Questioning Forgiveness

James K. McNulty discusses the downside to forgiveness:

Despite a burgeoning literature that documents numerous positive implications of forgiveness, scholars know very little about the potential negative implications of forgiveness. In particular, the tendency to express forgiveness may lead offenders to feel free to offend again by removing unwanted consequences for their behavior (e.g., anger, criticism, rejection, loneliness) that would otherwise discourage reoffending. Consistent with this possibility, the current longitudinal study of newlywed couples revealed a positive association between spouses’ reports of their tendencies to express forgiveness to their partners and those partners’ reports of psychological and physical aggression. Specifically, although spouses who reported being relatively more forgiving experienced psychological and physical aggression that remained stable over the first 4 years of marriage, spouses who reported being relatively less forgiving experienced declines in both forms of aggression over time. These findings join just a few others in demonstrating that forgiveness is not a panacea.

profbigk responds to the paper:

The longitudinal study is fascinating on several levels, although the title somewhat overstates the conclusions. Hearing about this was a valuable reminder of the extent to which philosophers tend to appeal to hypothetical examples of heterosexual married couples when spinning conceptual analyses of forgiveness. Imagine how philosophical habits might change if we attended to the experiences of actual married couples instead of relying on the handy cultural narratives we tend to assume we share! And I haven’t even gotten to the wacky, wild, gutsy possibility that we appeal to concrete examples of intimate relationships other than the heterosexually arranged marriage.

More on the “Dark Side of Forgiveness” after I’ve really absorbed the data, but in the short run, I can already attest that the findings do not significantly vary between the husbands and wives in the study; sex is not a predictor of re-offense, according to the authors. Unfortunately, when it comes to serious harm, forgiving might be a predictor of re-offense.

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