Taking it Personally: Third-Party Forgiveness, Close Relationships, and the Standing to Forgive

Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics 9:73-94 (2019)
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This paper challenges a common dogma of the literature on forgiveness: that only victims have the standing to forgive. Attacks on third-party forgiveness generally come in two forms. One form of attack suggests that it follows from the nature of forgiveness that third-party forgiveness is impossible. Another form of attack suggests that although third-party forgiveness is possible, it is always improper or morally inappropriate for third parties to forgive. I argue against both of these claims; third-party forgiveness is possible, and in some cases it is morally appropriate for third parties to forgive (or refuse to forgive) wrongdoers for wrongs done to victims. I also propose an explanation of third parties’ standing to forgive: third parties have the standing to forgive when it is appropriate for them to take wrongs done to victims ‘personally’. While appropriately ‘taking a wrong personally’ does not require seeing oneself as a victim, it typically does require being in some form of personal relationship with victims. Thus, while the standing to forgive is not grounded exclusively in having been wronged, the prerogative to forgive is normally limited to victims and their loved ones. And once we recognize the importance of third-party forgiveness in our moral lives and the norms that govern it, we can more easily adjudicate between competing accounts of the nature of forgiveness.​

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Rosalind Chaplin
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


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