Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits

Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits

Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits

Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits


We have all been victims of wrongdoing. Forgiving that wrongdoing is one of the staples of current pop psychology dogma; it is seen as a universal prescription for moral and mental health in the self-help and recovery section of bookstores. At the same time, personal vindictiveness as a rule is seen as irrational and immoral. In many ways, our thinking on these issues is deeply inconsistent; we value forgiveness yet at the same time now use victim-impact statements to argue for harsher penalties for criminals. Do we have a right to hate others for what they have done to us? The distinguished philosopher and law professor Jeffrie Murphy is a skeptic when it comes to our views on both emotions. In this short and accessible book, he proposes that vindictive emotions (anger, resentment, and the desire for revenge) actually deserve a more legitimate place in our emotional, social, and legal lives than we currently recognize, while forgiveness deserves to be more selectively granted. Murphy grounds his views on careful analysis of the nature of forgiveness, a subtle understanding of the psychology of anger and resentment, and a fine appreciation of the ethical issues of self-respect and self-defense. He also uses accessible examples from law, literature, and religion to make his points. Providing a nuanced approach to a proper understanding of the place of our strongest emotions in moral, political, and personal life, and using lucid, easily understood prose, this volume is a classic example of philosophical thinking applied to a thorny, everyday problem.


Understand and forgive, my mother said, and the effort has quite exhausted me. I could do with some anger to energize me, and bring me back to life again. But where can I find that anger? Who is to help me? My friends? I have been understanding and forgiving my friends, my female friends, for as long as I can remember…. Understand and forgive…. Understand husbands, wives, fathers, mothers. Understand dog fights above and the charity box below, understand fur-coated women and children without shoes. Understand school— Jonah, Job, and the nature of the Deity; understand Hitler and the bank of England and the behavior of Cinderella's sisters. Preach acceptance to wives and tolerance to husbands…. Grit your teeth, endure. Understand, forgive, accept, in the light of your own death, your own inevitable corruption….

Oh mother, what you taught me! And what a miserable, crawling, snivelling way to go, the wornout slippers placed neatly beneath the bed, careful not to give offense.

Fay Weldon, Female Friends

When told of Truman Capote's death, Gore Vidal is said to have responded: “Good career move. ”

My own decision, in the late eighties, to begin writing on forgiveness has proven a good if less final career move for me. Up until that time, I had, like most professional philosophers, published material that either appealed to a very small academic audience of fellow philosophers or—even worse and to use Hume's phrase—“fell deadborn from . . .

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