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On Human Forgiveness | Ingvar Johansson

Forgiveness and religion

All the great religions regard forgiving as a virtue. I take Gandhi’s famous saying “The weak can never forgive; forgiveness is the attribute of the strong” to mean that forgiveness is the attribute of the morally strong, i.e., an attribute of the virtuous. This essay is concerned with the question of how to look at forgiveness when one is a secular humanist, i.e., when one (as a secular person) no longer believes in a transcendent God, a happy Nirvana, or in a Karma that follows an immortal soul, but also when, one does (as a humanist) nonetheless believe that quite a number of human actions can be described as morally good or morally bad, respectively. “To forgive or not to forgive?” is a sensible question only in relation to actions that can be classified as being morally bad. But when freed from religion, what can forgiving mean? And is forgiving then, always amorally good action? This essay concerns these questions.

Both Hinduism, which dominates the place where this text was published (the state of Gujarat-India), and Christianity, which dominates the place where it was written (the state of Sweden-Europe), are religions in which forgiveness is regarded a virtue. In neither of them, however, is forgiving univocal. In both, there is a tension between unconditional forgiveness and forgiveness that is conditional on repentance. In Hinduism, Lakshmi is in favour of unconditional forgiveness, but her husband Vishnu forgives only if the wrongdoer repents and begs for the same. In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, unconditional forgiveness is asked for in the gospel of Matthew (18: 21–35), but in the gospel of Luke (15: 18–22) it is preceded by repentance. This distinction between the two kinds of forgiving does not disappear in my secular world-view.

Prototypical forgiving

As has been made clear in the discussions around forgiveness, the notion of forgiving must be kept distinct from related notions such as excusing, pardoning, condoning, accepting an apology, and reconciling. But even when this fact has been noted, the notion of forgiving is in need of further differentiation.

Often, a number of word uses that are intimately intertwined can be related to one specific kind of use, a semantic home for the word, one might say. There is a kind of place in which the application of the word looks prototypical. The other uses seem to be more or less metaphorical in relation to it. For instance, forgiveness plays an important role in both personal and political life, but I would say that the social use is derived from the personal. In the same vein, I think that actions such as self-forgiving (forgiving oneself for earlier bad actions), third-party forgiving (forgiving on behalf of another, e.g., a parent forgiving on behalf of a child), and non-communicated forgiving (including even non-communicable forgiving such as forgiving a dead person) are semantically secondary in relation to a certain kind of situation. Namely the one where a clearly culpable and living wrongdoer is directly told by the wronged person in a situation free from coercion that he or she is forgiven for the bad deed. This situation constitutes for me,prototypical forgiving. Forgiving in this sense is an unmerited gift from a wronged person to the wrongdoer. As one modern author positive to forgiveness, be it religious or secular, formulates it:

Pure forgiveness is not an instrumental good, a prudent management technique or a damage limitation exercise; it is an intrinsic good, an end in itself, a pure gift offered with no motive in return. (Holloway 2000: 78)

As a personal memory always refers back to an earlier experience of the person, a prototypical forgiving refers back to an earlier resentment of the forgiver. A person who openly says “I forgive you for your deed” publicly expresses two psychological states, a new emotional state and a new intention. The forgiver announces that his or her resentment has radically decreased or completely gone away, as well as an intention no more to blame the wrongdoer for the deed. On the other hand, the forgiver neither promises to forget the deed nor to relinquish the culpability. Of course, in sincere forgiving is just as possible as faked emotions and false promises, but that is another topic.

Secular forgiveness as unintelligible

Some secular thinkers are of the opinion that when forgiveness is freed from religion, then a paradox arises. This so-called paradox of forgiveness has been given some different formulations; I think the essence can best be stated thus:

To forgive is to forgive a person for a particular culpable wrongdoing, but if the wrongdoing is culpable there is no reason to forgive the person.

