Forgiveness and Punishment in Kant's Moral System

In Larry Krasnoff, Nuria Sánchez Madrid & Paula Satne (eds.), Kant's Doctrine of Right in the 21st Century. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. pp. 201-219 (2018)
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Forgiveness as a positive response to wrongdoing is a widespread phenomenon that plays a role in the moral lives of most persons. Surprisingly, Kant has very little to say on the matter. Although Kant dedicates considerable space to discussing punishment, wrongdoing and grace, he addresses the issues of human forgiveness directly only in some short passages in the Lectures on Ethics and in one passage of the Metaphysics of Morals. As noted by Sussman, the TL passage, however, betrays some ambivalence. Kant establishes a duty of virtue to be forgiving (TL, 6:460), yet he immediately warns against its excess: meek toleration of recurrent wrongs could manifest a lack of self-respect and a violation of a duty to oneself (TL, 6:461). Sussman claims that this ambivalence ultimately arises from the fact that forgiveness sits uncomfortably in Kant’s moral thought. First, forgiveness has an ‘ineluctably elective aspect’ that makes it, to a certain extent, arbitrary and dependent on particular features of the forgiver’s psychology and, as such, in tension with Kant’s central claims that human beings are autonomous agents capable of determining their own moral status. Second, according to Sussman, Kant’s moral retributivism, i.e. ‘the particular moral position that every moral wrong against another deserves punishment of the wrongdoer’ seems to be in tension with the possibility of a ‘truly redemptive forgiveness’. Moreover, forgiveness also seems to be in tension with a passage of the Religion in which Kant argues that the moral guilt from our original evil disposition cannot be understood as a debt or liability that can be compensated, erased, transferred or otherwise wiped out by others (Rel, 6:72). Thus, to the extent that forgiveness might be thought to involve the forgoing of moral guilt, it seems incompatible with Kant’s views on culpability and punishment. This chapter seeks to clarify Kant’s views on forgiveness in order to show that, although not often appreciated, personal forgiveness plays an important role in the lives of ordinary human agents as understood by Kant. In particular, I aim to show there is a conception of forgiveness available to Kant that is not incompatible with Kant’s views of punishment and culpability. In Section 1, I argue that, for Kant, far from being merely ‘elective,’ forgiveness is, under certain conditions, morally required. I provide a brief summary of an interpretation of Kant’s theory of forgiveness that I have defended in recently published work , in order to argue that Kant’s duty to be forgiving should be understood as an imperfect duty of virtue which is conditional on repentance. Kant is not ambivalent about this duty because he maintains that when the relevant conditions are not met, we have a perfect duty to ourselves not to forgive unrepentant wrongdoers. The TL passage thus identifies two different duties. In Section 2, I show that forgiveness, as conceptualised by Kant, does not require the forgoing of punishment or the overcoming of moral guilt and that this could, in fact, be seen as an attractive feature of Kant’s position. I end by offering a very brief assessment of Kant’s views.

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Paula Satne
University of Leeds


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