Bishop Butler on Forgiveness and Resentment

Philosophers' Imprint 11 (10) (2011)
Abstract
On the traditional view, Butler maintains that forgiveness involves a kind of “conversion experience” in which we must forswear or let go of our resentment against wrongdoers. Against this reading, I argue that Butler never demands that we forswear resentment but only that we be resentful in the right kind of way. That is, he insists that we should be virtuously resentful, avoiding both too much resentment exhibited by the vices of malice and revenge and too little resentment where we merely condone the wrongdoer and leave ourselves open to future injury. I argue that this Butlerian approach offers us a more attractive account of forgiveness as a “virtue” than many recent discussions. In the final section, I address Butler’s challenging thesis that forgiveness is an unconditional moral duty. I argue against those who claim that forgiveness is supererogatory (Kolnai/Calhoun) or else merely morally conditional and even morally blameworthy in some cases (Murphy/Hampton/Novitz/Richards). By contrast, I defend a context-sensitive account of forgiveness which recognizes that it takes place on many different levels. I conclude by taking up the difficult issue of whether anybody can be ultimately “unforgivable”, offering some Butlerian and Strawsonian reflections that might help mitigate our judgments about such matters
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