The most famous and most radical formulation of the paradox of forgiveness is the dictum “to forgive is to forgive the unforgivable.”It stems from the famous postmodernist philosopher Jacques Derrida, who writes:

One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself. It can only be possible in doing the impossible. (Derrida 2001: 32-33)

Those who subscribe to this view can use it as a reason for claiming that secular persons should simply drop all serious talk of forgiveness. This is not, however, Derrida’s own view. To the contrary, he strongly believes even in the existence of unconditional forgiveness. In order to understand this view of his, one must place my quotation within Derrida’s overarching philosophical project. It is to show that there really can be no such things as Reason and The Given; be this Given an epistemologically, semiologically, or ontologically positively given datum. Therefore, Derrida allows himself to be in favor of forgiveness despite the fact that he finds the notion of forgiveness self-contradictory, i.e., contrary to reason. He may even in part like it because he finds the notion unintelligible. What from traditional Western metaphysics looks extremely odd can, according to Derrida, in some metaphorical sense of truth be the “truth.” He says:

Forgiveness is thus mad. It must plunge, but lucidly, into the night of the unintelligible. (Derrida 2001: 49)

I disagree with both the basics of Derrida’s philosophy and the view that forgiveness can make sense only within religious frameworks. I think there is a straightforward solution to the paradox of forgiveness.

Secular forgiveness as trade

All kinds of forgiving requires a change in the wronged person. At first he or she resents, but by the time of forgiving this resentment is radically reduced or gone. But what about changes in the wrongdoer? Unconditional forgiving requires no change in the wrongdoer, but conditional forgiving does; normally, that the wrongdoer repents or changes for better. Nonetheless, even conditional forgiving is a kind of gift to the wrongdoer. Repent cannot take the culpability away. Therefore, the repentant wrongdoer does not deserve to be forgiven, but is in a conditional forgiving, just as in unconditional, forgiven.

As expected, the neoliberal era we live in has seen the emergence of a reinterpretation of the traditional conception of forgiving. The paradigm for neoliberal thinking is two or more egoistic persons freely negotiating with each other about exchanges of various sorts; and, superficially seen,the paradigm can be applied to forgiveness too. I will focus on a much-praised book by C.L. Griswold, Forgiveness.

The author claims that forgiveness as a pure gift is an illusion. In the prologue of the book, he formulates the paradox of forgiveness thus: “It may seem at the outset that […] forgiveness […] aspire[s] to something impossible: knowingly to undo what has been done (Griswold 2007: xv).” And at the end of the book he writes:

I hope to have shown that forgiveness is fundamentally an interpersonal process whose success requires actions from both parties. Anything an individual can accomplish here on his or her own regarding forgiveness is less than fully adequate. Consequently, forgiveness should not be understood as a “gift” that may be bestowed at the discretion of the injured party. (Griswold 2007: 212)

Griswold argues that forgiveness has six conditions that the forgiver must satisfy, six that the wrongdoer must satisfy, and one that is external to both, namely that the deed must in principle be forgivable. When stripped down to its bare bones, Griswold’s analysis means that a person who wants to forgive can tell the wrongdoer: if you satisfy the six wrongdoer-conditions, then I will satisfy the six forgiver-conditions and forgive you. Conversely, a wrongdoer who wants to be forgiven can tell the possible forgiver: if I am prepared to satisfy the six wrongdoer-conditions, are you then prepared to satisfy the six forgiver-conditions and forgive me? Instead of being seen as a gift from a victim to an offender, forgiving is now turned into negotiation and trade.

The six-plus-six conditions referred to are the following. At the moment of forgiving, the forgiver: 1) has to forswear revenge, 2) has moderated his resentment, 3) has to commit himself to let the rest of the resentment go, 4) has “reframed” his mind in relation to the wrongdoer, 5) feels no moral superiority in relation to the wrongdoer, and 6) talks directly to him. And the wrongdoer: 1) has to accept responsibility for the deed, 2) repudiated the deed, 3) expressed regret, 4) expressed a will to become a person that does not inflict injury, 5) show a first-person understanding of the injury done, and 6) offer a narrative account of how he came to do wrong (Griswold 2007:49–58).

Since it is a matter of free negotiation and free action, the forgiver has no duty to forgive even if all the conditions are met, and the wrongdoer has never a right to an actual forgiveness utterance even if all the conditions are met.

Griswold takes his analysis of forgiveness to show that forgiving must be the result of a preceding “interpersonal process,” and that, therefore, forgiveness is always “dyadic forgiveness” (Griswold 2007: 47). He takes away from forgiving the asymmetry between the forgiver and the wrongdoer that traditionally belongs to both unconditional and conditional forgiving. In other words, he is not unfolding the components of traditional forgiving, he is completely redefining the notion of forgiving.

