In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Forgiveness

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Sources
  • Acts of Forgiveness
  • Self-Forgiveness
  • Feminist Approaches to Forgiveness
  • Forgiveness in Continental Philosophy
  • Forgiveness and Punishment
  • Third-Party Forgiveness
  • Paradoxes of Forgiveness
  • God and Forgiveness

Philosophy Forgiveness
Paul Hughes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0323


There is by now an enormous, and growing, philosophical literature on forgiveness. Since at least Downie 1965 (cited under Forgiveness and Virtue), philosophers have produced articles, monographs, encyclopedia entries, and anthologized collections of essays on the conceptual, normative, phenomenological, and social-political nature of forgiveness. Much of this literature may be categorized as follows: General Overviews, Historical Sources, Emotions of Forgiveness, Acts of Forgiveness, Political Forgiveness, Self-Forgiveness, Feminist Approaches to Forgiveness, Forgiveness in Continental Philosophy, Forgiveness and Punishment, the Normative Status of Forgiveness, Third-Party Forgiveness, Paradoxes of Forgiveness, and God and Forgiveness. While no attempt has been made to canvass all the philosophical literature on the topic, and there is considerable overlap between the sections of this article, the following annotated citations aim to provide a guide to much of that literature.

General Overviews

Allers and Smit 2010 offers a collection of essays on the nature of forgiveness from various disciplinary perspectives, whereas Fricke 2011 is a good overview of historical and cultural views of forgiveness. Hughes 2014 canvasses much of the analytic philosophical literature on forgiveness since the mid-1970s, and Murphy 2001 offers a sketch of what has come to be regarded by many as the standard philosophical account of interpersonal forgiveness, derived in large part from the account of forgiveness and resentment provided in Butler 1846 (cited under Historical Sources), the gist of which is that forgiveness involves a forgiver overcoming resentment or some other form of moral anger caused by and directed at a wrongdoer, and doing so for such morally appropriate reasons as that the wrongdoer has apologized, attempted to make amends, or repented.

  • Allers, Christopher R., and Marieke Smit, eds. Forgiveness in Perspective. At the Interface / Probing the Boundaries 66. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2010.

    A collection of articles from a variety of disciplinary points of view, including that of philosophers, psychologists, literary theorists, prison chaplains, and others. Each of the twelve essays offers answers to such questions as what forgiveness is, how it has evolved into a secular phenomenon from its religious origins, and how it arises in such contexts as marriage and abortion, among others.

  • Cole, Elizabeth A. “Apology, Forgiveness, and Moral Repair.” Ethics & International Affairs 22.4 (2008): 421–428.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-7093.2008.00173.x

    Reviews three monographs that discuss closely related phenomena involved in efforts to achieve moral repair in the aftermath of wrongdoing: Charles Griswold’s Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration (Griswold 2007, cited under Forgiveness and Resentment), Nick Smith’s I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), and Margaret Urban Walker’s Moral Repair: Reconstructing Moral Relations after Wrongdoing (Walker 2006, cited under Mechanisms of Political Forgiveness). Describes how each theorizes different levels of moral repair—those between individuals, between individuals and groups, and between political collectives, and how the concepts of forgiveness, reconciliation, apology, and resentment are involved in each way of responding to wrongdoing.

  • Fricke, Christel, ed. The Ethics of Forgiveness: A Collection of Essays. Routledge Studies in Ethics and Moral Theory 14. New York: Routledge, 2011.

    These eleven essays canvass a variety of topics related to forgiveness, including various historical and intercultural views of the nature of forgiveness, forgiveness as it relates to the self, limitations on forgiving, political apologies, and the moral norms often thought to govern forgiveness.

  • Hughes, Paul M. “Forgiveness.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014.

    Provides a general review of the philosophical literature on forgiveness since the mid-1970s, including what has been regarded as the standard definition of interpersonal forgiveness, the ends of forgiveness, and whether interpersonal forgiveness is an action, a process, or a virtue. Also discusses whether forgiveness is obligatory or optional, whether it can be unilateral or unconditional, whether third parties can forgive, and in what sense forgiveness may be political.

  • McFadyen, Alistair, and Marcel Sarot, eds. Forgiveness and Truth. Explorations in Contemporary Theology. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001.

    A collection of essays on theological dimensions of forgiveness and truth, the main interest for philosophers being its useful chapter on “Forgiveness in the Twentieth Century” by Nigel Biggar (pp. 181–218), which includes a review of the forgiveness literature from 1901 to 2001, including important philosophical work on forgiveness from 1965 to 1991.

  • Murphy, Jeffrie G. “Forgiveness.” In Encyclopedia of Ethics. Vol. 1, A–G. Edited by Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker, 561–562. New York: Routledge, 2001.

    Articulates the view that forgiveness is the overcoming of resentment directed by a victim of wrong at the person who wronged her, and overcoming that resentment for moral reasons. Distinguishes forgiveness from justification, excuse, and mercy.

  • Zaibert, Leo. “Forgiveness: An Introduction.” In Special Issue: Forgiveness. Monist 92.4 (2009): 481–487.

    DOI: 10.5840/monist200992427

    A clear introduction to a series of articles on the conceptual and normative dimensions of forgiveness, framed as replies to such questions as how forgiveness is related to blame, mercy, forgetting, and leniency; whether unconditional forgiveness is ever justified; and what repentance is and how it justifies forgiving wrongdoers.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.