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Arguments For And Against Forgiving

One interesting theoretical perspective on forgiveness likens forgiving to other pro-social acts such as empathy-motivated helping, accommodation (the process by which individuals choose to inhibit destructive responses to a relationship partner's breach of good conduct and substitute instead constructive responses), and willingness to sacrifice (McCullough 2000). Each of these pro-social behaviors shares the possibility that acting in ways that are beneficial to the other—or the relationship with the other—may come at a personal cost to the individual. From an evolutionary perspective, Michael C. Luebbert (1999) suggests that forgiveness is a pro-social adaptation passed on from generation to generation because of its intrinsic survival value. This view, together with literature that suggests that forgiving may benefit the forgiver in various ways, highlight the possibility that forgiving may be good for both the individual and the larger social group. For example, it can help to restore or maintain supportive caring relationships, which are important for good physical and mental health, as well as help to reduce potentially debilitating emotions such as hostility, bitterness, and resentment, thereby ameliorating their negative effects on health and well-being (see McCullough 2000, for a critical review of the relevant literature).

At the same time, opposing viewpoints emphasize the possibility that serious negative consequences may be associated with a decision to forgive (see Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000 for a review). For example, some authors (Bass and Davis 1994) believe that forgiving gives the offender license to continue the hurtful behavior in which he or she has engaged and, furthermore, that it makes the injured party appear weak, maintaining a power differential that favors the offender over the victim. This sentiment that forgiving keeps the injured party in a subjugated position relative to the offender is echoed by the philosopher Nietzsche (1887) in his claim that forgiveness is a strategy employed by weaklings whose only recourse against injustice is forgiving.

Proponents of forgiveness (Sells and Hargrave 1998) counter this position by arguing that critics who depict forgiveness as detrimental to the individual often base their thinking on underdeveloped concepts of what forgiveness entails—for example, models of forgiveness that confuse forgiving with condoning or excusing the actions of the offender. In Sells and Hargrave's view, such underdeveloped conceptualizations of forgiveness may indeed jeopardize the well being of individuals who have been injured by another's actions. In particular, they argue that mental health professionals who espouse such flawed views of forgiveness may fail to offer their clients a valuable process by which they could overcome the significant and enduring negative effects of the harm they suffered.

At the same time, such criticisms identify the need to distinguish between true or authentic forgiveness and artificial or false forms of forgiveness that either maintain the offender's dominance over the injured party and facilitate continued victimization (Sells and Hargrave 1998) or are used by the injured party as a means of gaining moral superiority over the offender by using forgiveness to induce feelings of guilt and shame. In the first case, such pseudoforgiveness effectively denies the impact of the offender's actions on the injured party and their relationship. In the second case, forgiving is essentially a way of getting even with the offender, an act of condescension rather than of release (Gustafson-Affinito 1999).

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsForgiveness - Arguments For And Against Forgiving, Forgiveness As An Intervention In Family/marital Relationships