The redefinition, however, is not even consistent. On the one hand, Griswold claims that forgiveness is dyadic, and on the other hand that forgiveness is the expression of a virtue, the virtue of forgivingness: “Forgiveness is what [the virtue of] forgivingness expresses” (Griswold 2007: 17). These claims contradict each other. No virtue is dyadic; a virtue is a monadic property of a person. There is though, let it be noted, no inconsistency in simultaneously asserting these three claims: a) willingness to offer conditional forgiving and willingness to repent are virtues, b) actual conditional forgiving is necessarily dyadic, and c) such conditional forgiving can only spring from the mentioned two virtues in interaction. But this is not what Griswold says.

As just noted, Griswold overstates how much “dyadicity” there is in forgiving. And this fact comes out clearly also in the following quotation:

One of the striking consequences of this interdependence is that each party holds the other in its power. In this sense: the offender depends on the victim in order to be forgiven, and the victim depends on the offender in order to forgive. (Griswold 2007: 49)

Here, a trivial logical truth, that there can be no forgiving without both an offender and a victim, is mixed up with the completely false view that both the offender and the victim depend on each other in order to get something they want. In fact none of them, and of course especially not the victim, may always have something to gain by a forgiving.For instance, self-respect can stop the victim from forgiving, since the victim can feel that he or she gains some needed self-respect by a refusal to forgive.

Interlude: human nature

Both Derrida and Griswold write on the presupposition that human nature is more or less completely egoistic. In the terminology that will be used below, they assume human nature to contain only self-regarding desires, desires that in the end only have a person’s own happiness in mind. I consider this view as seriously wrong. Modern evolutionary biology and primatology have, quite in conformance with traditional common sense, shown that human nature and primate natures in general have three main kinds of desires wired-in:

  1. self-regarding desires

  2. benevolent other-regarding desires

  3. malevolent other-regarding desires.

But, before explaining this tri-partition, some words have to be said about what a desire is in general. More precisely, answer the question what a desire is when apprehended from a desiring person’s own perspective, i.e., with a philosophical expression, what a desire is from a first-person perspective.

The answer is as follows. First, a desire is about something, is directed at something. It is a so-called intentional phenomenon in the sense that it is not enclosed within itself; it has a from-subject-to-object structure. Second, unlike intentional phenomena such as simple beliefs about what the world is like, it is directed at changing the world in such a way that the desire becomes satisfied. If I am hungry and want to eat the food in front of me, then I want the world changed in such a way that my felt hunger becomes satisfied. Every desired state of affairs has a subjective value, and is a reason for the desiring person to act in order to satisfy the desire. Since simultaneously, there can be several desires, hunger is not in itself a sufficient reason for triggering an action, only one reason among possible others. A fasting person has a desire not to eat, but may also have another to start eating, even though the first is the stronger.

Third, in desires (as in all intentional phenomena) one can make a distinction between the desiring state or act as being of a certain kind, and the desired object as being of a certain kind.For example, hunger, sexual desiring, and longing for shelter are different kinds of (self-regarding) intentional states; whereas rice, potatoes, meat, fish, and vegetables are different kinds of possible intentional objects for the state of hunger.

All desires of a person take departure from this person as an intentional subject, but the intentional object can nonetheless encompass other intentional subjects. This fact is essential to the tri-partition of desires introduced. The desired object of a self-regarding desire is the intentional subject’s own satisfaction. But the desired object of a benevolent other-regarding desire is primarily the satisfaction of another intentional subject’s desires. Analogously, but in a sense conversely, the desired object of malevolence is a painful dissatisfaction of another intentional subject’s desires.

Self-regarding desires for, say, food, sex, and shelter are satisfied as soon as oneself has recourse to food, sex, and shelter. The satisfaction of benevolent other-regarding desires requires more. If one desires that someone else should have recourse to food, sex, and shelter, then one’s desire is satisfied only when this other person has his or her such desires satisfied. If out of benevolence a person becomes happy when seeing another person happy (e.g., one’s child, a beloved one, a friend, etc.), and unhappy when the other person is unhappy, then this means that the person can be satisfied only if the other person has first in some way or other become satisfied. Necessarily, satisfaction of benevolence is at least a two-person affair.

