or tacitly, authorized the forgiver so to act.

Did Wiesenthal, then, have the standing vicariously to forgive the SS? In a language made popular by Trudy Govier’s important work on reconciliation and forgiveness, he was not a primary victim of this particular SS: he himself was not targeted in that episode. Nor were any of his friends or relatives, so he was not a secondary victim either. As a Jew, however, he was one of the SS’s tertiary victims, in that the SS would have regarded his Jewishness as a reason for killing him had he been there with the others.n This is precisely why the SS asked him, and not a Gentile, for forgiveness. Wiesenthal’s question, thus, is whether someone who is not a victim of a grievous wrongdoing has the standing to forgive perpetrators vicariously, on the victim’s behalf, for what the perpetrator did to the latter.

Wiesenthal answers in the negative, and I agree with him—though this is compatible with having the standing to forgive (or not) perpetrators for what they did to us, secondary or tertiary victims, by wronging their primary victims. Whilst Wiesenthal had the standing to forgive the SS for the fact that, had he (Wiesenthal) been present on that day and in that place, he would have been killed alongside the others, he lacked the standing to forgive the SS on behalf of the latter’s primary and secondary victims. To claim otherwise is to deny respectful treatment to those who were themselves wronged: for who after all are we to forgive (e.g.) genocidaires, serial rapists, willful and lethal aggressors on behalf of their victims, and particularly when those victims themselves appropriately refuse to forgive them? By implication, there can be no official granting of forgiveness by political actors on behalf of the victims of war: the then-President of the World Jewish Congress had no greater standing than Wiesenthal to forgive the SS. And if that is correct, then I here and now have no standing to forgive any war criminal on behalf of his or her victims— even if the suffering of war victims—of any victim—is something which we cannot and ought not to wash our hands of, indeed are appropriately angry at.

In summary, to the extent that political forgiveness inevitably involves some degree of vicarious forgiveness, and in so far as vicarious forgiveness is impossible, political forgiveness cannot be instrumental to reconciliation. Yet, reconciliation there must be—and so we must look elsewhere for the kind of affective redirection which might strengthen it.

It might be objected that third parties can in fact forgive wrongdoers, and thus that political forgiveness is possible, without doing so on behalf of victims. Indeed it might seem that cosmopolitans ought not to be troubled by third-party forgiveness—in fact, ought to embrace it. For after all, did I not claim in s.7.6, drawing inspiration from John Donne’s Sermon, that anyone’s suffering diminishes every single one of us—involved as we all are in humankind? And is it not central to cosmopolitan morality that one should have negative feelings—anger, resentment, hatred—at the commission of those wrongdoings, wherever they occur? And, if so, are we not in a position to overcome those feelings? Do we not have the standing to forgive? This is a powerful challenge.° Yet, though I am appropriately angry with the nameless, faceless murderers of Pol Pot’s killing fields, at the architects of the Holocaust, at ISIS fighters who think little of massacring anyone who stands in their way, I find it hard to see how I, whom they did not and do not harm, could plausibly say, ‘I forgive you’—indeed, for that matter, ‘I refuse to forgive you’.

Perhaps I have a blind spot here. Perhaps third-party forgiveness is in fact coherent. But even so, there remains a worry with the view that forgiveness in general is central to political reconciliation. Forgiving someone who has wronged us is compatible with refusing to live with them—as when a German Jew forgives the Nazis but would live anywhere in the world except in Germany. In many such cases, crucially, the refusal to reconcile or to see oneself as partners in relationship stems from the fact that wrongdoings of that magnitude destroy trust between victims and perpetrators when there was trust to begin with (which there might not have been), or renders the building of trust de novo extremely unlikely. Forgiveness, thus, even if it is crucial to reconciliation, is not enough: trust matters too. I wager that Tutu would agree. He would also agree, I think, that victims of wrongdoings can develop trust in the social and political institutions of their community, and be thus able and willing to live with members of groups to which wrongdoers belong, without forgiving those wrongdoers themselves. But then it seems that the key to reconciliation is trust, not forgiveness. In the next subsection, I explore and defend that view.

  • [1] In thinking about forgiveness, I have hugely benefited from discussions with Annalise Acorn,Hanna Pickard, Cheyney Ryan, and Amia Srinivasan. The phrase ‘no future without forgiveness’ is,of course, the title of Tutu’s best-known book on the topic (D. Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness(London: Rider Books, 1999). For the view that political forgiveness can promote reconciliationafter war, see, e.g., Philpott, Just and Unjust Peace. Out of a vast philosophical literature, my remarkson forgiveness owe much to the following works: L. Allais, ‘Wiping the Slate Clean: The Heart ofForgiveness’, Philosohpy and Public Affairs 36 (2008): 33—68; J. Butler, ‘Sermon VIII. UponResentment and Forgiveness of Injuries’, in J. Butler, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls (London:J. and J. Knapton, 1726); Hampton and Murphy, Forgiveness and Mercy; P. Hieronymi, ‘Articulatingan Uncompromising Forgiveness’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 62 (2001): 529—55;J. G. Murphy, Getting Even—Forgiveness and its Limits (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003);J. G. Murphy, Punishment and the Moral Emotions—Essays in Law, Morality, and Religion (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2012); C. L. Griswold, Forgiveness—A Philosophical Exploration (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  • [2] See T. Govier, ‘Forgiveness and the Unforgivable’, American Philosophical Quarterly 36 (1999):59—75. Note that my objection to the unforgiveability claim is compatible with two views: the viewthat there are deeds such that their perpetrators ought never to forgive themselves for having committed them; and the view that there are some deeds—such as rape, torture, murder—for which perpetrators have no claim to be forgiven. For the latter position, see, for example, the position taken byResistant Jean Amery, who was tortured by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps during theSecond World War. J. Amery, At the Mind's Limits—Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and itsRealities (London: Granta Books, 1999). For other sceptics of the Forgiveness Thesis, along the lines Iarticulate here, see N. Eisikovits, ‘Forget Forgiveness: On the Benefits of Sympathy for PoliticalReconciliation’, Theoria 52 (2004): 31—63; Murphy, Getting Even; M. Minow, Between Vengeance andForgiveness—Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), ch. 2.
  • [3] On non-culpable wrongdoings, I follow Jean Hampton in Hampton and Murphy, Forgivenessand Mercy, esp. 52 and 55. For the view that excusable wrongdoings are not forgiveness cases, seeMurphy, Getting Even, 13; and J. North, ‘Wrongdoing and Forgiveness’, Philosophy 62 (1987):499-508.
  • [4] S. Wiesenthal, The Sunflower (London: W. H. Allen, 1970).
  • [5] See T. Govier, Forgiveness and Revenge (London: Routledge, 2002), esp. ch. 5. (Tertiary victimsinclude putative victims, as I describe Wiesenthal here, but also those who, because their leader iskilled, are harmed in their struggle for justice—for example, as Govier claims, Black Americans weretertiary victims of Martin Luther King’s assassination.) She too argues against vicarious forgiveness;likewise Murphy, Getting Even, at 14; Philpott, Just and Unjust Peace, ch. 12. The view that only victims can forgive perpetrators for the wrong done to them implies that murderers cannot be forgivenfor the wrong they did to those whom they killed. Some find that implausible, but I am willing to bitethat particular bullet. For a nuanced defence of vicarious forgiveness, see Griswold, Forgiveness,117-22.
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