Forgiving the Unforgivable by Grace Burgess-Limerick

Exploring the Ethics of Forgiveness Through Derrida and Jankélévitch


The notion of forgiveness fosters contention and disagreement on many aspects, yet

remains a necessary aspect of the harmonization and collaboration of societies as they

come to terms with the often violent histories that exist. Despite extensive literature

on the many issues involved, there is still little agreement found in philosophical

literature on what forgiving actually entails (Govier 1999). A particularly

controversial aspect of the concept of forgiveness is whether forgiveness of the

unforgivable is possible – and whether it is ethical. Vladimir Jankélévitch’s article

Should we Pardon Them? published in 1996, outlines his belief that crimes against

humanity, such as the Holocaust, are unforgivable. Jacques Derrida has subsequently

submitted his criticism of Jankélévitch, radically proposing that, “forgiveness forgives

only the unforgivable” (2001, p 32), and pure forgiveness therefore constitutes an

element of impossibility. The continuing debate and criticisms of both philosophers

reveals the difficulty in establishing a unified theory of forgiveness and its limits;

however, generally, forgiveness can be considered supererogatory, a relatively

recently defined concept which suggests that although the act is considered morally

good, it is not obligatory (Heyd 2015). Simplistically, forgiveness can be defined as

“the act of giving up a feeling, such as resentment, or a claim to requital or

compensation” (Hughes 2015). Further elements often considered necessary for the

act of forgiveness include repentance by the perpetrator, reconciliation of a

relationship between two individuals, and the relinquishing of feelings of revenge.

However, questions involving who can forgive, what they can forgive, and when and

how they can forgive highlights the difficulty of establishing a coherent definition of

forgiveness. These problems are unpacked further below.


Defining Forgiveness


Forgiveness may involve the relatively uncontroversial concept of relinquishing

feelings of revenge and resentment towards the perpetrator, and, the more

controversial concept that there is a reconciliation of a relationship between the

perpetrator and the victim (Jeffery 2008). South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu

wrote that forgiveness involves “waiving one’s right to revenge” and “abandoning

your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin” (Tutu quoted in Jeffery 2008).

Furthermore, Hannah Arendt (1958) maintains that “forgiveness is the exact opposite

of vengeance”, as a central aim of forgiveness is to end a period of suffering for the

victim by letting go of feelings such as vengeance and resentment in order to

constructively move on in their lives; seeking revenge only serves to perpetuate the

harm. True forgiveness also demands that the victim surrender all forms of negative

emotions such as resentment towards the perpetrator (Minkkinen 2007). While this

might not seem achievable in reality, it certainly seems the goal of many who forgive

for the purpose of moving on. The link between forgiveness and resentment was

initially established by Bishop Joseph Butler, who suggested that forgiveness requires

relinquishing feelings of resentment towards the wrong-doer (Griswold 2011). Giving

up negative emotions such as revenge and resentment relieves both the victim and the

wrong-doer, allowing both to move past the event. This is not always necessary, as

binding the victim to the perpetrator’s own repentance seems unjust; however,

political and justice scenarios often seem to require an admission of guilt and

repentance as evidence that the perpetrator should be forgiven. Of course, this is only

an aspect of the far wider picture.

Finally, it has been argued that the process of forgiveness is complete when there is a

reestablishment of a positive relationship between the victim and the perpetrator. It

has been established that there are two possible forms of forgiveness: unconditional

and conditional (Lang 1994). While unconditional forgiveness does not demand a

response from the perpetrator, conditional forgiveness binds the forgiveness offered

by the victim with a form of repentance and remorse from the perpetrator (Govier

1999). Conditional forgiveness is a particularly controversial form, with philosophers

such as Derrida suggesting that it is not forgiveness at all, but a kind of reconciliation.

Garrard (2002) suggests that forgiveness requires “the adoption of a particular attitude

towards the perpetrator, an attitude which can be broadly described as wishing him

well” (Garrard 2002, p 155). Therefore, conditional forgiveness requires a mutual

reconciliation of a relationship. Unconditional forgiveness, however, does not require

a mutual re-establishment of relationship (Lang 1994, p 105). Arguments in favour of

unconditional forgiveness stem from the belief that it is unfair to the victim to require

that they cannot forgive until the perpetrator has repented for their actions; it can be

said that this grants even more power to the actions of the perpetrator over the victim

(Garrard and MacNaughton 2003). Perhaps the most convincing argument is that both

conditional and unconditional forgiveness are possible; however, neither are

necessary (Hughes 2014). If the perpetrator offers an apology or other form of

repentance, it might be easier for the victim to consider forgiveness (Tutu in Jeffery

2008); however, it is the right of the victim to decide when, if ever, they wish to


There is great debate over who can offer forgiveness. While some writers maintain

that only the true victims can forgive the perpetrator (Jankélévitch 1996), others argue

that forgiveness can be offered by third parties, including political bodies (Hughes

2014). It seems more convincing to argue that only the victim can offer forgiveness,

where they forgive the harm that the perpetrator has caused them. Jankélévitch

supports this when he questions, “Everyone is free to pardon the offences that he has

personally suffered if he chooses… [but] what qualifies the survivors to pardon in the

place of the victims…?” (Jankelevich 1996, p 496). Jankelevich argues that certain

acts are so heinous that no one has the moral right to forgive them, and these acts

must remain unforgivable in perpetuity.