The satisfaction of malevolent other-regarding desires is also always at least a two-person affair. As said, here the satisfaction of the person who has a malevolent desire requires the dissatisfaction of some of the disliked person’s desires. Out of malevolence, a person can become happy when seeing another person unhappy. It might be called a tragic feature of human nature, but such a naming does not make it disappear as an ever-lasting possibility.

As the term “malevolent”is used, to be malevolent towards another person means directly to desire that some of the latter’s desires will become frustrated in such a way that it hurts; may this other-regarding desire have arisen out of pure sadism, out of a wish to give a villain a fair retributive punishment, or out of some mixture. However, to try to win a competition and, thereby, frustrate the competitors’ desires to win, is normally not a desire to make the latter feel severe pain, and is therefore usually not a case of malevolence.

All the three kinds of desires mentioned are self-relevant desires.Their satisfaction or dissatisfaction are always relevant for a person’s overall happiness. Of course, what makes the different kinds of desires emerge, how often they emerge, and the intensity with which they enter the mind, may vary with both person and situation. But the abstract overarching truth is that all human beings have all the three kinds of self-relevant desires as at least latent desires.

A nearly secular thinker who put forward the kind of anthropology presented,is the great Scottish-British eighteenth century philosopher David Hume. He writes:

Beside good and evil, or in other words, pleasure and pain, the direct passions frequently arise from a natural impulse or instinct, which is perfectly unaccountable. Of this kind is the desire of punishment to our enemies [other-regarding malevolence], and of happiness to our friends [other-regarding benevolence]; hunger, lust, and a few other bodily appetites [self-regarding desires]. These passions, properly speaking, produce good and evil [pleasure and pain], and proceed not from them, like the other affections. (Hume 2000: 281)

What Hume says here about friends should be understood in the light of the following much more famous, and much more globalization-optimistic, quotation:

We cannot without the greatest absurdity dispute that there is some benevolence, however small, infused into our bosom; some spark of friendship for human kind; some particle of the dove kneaded into our frame, along with the elements of the wolf and serpent. (Hume 1975: 271)

Hume lived before Darwin, and what he regards as “perfectly unaccountable,” we can today explain by means of gene-based group selection and kin selection theories in evolutionary biology.With respect to herd species, natural selection favours species that harbor individuals that can sacrifice themselves for their group or for their relatives. Moreover, Hume’s from a scientific point of view merely anecdotic observations are today supported by evidence based research on primates of various kinds. [See in particular the Dutch-European and USA-American Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy (2010)]. Today it is not scientifically defensible to cling to the neoliberal anthropology. According to this, all apparently benevolent and malevolent actions can be reduced to behaviour whose only aim is to satisfy a person’s self-regarding desires in the long run.

Hume did not only live before Darwin, he also lived before Nietzsche, Freud and the primary focus on human self-deception that followed in their wake. But primate researchers are well aware of the phenomenon of self-deception. As for myself, I am quite convinced that many first-person apprehensions of seeming benevolence are cases of self-deception. But I am equally sure that there are even more cases of real benevolence.

Secular forgiveness as a gift

On the basis of the view of human nature presented, and in particular of what has been said about benevolence, I can now present the solution to the presumed paradox of secular forgiveness. Taking the notion of benevolent other-regarding desires to be both coherent and having actual and possible referents, the following becomes immediately, not only an intelligible but also a reasonable view:

To forgive is to forgive a person for a particular culpable wrongdoing, and this is possible since a desire to be benevolent can overrule culpability and the possible desires that flow from this culpability; briefly put, benevolence can give rise to forgiveness.

On the analysis put forward, one cannot always ask someone for an objective reason why he or she is benevolent. The desire to be benevolent appears as a basic and given desire and subjective value in the situation at hand. To ask “give me a reason why you are so benevolent that you simply forgive him/her” would be like asking persons questions such as “give me a reason why you are hungry” and “give me a reason why you would like to have sex.” In relation to basic desires like these there are no objective reasons, only purely subjective values and causal explanations. As one cannot justify, only explain, why one is hungry or desires sex, one cannot justify, but can only explain by means of benevolence, why one is unconditionally forgiving.

