Thursday, October 4, 2007

Charles Griswold

Charles Griswold is Professor of Philosophy at Boston University. His new book, from Cambridge University Press, is Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration.

Eduardo Velásquez, political philosophy professor at Washington and Lee University and author of A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse: Why There is No Cultural War in America and Why We Will Perish Nonetheless, interviewed Griswold about Forgiveness and forgiveness.

Velásquez: Why is forgiveness in need of a "philosophical exploration?" Such questions are laden with assumptions, additional questions embedded within them. So in an effort to be clearer: Would a philosophical exploration make us better able to forgive? And if so, why don't prevailing common sense understandings of forgiveness suffice?

Griswold: Forgiveness warrants philosophical analysis for the same reason that such virtues as courage and justice do: our intuitions about the topic are not only conflicting, they often don't stand up to reflection. A philosophical exploration of forgiveness would help us to know when we are forgiving rather than, say, excusing or condoning or simply giving up our anger for some other reason, and in that sense would help us forgive. Such an analysis would help us know what to aim for, and help us to analyze what it is that we are doing. This is not a small achievement, given the debates and disagreements that plague every part of the topic of forgiveness.

Velásquez: It is likely that not a few readers picking up this book at the local bookstore or scrolling through the web pages of their favorite on-line distributor will think that Forgiveness is a philosophical exploration of a theological virtue. And yet you make clear at the outset that in "the present book I offer an analysis of forgiveness as a secular virtue" (p. xv). Would you explain the differences and the reasons for your treatment of forgiveness in secular terms?

Griswold: I focussed on forgiveness as a secular virtue (that is, one that does not require belief in the existence of a divinity) for several reasons. First, I am convinced that it can be understood as a secular virtue, but that hitherto we have lacked a careful analysis of what that virtue is in both interpersonal and political contexts. Our habit of thinking of forgiveness in religious terms has blinded us to the alternative, one that therefore warranted consideration. Second, we live in a world that is marked by a vast array of religions and non-religious ethical views, and common ground may be found in an ethics that does not commit to any one religion; I attempted to spell out one bit of that common ground. And finally, I wanted to understand forgiveness as part of a non-perfectionist ethical outlook. A secular framework is conducive to that end.

I did not explore the differences between religious (specifically, Christian) notions of forgiveness and the secular at much length, but said enough to indicate that their conceptual logic is quite different. I also pointed out that the vocabulary for forgiveness used in the New Testament represents a distinct choice, as other terms were available in ordinary Greek at the time and their meaning was interestingly different. I also noted my sense that Christian "forgiveness" itself has an evolving conceptual history, one that has not been well explored, at least not philosophically. What we think of as Christian "forgiveness" is, I suspect, a relatively recent development in that tradition. Pre-Christian and pre-Judaic Western notions of forgiveness -- some non-religious, some religious -- also have not been at all well explored. Vast areas of the general topic, then, invite further exploration. I decided to break off one piece -- forgiveness in a secular context -- and explore it carefully and thoroughly.

Velásquez: Chapter Four departs from a consideration of interpersonal forgiveness to tackle one of the salient issues of our time, namely, "political forgiveness." You offer a controversial response to the question of whether forgiveness ought to be a political aim. Apology, not forgiveness, should be the political goal. How do we understand the differences between apology and forgiveness, and why does (do) politics seem to demand the former and not the latter?

Griswold: Apology in the political context is not 'personal' in the way that the request for forgiveness is when made in an interpersonal context. The criteria defining it are lower and in that sense less demanding, as befits the fact that it may be offered by a person representing the offender (which itself may be a corporate entity or collectivity of some sort), and indeed that it may be offered to a collective entity of some sort. A successful apology nonetheless depends on ideals shared by interpersonal forgiveness, including truth telling and the taking of responsibility. I also note that injecting notions of personal forgiveness into politics may politicize the moral exchange in a way that is corrupting (think of compelled performances of contrition and reformation). And finally, I explore modes of reconciliation that lie elsewhere on the spectrum, including some traditional ceremonies of reconciliation in Africa.
Read an excerpt from Forgiveness and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

The Page 69 Test: Forgiveness.

--Marshal Zeringue