Jankélévitch and the Unforgivable


In his article Should we Pardon Them?, Jankélévitch writes that there are some

crimes, those “against the human essence” (Jankélévitch 1996, p 555), which are

unforgivable. The Holocaust is an example of such a crime, as it “is the product of

pure wickedness, of ontological wickedness, of the most diabolical and gratuitous

wickedness” (original emphasis Jankélévitch 1996, p 556). Time cannot provide

comfort for these crimes, but only increases the pain suffered by the public.

Jankélévitch seems to advocate for a conditional sense of forgiveness, where it is

possible to forgive those who had repented; however, where there has been a crime

against humanity, he maintains that it cannot be ethically possible to forgive those

involved. Those he considers to have the most power to forgive are those who were

tortured and murdered, and therefore are no longer alive to offer their forgiveness

(1996, p 496). Furthermore, the Holocaust was, according to Jankélévitch, not a

standard act of war or regular atrocity; it was a “work of hatred” (Jankélévitch 1996, p

561), and therefore justifies being considered unforgivable. Jankélévitch also

harbours a fear that forgiving those who persecuted the Jews would also entail

forgetting: “If we ceased to think of them we would complete their extermination, and

they would be definitively annihilated” (1996, p 571). Similar to Jankélévitch, Simon

Wiesenthal recounts in his book The Sunflower: On the Possibility and Limits of

Forgiveness that while he was imprisoned by the Nazis during 1941 to 1945, he was

brought before a dying Nazi soldier who wished to repent and seek the forgiveness of

a Jew; however, Wiesenthal left the dying man without saying a word (Wiesenthal

1998). It seems that for Wiesenthal and Jankélévitch, there is no separation of the evil

deed from the person who committed it, but the act was so evil that the person became

inseparable from it, which Govier writes may justify judging an individual as

absolutely unforgivable (1999, p 67). These expressions of an inability to offer

forgiveness for those who have committed the most heinous crimes are

understandable; however, it still remains questionable whether these crimes should be

considered unforgivable, and whether or not this means that they cannot, ever, be


Reflecting on Jankélévitch’s writings in the modern context, it is clear that the

concept of forgiveness in the face of acts that seem unforgivable is still pertinent. In

2008, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered an apology to the Indigenous

Australian ‘Stolen Generation’ on behalf of the Australian government, evidence of

the society’s need to address the persistent negative emotions and suffering that

remain from this period of history. More recently, the bombings of the Twin Towers

on September 11 th 2011, and the current acts of terrorism and violence being

committed in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), indicate that

horrific acts are still committed around the world, leaving individuals and whole

communities to comprehend and respond. While many experience emotions of

violence and the desire for revenge, others grasp for ways to relinquish these negative

emotions and forgive. According to Jankélévitch’s theory, no forgiveness can be

offered for these crimes as those who truly suffered are dead, and to forgive would

mean to forget. In contrast, it can be argued that the ramifications of these historic

acts of violence still cause pain and suffering today, directly and indirectly, and gives

rise to the question why these subsequent victims can’t also consider offering



Derrida’s Paradox of Forgiveness


Derrida’s On Forgiveness offers a criticism of Jankélévitch’s approach to the

unforgivable, formulating instead the issue of forgiveness as a paradox. According to

Derrida, “forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable” (2001, p 32). This stems from

his argument that if a victim is prepared to forgive an act that she considers

forgivable, “the very idea of forgiveness would disappear” (Derrida 2001, p 32).