People who like each other can, out of pure benevolence give unmerited presents to each other. Similarly, unconditional forgiving is an unmerited gift from a wronged person to the wrongdoer. But something similar is also true of conditional forgiving. Conditional forgiving is based on conditional benevolence. Benevolence can have many different causes and counteracting causes, and it is by no means psychologically odd that repentance by the wrongdoer can make room for benevolence in the wronged person. Obviously, this psychological observation was one reason behind the truly great social innovation that saw the light at the end of the last century, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. From a secular point of view, there is no reason to claim that unconditional forgiving is more virtuous than conditional forgiving. They are merely two different kinds of forgiving, and both are grounded in the other-regarding desire of benevolence.

Intelligible actions need not be prudent. My defense of the intelligibility of secular unconditional forgiving does by no means rule out the possibility that a particular such benevolence-based forgiving may be stupid, i.e., a prudent benevolent person should really not in the situation at hand have forgiven the wrongdoer. Why? Because a forgiver cannot be sure that a non-repentant wrongdoer understands that his or her deed is morally wrong and culpable even after having been forgiven. Perhaps such a wrongdoer thinks that the forgiving takes the culpability away. Therefore, accepting that stupid unconditional forgiving is still intelligible a forgiving, we must ask: can it not truly be said that prudent persons should always abstain from unconditional forgiving? No, it cannot. This position is open to an obvious objection. How interpersonal relations will develop is extremely hard to predict; even for the wisest of wise persons. As noted by several thinkers on forgiving (e.g., Holloway 2002: 82), a seemingly stupid unconditional forgiving may start exactly the kind of repentance process that those who advocate only conditional forgiving are longing for.

So far, I have made only traditional religious asymmetric unconditional and conditional forgiving intelligible from a secular point of view. I have not claimed that forgiving is always a morally good action. In fact, I think such a general claim cannot be defended. Let me explain.

I have not spent words on it, but I take it for granted that all the three kinds of desires distinguished can interact with each other. Normally, in reflections on how to answer the question “to forgive or not to forgive?” all three must be taken into account. A very relevant self-regarding desire in such situations is the desire for self-respect. An innumerable number of victims all over the world, in particular women, have reported that the crime committed against them have made them lose the sense of self-respect they earlier had. Obviously, for many of them, one way tore-build their self-respect is to refuse to forgive the offender; even if they feel some pity. I can see nothing morally wrong in letting such a self-regarding desire for self-respect outweigh possible benevolent other-regarding desires for the offender. Conclusion: to refuse to forgive can sometimes be the right thing to do; to forgive is not always morally right.

The need to have a sense of self-respect in one’s life is not stressed in any of the great religions. And I think this fact might explain why they so univocally proclaim forgiving always to be good; at least among God’s chosen people.This, in turn, makes it all the more important to show that there is something that truly deserves to be called secular forgiveness. For secular persons, there is neither a duty always to forgive nor a virtue in always forgiving. But, nonetheless, I have the feeling that many secular persons should think a bit more about the reasonableness of forgiving. Many neoliberal ideologists are also secular persons, and it would be a humanist disaster if their denial or redefinition of forgiveness becomes regarded as the only possible secular conception of forgiving.

In order not to be misunderstood because of brevity of exposition, I need to add some more words about desires in general. Desires of all kinds can either be basic or be merely means towards the satisfaction of more basic desires. What is to count as the one or the other may require some analysis, and may even differ from one situation to another. Should, for instance, hunger be regarded as a basic desire or merely as a means for a desire to continue to live? Seen from the first-person perspective I am talking about, hunger is normally a basic desire, i.e., the desiring is experienced only as a desire to get rid of the hunger. However, for very poor people it becomes a means for and fused with the desire to live. Something similar applies to sexual desire. Normally, it is from a first-person perspective, simply a desire to have sex; whatever the evolutionary natural selection story looks like. There is usually no other reason to have sex than the existence of the desire to have sex. But, of course, sometimes for some persons, the sexual desire can be fused with a desire to have a child; or,as in some modern “stay fit” cultures, be fused with a desire to try to stay in a better psychological mood and physiological state by means of sex.

My view of benevolence is similar to those just made about hunger and sex. Sometimes we are benevolent only as a means to get benevolence back, but sometimes we are benevolent for no other reason than that we have a desire to be benevolent; whatever the natural selection story for the emergence of such benevolent desires may look like. A basic benevolent desire has no meaning outside of itself; it is, like the normal desire for sex, its own meaning and subjective value.

