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“Forgiveness: Personal and Political”

with P. Quinn White


April 17, 2023



What is forgiveness? And why forgive? I mean this in two ways: What reasons bear on the question of whether to offer or withhold forgiveness in a particular case? And why are we even in the business of forgiving at all—what role does it play in a life? The dominant approach to the topic is sentimentalist, seeing forgiveness as essentially involving the withdrawal of a fitting sentiment like resentment or (moral) anger. I argue against this approach. Taking the phenomenon of political forgiveness—widely thought to be distinct from interpersonal forgiveness—as a point of departure, I argue that forgiveness it the waiving of the entitlements one has to hold a past wrongdoing against a wrongdoer. Forgiveness is a kind of normative tool, in the same family as normative tools like consent and promising; its function is the shaping of relationships, personal, social and political, by dropping past wrongs as a basis for ongoing relations. I argue for this view over sentimentalism on the grounds that in both political and interpersonal cases of forgiveness it better: captures the diverse array of occasions for forgiveness, explains the capacity to forgive conditionally and partially, makes sense of our reasons to forgive and not to forgive, and situates forgiveness within a broader conception of our moral lives.

Speaker Bio:

P. Quinn White is an Assistant Professor of philosophy at Harvard University.

His research focuses on the ethics of love and relationships, which, he argues, is pretty much all of ethics. He is interested in interpersonal relationships, and has projects in honesty and discretion, partiality, consent, paying it forward, and forgiveness, as well as more applied projects on deception in the social science research and the politics of technology and privacy. He also has interests in love and the special permissions and obligations it can bring. And, perhaps more strangely, he explores the idea that love of all, agape, can serve as a (even the) central ideal of practical reasoning.

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