Derrida writes that there is a distinction between conditional forgiveness, as a reaction

to “repentance, to the transformation of the sinner who then explicitly asks

forgiveness” (2001, p 35) and unconditional forgiveness, that which he considers,

“gracious, infinite, aneconomic… granted to the guilty as guilty” (original emphasis,

Derrida 2001, p 34). Therefore, pure forgiveness, according to Derrida, can be found

only in an ethics beyond ethics, in a mad and impossible situation beyond human

possibility. He refuses the arguments put forward by Jankélévitch and Arendt who

maintain the importance of a forgiveness within the realm of human possibility and

which has a correlation to punishment (Derrida 2001, p 37). Instead, while the

concept of conditional forgiveness is often invoked in social and political situations,

this is not, according to Derrida, a pure form of forgiveness, but closer to an imperfect

form of reconciliation or amnesty (Wyschogrod 2006). Pure forgiveness must engage

the radical disjunction of self and other, but as soon as a third party taints this

engagement, it becomes impure (Derrida 2001, p 42). Conditional forgiveness

breaches this relationship of self and other by demanding that the victim has some

understanding of the reasons and motivations behind the acts of the perpetrator before

they offer forgiveness (Reynolds 2015). Despite the unconditional and the conditional

being “absolutely heterogeneous”, these poles must be “irreconcilable but

indissociable”, and therefore cannot exist without the other (Derrida 2001, p 45). Pure

forgiveness, according to Derrida, is extraordinary and cannot be reduced to the

normative (2001, p 32). This paradox, therefore, reveals that there are unforgivable

acts, and these acts are precisely those that have the ability to be forgiven. Those acts

that are forgivable do not require discussion, as they are not the most serious of

crimes. Individuals can attempt to forgive the unforgivable; however, they will most

likely offer an impure version of conditional forgiveness (Wyschogrod 2006), more

similar to amnesty and reconciliation, rather than the pure and extraordinary

unconditional forgiveness as formulated by Derrida.


The Unforgivable: A Practical Approach


While Derrida and Jankélévitch provide convincing arguments in favour of the ability

to judge some acts as absolutely unforgivable, one could argue that a theory of

supererogatory forgiveness seems more realistic. To regard an individual or act as

unforgivable would be to demand that no one, under any circumstances, would be

able to forgive that person or act (Norlock and Rumsey 2009, p 112). As mentioned

earlier, Jankélévitch seems to argue that where unforgivable deeds have been

committed, it is impossible to separate the perpetrator from their act, and it is the

individual as well as the act that is unforgivable. This seems unjust on a number of

levels. First, with regard to the perpetrator, this would involve rejecting

unconditionally their moral autonomy and ability to change, “the very foundation of

human worth and dignity” (Govier 1999, p 71). Furthermore, with regard to the

victim, judging an act or individual as absolutely unforgivable seems to apply a

greater burden to the victim, restricting unconditional forgiveness (Govier 1999, p

71). For many, “forgiveness is the best or the only path to personal as well as social

healing and reconciliation” (Brudholm and Rosoux 2009, p 34), and denying a victim

of this ability will effectively limit them to harbouring their burden indefinitely. It

might therefore be beneficial to retain a distance between the individual and the act

itself; however, this can be difficult, especially where the perpetrator offers no signs

of repentance or regret.

Furthermore, Derrida’s paradox of forgiveness does not necessarily suggest that the

person committing the unforgivable act cannot be forgiven; ultimately, the acts are

unforgivable due to their fundamentally horrific nature. If the victim is able to

separate this act from the individual, they are able to approach the perpetrator as a

flawed human being, rather than an unforgivable one, and in this case, forgiveness can

be offered. Even where an individual is trying to forgive the unforgivable act, or is

unable to separate the act from the individual, Derrida suggests that forgiveness “can

only be possible when doing the impossible” (2001 p 33). Therefore, while the quality

of forgiveness is outside the realm of regular ethics, this does not mean it is

impossible or unachievable.




The concept of forgiveness in ethics is widely debated and there is very little

consensus on the many aspects of the issue. While Jankélévitch maintains that those

acts that offend the inherent humanity of the victim are so heinous as to be judged as

unforgivable, Derrida responds by radically proposing that it is in fact only those acts

that are unforgivable that justify forgiveness. When faced with the horrific crimes still

occurring around the world today, many are turning to forgiveness to recover and

move on. Therefore, while it would seem that many crimes against humanity are

considered unforgivable, it is important for humans to have the ability to forgive these

crimes. Forgiveness benefits both the victims of the crime, if they offer it, and the

perpetrator, if they are willing to accept it. Furthermore, while clearly direct victims

of the crime have the strongest and perhaps most ‘pure’ form of forgiveness, often

crimes of the nature to be considered unforgivable are those whose horror reach far

across cultures and societies. The ramifications of these acts affect individuals who

were perhaps not directly related to the act, but suffer nonetheless. Therefore, while

Jankélévitch’s arguments on the unforgivable nature of acts against humanity are

understandable, the ability or permission to forgive these acts is necessary for many to

relinquish the negative emotions that burden them. Instead, Derrida’s paradox

highlights the incomprehensible, yet utterly fundamental role forgiveness plays in

restoring harmony and cohesion between people and their pasts.


By Grace Burgess-Limerick

Bachelor of Laws

Bachelor of Arts, Majoring in Philosophy



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