Most desires come and go and have a temporally intermittent structure; and from a first-person perspective they seem to be able to be triggered in two different ways, externally and internally. Obviously, hunger and sexual desire can come into being because of a sudden external appearance of a certain kind of food or a certain kind of person, but both of them can also first be felt as an intense internal desire that either as yet has found no determinate intentional object at all or has a determinate object that is absent. In these kinds of cases, one has either to start searching for some objects or persons that might be able to satisfy one’s desire, or try to come near to the determinate objects that one already desires.

This distinction between external and internal triggering applies to benevolence and malevolence, too. Benevolence is often triggered by the mere appearance of a beloved one, a close friend, or people in desperate need.But there are many people who first have an indeterminate desire to be benevolent towards someone, and then try, for instance, to adopt a child,to become members of a community where there are people they like to be friendly towards, or to start to work for a better world for mankind in general. Similarly, malevolence can be triggered by the appearance of a person who in some way or other has been nasty towards oneself, but it is also well known that people can harbor a general resentment that is intensely seeking for an outlet. Their indeterminate malevolent other-regarding desires are looking for some determinate intentional objects in a way similar to the way indeterminate hunger and sexual desire can be searching for some determinate objects that can satisfy them.

I have argued that the existence of benevolence can make sense of secular forgiving. Conversely, generalizing the cases of Derrida and Griswold, I am fairly sure that an anthropology that contains only self-regarding desires can never make sense of forgiving. Benevolent desires are essential for the kind of over-ruling of culpable wrongdoings that constitutes secular forgiving.

The world we live in

I have said a few words about David Hume’s philosophical anthropology. A thinker Hume held in high esteem was the English bishop, Joseph Butler. I mention this because I will quote a fine paragraph from the English-British philosopher C.D. Broad,in which Butler is repeatedly mentioned; the book in which it appears was published in 1930:

It was fashionable in Butler’s time [the early 18th century] to deny the possibility of disinterested [not self-regarding] action. This doctrine, which was a speculative principle with Hobbes, has always had a certain vogue. It is not without a certain superficial plausibility, and it has naturally been popular both with vicious persons who wanted a philosophical excuse for their own selfishness and with decent people who felt slightly ashamed of their own virtues and wished to be taken for men of the world. One of Butler’s great merits is to have pointed out clearly and conclusively the ambiguities of language which make it plausible. As a psychological theory it was killed by Butler; but it still flourishes, I believe, among bookmakers and smart young businessman whose claim to know the world is based on an intimate acquaintance with the shadier side of it. In Butler’s day the theory moved in higher social and intellectual circles, and it had to be treated more seriously than any philosopher would trouble to treat it now. This change is very largely the result of Butler’s work; he killed the theory so thoroughly that he sometimes seems to the modern reader to be flogging dead horses. Still, all good fallacies go to America when they die, and rise again as the latest discoveries of the local professors. So it will always be useful to have Butler’s refutation at hand. (Broad 1979: 54-55)

Let me leave Broad’s unfair comment on America aside; as far as I can see, Europe does not fare any better. Moreover, what Broad regards as “fashionable in Butler’s time” is obviously just as fashionable in ours, and all over the globe, England included. Therefore, the arguments for the existence of benevolence put forward by philosophers such as Hume and Broad, and by scientists such as de Waal and many of his colleagues, are still necessary to recount and stress – again and again.



Broad, C.D. 1979 Five Types of Ethical Theory, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Derrida, Jacques 2001 On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, London: Routledge.

de Waal, Frans 2010The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, Crown Publishing Group.

Griswold, Charles L. 2007 Forgiveness. A Philosophical Exploration, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holloway, Richard 2002 On Forgiveness, Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

Hume, David 2000 A Treatise of Human Nature (ed. the Nortons), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hume, David Enquiries concerning Human Understanding and concerning the Principles of Morals (ed. Selby-Bigge), Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Johansson, Ingvar 2009 “A Little Treatise of Forgiveness and Human Nature”, The Monist 92: 537–555.

(I thank Swagat Baruah for comments on an earlier version of the essay.)

A different version of this article first appeared in The Monist.


Ingvar Johansson is Professor Emeritus, Theoretical Philosophy at Umea University, Sweden. Visit his website to explore more of his work. He can be contacted at

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