The Philosophical Controversy over Political Forgiveness

In Paul van Tongeren, Neelke Doorn & Bas van Stokkom (eds.), Public Forgiveness in Post-Conflict Contexts. Intersentia. pp. 37-64 (2012)
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Abstract

The question of forgiveness in politics has attained a certain cachet. Indeed, in the fifty years since Arendt commented on the notable absence of forgiveness in the political tradition, a vast and multidisciplinary literature on the politics of apology, reparation, and reconciliation has emerged. To a novice scouring the relevant literatures, it might appear that the only discordant note in this new veritable symphony of writings on political forgiveness has been sounded by philosophers. There is a more-than-healthy cynicism directed at what many philosophers see as an uncritical promotion of forgiveness, which – they fear – risks distorting and cheapening forgiveness as a moral ideal, on the one hand, and ignoring the moral and political values of justice, accountability and the cessation of harmful relationships, on the other. Are philosophical fears about the dangers of thinking about forgiveness in political terms warranted – or do they perhaps depend in part on conceptual conservatism regarding what exactly political forgiveness might be? I argue that most, if not all, standard objections to political forgiveness emerge from theoretical reliance on a picture of forgiveness I will call the Emotional Model. Once we make conceptual space for descriptions of forgiveness in performative and social terms, the concept is more easily adapted to a political account without at least some of the risks feared by philosophers

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Alice MacLachlan
York University

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