This is my question – “Is forgiveness a natural instinct or a religious/social concept?”. Topics of forgiveness and redemption have always fascinated me; I hope you can help. Thanks and all good wishes Gerardine

Philosopher's reply

Dear Geraldine,

I am fascinated by forgiveness and redemption too! I will provide an answer I believe is broadly in agreement with Murdoch’s philosophical and literary reflection and that has many affinities with my own philosophical reflection on these topics.

For Murdoch, moral growth and improvement are both possible and desirable for human beings. Moral improvement is achieved through a slow process of reflection, which involves ‘unselfing’. Unselfing involves the overcoming of self-centredness, allowing the agent to pay attention to the reality of the other: “love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real” (Existentialism and Mystics p.215) The centrality of the concept of loving attention in Murdoch’s moral outlook is well known.

But Frances White, in her brilliant doctoral dissertation “’Past forgiving?’ , the experience of remorse in the writings of Iris Murdoch’ (2010), shows that the concept of remorse is equally fundamental in Murdoch’s work. In fact, there is a strong link between morality and remorse. In Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Murdoch says that remorse is a form of ‘burning’ (p.502). Remorse is a recurrent pain felt in relation to past culpable wrongdoing, which the agent regrets and for which she takes full responsibility. As such, it involves the recognition and acknowledgement that one has harmed another, and, thus, it can also lead to unselfing.

Remorse is a recurrent theme in Murdoch’s novels and it usually helps their characters our of their solipsism, awakening then to the reality and suffering of others. Thus, remorse has ethical value because, when it is appropriate (and not merely pathological or morbid), it can lead to repentance, understood as a deep but slow process of change in moral vision and attitude. Remorse and repentance open up the possibility of moral healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. Moreover when the wrongdoing has been serious and perhaps irreparable, remorse can be very painful and traumatic. Forgiveness can play a role here as it can help to alleviate the trauma of remorse and help the wrongdoer to continue on the path of moral improvement. However, forgiveness does not come to the victim naturally or instinctually. Forgiveness also requires a process of reflective and loving attention to the other. This process is often slow and difficult, involving progressions and reversals. White’s insightful analysis of Murdoch’s novel The Good Apprentice demonstrates that in Murdoch, forgiveness can never result in the full dissolution of the painful past (White, 2010, p.125). The past cannot be changed or erased. Moreover, the wrong-doer can never fully overcome the knowledge of their guilt or the victim the sadness of the injury. However, forgiveness can help to ameliorate hate and blame and, in the best case-scenario, it can also lead to mutual loving understanding.

Finally, forgiveness of course is an important concept in Christianity. For Murdoch, the predicament of the modern man is to desire forgiveness and absolution while simultaneously acknowledging that there is no God with the authority to guarantee them or provide them. Although it sometimes may feel like society and religion exert pressure on us to forgive, ultimately forgiveness is our personal prerogative and those who have the authority to forgive are often the direct victims of wrongdoing. Yet, in a Godless human world, forgiveness can never amount to complete absolution.

With very best wishes & thanks for the great question!

Paula Satne
January 2020

Philosopher's profile

Paula Satne

University of Wolverhampton, UK

I am intrigued by Murdoch’s conception of loving attention with its emphasis on effecting a change of vision which is simultaneously an act of loving attention directed towards the other but also a moral achievement which opens up the possibility of moral transformation and progress. Moral progress is achieved by a project of sustained imaginative attention, a loving and just regard towards others, which involves the overcoming of self-centred and selfish fantasies. Moral transformation is a struggle: “Love is the imaginative recognition of, that is respect for, this otherness” and “repentance may mean something different to an individual at different times in his life, and what it fully means is a part of this life and cannot be understood except in context”.

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