Justin Caouette On Rational And Emotional Forgiveness

Over at The Philosopher’s Take Justin Caouette wonders if there is a distinction between two kinds of forgiveness, ‘cognitive’ and ‘rational’:

Cognitive forgiveness deals with understanding the act that was done to you. So, let’s say your good friend punched you in the face when you walked into his house. After the incident and after talking about it with him you realized that he thought you were the thief that tried to break into his house the week before. You now “understand” why he did what he did and you may forgive him for it after he has apologized and told you why he decided to throw the punch….you…cognitively forgave him by understanding why he did what he did…Emotional forgiveness seems to be a more difficult form of forgiveness that is much less attainable….Following the punch in the face you get angry. Even after you’ve come to a rational understanding of why he did it you may still carry the anger or disappointment in his inability to see the difference between you and the thief….it does seem possible to rationally forgive but still be emotionally hurt, in turn, not forgiving.

And then goes on to ask some questions among which are the following:

Can you forgive in one sense and not the other? Or, are these two forms of forgiveness necessarily linked in a way that doesn’t allow us to forgive in one sense but not the other? Is one form of forgiving more important [than] the other? What does it mean to fully forgive someone? Does it mean that the relationship goes back to the way things were? And, if so, do any of us really forgive anyone?

Caouette is right to surmise that “these two forms of forgiveness necessarily linked in a way that doesn’t allow us to forgive in one sense but not the other.” To ‘understand’ and make comprehensible the rationale behind an insult–physical or otherwise–directed at one self is to undergo an emotional experience as well. The phenomenology of forgiveness involves a kind of ‘lifting’ of a burden of sorts which is colored with an emotional response.  To consider Caouette’s example again, he assumes too quickly that the subject in question has attained a ‘rational understanding’ of why he suffered the punch. Rather, I would suggest that if he is still carrying the anger and disappointment of the injury around as a kind of emotional baggage, then he has not come to the supposed rational understanding either. That rational understanding, that fitting of your assailant’s actions into cognitive space of reasons so that it is made comprehensible, less malevolent, will only proceed if facilitated by the right kind of emotional scaffolding. Or, the space of reasons is not purely cognitive; it is emotional too. When we tell our friend that we ‘understand,’ that it’s ‘OK,’ we are not merely signaling a cognitive response, we are indicating we have felt emotional relief too and that we are now, unburdened, ready to move on.

In an older post on a related topic, I had made note of Doris McIlwain‘s remark that ‘friendship and love are not fully rational enterprises‘ as follows:

McIlwain’s broader point is about how reason and emotion can, may, and should work together to animate our–not ‘fully rational’–responses to this world’s offerings. And so it applies too, to our reactions to the words we read and write, the art we make and appreciate, the food we make and provide. We feel affinities to, and repulsions from, peculiar and particular passages of text and authorial maneuvers and locutions; we come to a halt before an artwork, and circle back, puzzled, not quite sure why it draws us toward it–or why it makes us reach for a hammer; we read a poem and know not why it, and not others ‘just like it’ speak to us and hold us; we bite into a morsel, and pause, curiously aware that we are experiencing much more than just plain ‘ol sweet, savory or spicy (‘comfort food’ wouldn’t be called that if it didn’t.) Small wonder our efforts to systematize  the critiques and responses we offer to these experiences are destined to flirt with an incoherence of sorts.

From these considerations it follows that one form of forgiving cannot be prioritized over the other; the two are inseparable and proceed together.  To ‘fully’  forgive someone does not entail the relationship ‘goes back to the way things were’–that isn’t possible or desirable. Rather it suggests that we are able to now perceive the act calling for forgiveness in a broader context that eliminates the earlier shadings and construals we placed on it. Sometimes we may never forget or forgive fully but we can still hope for a diminution of the visceral emotions associated with it, in part because our continued growth as a person may result in alternative rational responses to the event in question. (There are some colorful metaphors here to play with: a drop of ink in a glass of water can never be removed, but adding more water can render the glass clear again; that is, positive history can act to cover up an old emotional wound.)

This intertwining of the rational and the emotional has been noted before, and indeed, we may read the Buddha as suggesting that we need to bring the two in harmony in our actions and thoughts. The separation of the two is useful for analytical purposes, but it should not lead us to imagine that such separation is present in the moral subject.

2 comments on “Justin Caouette On Rational And Emotional Forgiveness

  1. Thanks for engaging with my post, Samir. Apologies for the delay in responding.

    So, as you may have guessed I disagree that the two (emotional forgiveness and rational forgiveness) are necessarily connected *such that* you can’t rationally forgive without emotionally forgiving. I agree that often times there is no separation in the moral subject and that full fledged forgiveness may require that both be in harmony. However it doesn’t follow that they cannot be parsed or that often times they are not. And if it’s true that often times both aspects are not in harmony, then what can we say about such situations (I think it’s worth mentioning that this is MOST of our life and not a small subset of cases)? If we consider the two distinct features of full fledged forgiveness on their own and parse them out as I suggest, then we have a framework to make sense of the cases where we are ready (emotionally speaking) to continue on in our relationship, but we refuse to do so because we rationalize that this certain individual puts us in harm’s way far too often. So, all the cases where we have no further negative emotional attachment (anger, disdain, etc.) to the individual that caused us harm, cases where we have emotionally forgiven them, but yet we decide to let the event that caused us to be angry substantially change our future relationship with the individual in question, we can say that we have forgiven them (in a meaningful sense) but we can now make sense of the proceeding action by appealing to the other side of forgiveness, the rational side. This is not to say the two are not interacting and affecting one another, but only that in cases where they seem to come apart it seems to help us make sense of our decisions by parsing them in this way.

    Now, nothing I have said suggests that your proposal is not tenable, only that this way of looking at things at least allows us to make sense of the interpersonal practices we are often engaged in when we are slighted by another. I find the approach that says “you just didn’t forgive the individual” to be unsatisfying because in a deep sense I did forgive. No, it wasn’t full-fledged forgiveness but emotionally I am there, even though I may not be willing to continue on in the relationship. Further, deciding to end a relationship looks much different when charged with the negative emotions associated with the act in question and discussing cases like this within the forgiveness framework shows sensitivity to that. I think the same can be said for the rational forgiver who is still distraught about a particular event.

    I’ll try and respond a bit more clearly in a blog post over at APT and I’ll shoot you a message once I get that up.

    Thanks again for engaging, Samir. I respect your work and appreciate that you took the time to read some of my thinking on the subject.

  2. […] may not justify it in another. Fairly recently my friend and fellow philosopher Samir Chopra commented on my post and pressed me a bit about a distinction I made between rational and emotional forgiveness. In this […]

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