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The Paradox of Forgiveness

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image of Journal of Moral Philosophy

Philosophers often claim that forgiveness is a paradoxical phenomenon. I here examine two of the most widespread ways of dealing with the paradoxical nature of forgiveness. One of these ways, emblematized by Aurel Kolnai, seeks to resolve the paradox by appealing to the idea of repentance. Somehow, if a wrongdoer repents, then forgiving her is no longer paradoxical. I argue that this influential position faces more problems than it solves. The other way to approach the paradox, exemplified here by the work of Jacques Derrida, is just too obscure to be by itself helpful. Yet, I argue that what I take to be its spirit is on the right track. I recommend distinguishing between (1) the definition and the justification of forgiveness, and also between (2) forgiveness understood as (a) a mental phenomenon and (b) an overt, communicative act. These distinctions are not given their due in the specialized literature, and I expose the nefarious consequences of this neglect. By focusing on forgiveness as a mental phenomenon I seek to analyze the root of the talk of paradoxes which surrounds the discussion of forgiveness. Finally, I present an analysis of forgiveness as a pure mental phenomenon, and argue that this analysis is the most important step in understanding forgiveness in any other sense. While my analysis reveals interesting aspects of forgiveness, it reveals, too, that forgiveness is not quite as paradoxical after all.


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