Forgiveness as an Involuntary Mental State

I was thinking today about the times and places in which forgiveness is meaningful and/or appropriate. Here are the conclusions I came to…

First off, I would like to explain what I define as “forgiveness.” Forgiveness, according to me, is state of mind that occurs when someone goes from feeling wronged by a person on account of some action of theirs that affected them to ceasing to feel wronged by that person. A true state of forgiveness toward a person can be recognized when the memory of that person’s action is not accompanied by feelings of anger, frustration or distaste for that person (even if only momentarily). However, in order for forgiveness to occur, it is necessary that prior to its occurrence negative feelings toward that person (in response to their action) did occur. If these negative feelings toward the person never occurred it would not be possible for the mental event of forgiveness to occur, since forgiveness indicates a change in one’s attitude toward an individual.

I’ll take some time to elaborate on the “involuntary” nature of forgiveness, since I think that will be the biggest point of issue for most. I believe that forgiveness is involuntary in the sense that it is impossible for a person to force themselves to forgive someone. As long as someone continues to feel that they’ve been wronged by someone, they will not be able to reach a mental state of forgiveness in relation to that person. Additionally, I think that once it has become evident to a person that there has been a misunderstanding and that the person whom they were offended by meant something completely different than what they seemed to have communicated, it is impossible for them not to reach a mental state of forgiveness in relation to that action. They may still feel offended by the action, but now the offence is directed toward the act itself, and not the actor.

There is another aspect of this that I think should be brought up here. I’ve so far been describing forgiveness as a mental state toward a person in virtue of one (or multiple) of their action(s). I think there’s something that very easily gets wrapped up in conversations about forgiveness that has no place there. I am referring to a person’s mental attitude toward another person in virtue of who that person is (or is perceived to be), and NOT some particular thing that they have done. I believe that forgiveness toward a person can only occur in relation to an action, and NOT in relation to a fundamental conflict with who a person is.


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