Ordering Forgiveness Toward Justice by Jonathan C. Rutledge

In book 5 of his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle opens his lecture on justice (Greek: dikaiosune) by pointing out that human beings speak of justice in many ways. Sometimes, for instance, what we have in mind when thinking about justice is something more akin to righteousness or uprightness. That is, an overall evaluation of the state of someone who is possessed of moral virtue, especially concerning those virtues in our relations to others. Today, we tend to think of such a state as fundamental justice — i.e., a state of right order of which the virtuous souls among us constitute an indispensable part.

Aristotle’ by Lysippos: Wikipedia

At other points, however, instead of fundamental justice we have in mind a need to correct what has gone wrong in the world; to put the world to rights; to restore it to that fundamentally just (rightly ordered) state. Such corrective justice sometimes conjures images of scales that have been put off balance as well as acts of corrective justice that aim to put those scales back in balance. Such an image of the way in which injustices are corrected is, of course, too tidy, too straightforward, too simplistic. While cases of monetary theft might come with a built-in price tag (e.g., return precisely the same amount of money you stole, perhaps with a nice apology), more sinister or complex injustices resist our attempts at rebalancing the scales and returning the cosmos to a rightly ordered state. Indeed, we might think of this complexity as a reason for an ultimate pessimism.

This brings us to the age-old question with which this brief post is primarily concerned: “What is the relationship between forgiveness and justice?”

Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109 CE) — a Benedictine monk noteworthy for his richly contemplative works of philosophical theology[1] — is sometimes taken to have construed justice and forgiveness as mutually exclusive by way of the following, seemingly clearcut logic: Justice requires that punishment be implemented upon wrongdoers.

Anselm of Canterbury: wikipedia

Forgiveness requires that one forego implementing such punishment. From this it follows that if one punishes a wrongdoer, forgiveness is no longer possible. And, likewise, if one forgives, then punishment is no longer possible (so long as one persists in that forgiving state). In other words, on this reading of Anselm, the relationship between justice and forgiveness is this: they are two mutually exclusive responses to wrongdoing, and forgiveness (in particular) is a failure of justice.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) similarly viewed forgiveness as suboptimal — as even a weakness — insofar as it reveals one’s own frailty to, and dependence upon, others. Forgiveness is bound up with a slave morality that must simply be rejected.[2] As Charles Griswold has put it, “forgiveness is actually the expression rather than the foreswearing of ressentiment” in Nietzsche since humans only forgive “when revenge is impossible”.[3] Thus, forgiveness is a sort of compromise someone seeks only upon failing to get what they want. In such a state, what is forgiveness other than an occluded resentment likely embedded within self-delusion?

Friedrich Nietzsche: wikipedia

It’s probably fair to say that Nietzsche is not often mistaken for an optimist. And, for my own part, I have doubts about the reading given above concerning Anselm’s take on the relationship between forgiveness and justice.[4] But, importantly, neither of these answers to our question is, on my view, satisfactory.

The reason both answers to the question are mistaken involves which form of justice — i.e., fundamental or corrective — is supposedly prohibited by forgiveness. Both Anselm and Nietzsche clearly have corrective justice in mind, but insofar as corrective justice aims at putting the world back to rights, then if we conceive of forgiveness also as aimed at restoring fundamental justice, then forgiveness and corrective justice need not be seen as competitive. Rather, they are two ways of aiming to bring about the same virtuous end.

Another way to put the above point is this: forms of corrective justice are, in the ideal case, aimed at bringing about interpersonal and communal flourishing. Likewise, forgiveness is something that occurs when a wronged party seeks to restore, insofar as it is feasible, peaceful relations with those who’ve done them wrong. Forgiveness, that is, aims at interpersonal and communal flourishing as well. And when forgiveness is distributed judiciously, it can be incredibly effective.

Allow me to end with a reflection on Jean Valjean, the protagonist in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables.[5] In the novel, Valjean is a hardened convict who has been set free after spending 19 years in a prison in Toulon, France, for breaking a windowpane and stealing a loaf of bread.[6] Valjean felicitously finds himself at the hands of Monseigneur Bienvenu, a philanthropically minded bishop who takes Valjean in after the convict had been denied a meal or lodging by every alternative source in the town. That evening, while everyone else is sleeping, Valjean makes his way into the bishop’s room where he, after being confronted by a crucifix upon the wall, resolves to steal silver plates from the bishop’s cupboard. After his success, Valjean promptly takes his leave before anyone awakes to find him.

The next morning three police officers arrive at the bishop’s door and present Valjean to Monseigneur Bienvenu along with the stolen silver plates. Rather than insist on punishment, the bishop states plainly to Jean Valjean, “I am glad to see you. But! I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?” (91). The puzzled officers reply, “then what this man said was true?”, and the priest immediately confirms Valjean’s own story before dismissing the police as if it had all been a misunderstanding (ibid). Bienvenu then turns to Valjean while handing him the silver candlesticks to accompany the stolen plates and tells him, “Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!” (92).


There is much one can say about the respective natures of justice and forgiveness to try and undo the conceptual tangle espoused by Anselm or Nietzsche mentioned earlier. And it is worth doing such work when space permits it. But for anyone confronted with the transformative power of radical forgiveness found in the sanctifying words of Monseigneur Bienvenu, it is important to realize this: in his command to “never forget” Bienvenu is not speaking of promises. He speaks of the wrong (the theft of silver) and he speaks of the forgiveness made possible because of that wrong. His goal is not to remove that wrong from the annals of the past — for, clearly, changing the past and making it such that a wrong never occurred is simply beyond our capabilities. But he instead charges us — through his injunction to Valjean — to meditate on the facts of our wrongdoing and the facts of our forgiveness, in order that justice of the fundamental sort might be served. And that is a justice which, if ever realized in the most complete sense, includes the flourishing of all, even a formerly hardened convict such as Jean Valjean.

Jonathan C. Rutledge, Ph.D., is a John and Daria Barry postdoctoral fellow with the Human Flourishing Program. He has held postdoctoral fellowships previously at the University of Notre Dame (Center for Philosophy of Religion) and the University of St Andrews (Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology). His primary area of research lies at the intersection of analytic philosophy and contemporary theology with a focus on metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. He is the author of Forgiveness and Atonement: Christ’s Restorative Sacrifice (Routledge 2022).

[1] E.g., see what are probably his best-known works: (i) Cur Deus Homo, (ii) Monologion, and (iii) Proslogion.

[2] See, for instance, Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. M. Clark and A. J. Swensen (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998).

[3] Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007): 15fn21 and 16.

[4] I have registered these doubts in Forgiveness and Atonement: Christ’s Restorative Sacrifice (New York: Routledge, 2022): 110–112.

[5] Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, translated by Charles E. Wilbour (New York: Random House, 1992).

[6] His four escape attempts added to the length of his sentence, which was increased from an initial four years to nineteen.



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